NewRiver Retail’s success in buying UK shopping centres has been well-documented. But once the assets have been bought, they need to perform – and that’s where marketing comes in. We spoke to Lucy Mitchell who oversees the marketing of the company’s 30+ shopping centres.
It’s a task that would make many a property marketer shudder:take responsibility for 32 convenience-led shopping centres across the UK that need to deliver results on a tightly-managed budget. NewRiver Retail’s Director of Marketing, Lucy Mitchell, may control a shopping centre marketing budget of more than £1 million, but the amount of market coverage required means that not a penny can be wasted.
She reports: “The average marketing budget for one of our shopping centres ranges from £45,000 to £55,000 per year – to which, broadly speaking, NewRiver contributes 50%. Some centres require less, some more. Within that budget, there are a number of hard costs such as our free customer Wi-Fi, footfall tracking, website hosting and consumer research. Thereafter, our core investment is event and experience led – the see, can, do, touch, feel marketing activations that customers enjoy. Ultimately our marketing goal is to drive footfall, dwell time, basket spend and customer innovation. We take a very resourceful and hands-on approach.”
The ‘hands-on’ image recurs in conversation with Mitchell and is an aspect of the NewRiver approach which is well illustrated by an initiative that was taking place shortly after we spoke. Mitchell, together with members of the wider NewRiver property team including senior management and managing agents Workman, headed to The Piazza Shopping Centre in Paisley to do a ‘Day-in-the-Life’ event which, as well as generating interesting media coverage, had a practical benefit – helping the team gain a deeper understanding of the workings of the centre.
Each of the team shadowed a role in the centre during the day, from retailing to operations including cleaning, security and centre management, and sharp-eyed shoppers may have spotted the company’s Property Director, Allan Lockhart, working in Poundland while Estates Gazette captured the occasion on video.
“If you start work for a retailer, quite often they’ll put you on the shop floor to allow you to really understand the nature of the business. Doing this has the same benefit for us. During our day in Paisley, we’ll gain new perspectives and unearth little nuggets of information that you simply wouldn’t get sat at your desk day-to-day.”
With the rapid growth of the NewRiver shopping centre portfolio – from 12 centres in 2011 when Mitchell joined the company to the £1bn of assets under management including 32 shopping centres today – the opportunity to create economies of scale, consistency and greater co-ordination has been a clear recent focus.
“With 32 shopping centres, we recognised the opportunity to create economies of scale, drive innovation and improve the sophistication, consistency and co-ordination across the marketing of the portfolio both at a corporate level and at the shopping centre level.
“Since then, we’ve restructured our team, streamlined our budget allocations and redefined core areas of focus; addressing key priorities. This means ensuring we get genuine value for money, improve the return on investment and create operational efficiencies given the scale of the portfolio – one such example is looking for ways to create portfolio events such as brand partnerships with retailers across multiple locations.”
A partnership event with Greggs at The Forum centre in Wallsend generated strong press coverage and substantially increased trade. Other events with EE and Iceland have followed.
Given the granularity of the marketing task across so many locations, Mitchell is quick to acknowledge the collaborative effort required.
“We have a really strong team not just within NewRiver, including each of our centre managers, but also with our partners, from our managing agents and leasing agents to the local marketing agencies who help implement the strategy. Everyone is very engaged in the marketing – from events, creative design and community stakeholder engagement.
“We do ask a lot in the early stages after the acquisition of a new centre because quite often the centres have been heavily under-invested prior to our acquisition. In some instances, there has been no marketing taking place at all.”
Later this year, NewRiver Retail will move from its AIM listing to the main market to become a PLC quoted on the London Stock Exchange. As a consequence, the relationship between raising the corporate profile and the marketing of its assets will become even more interlinked.
Mitchell reports: “We’ve been carefully reviewing the corporate brand, exploring the core values that drive the business and, in turn, how those are reflected at each of our shopping centres. At the shopping centres, ultimately that comes down to the 360-degree customer experience, consistency and quality. For example, when we bought the Abbey Centre in Newtownabbey, Belfast, we inherited a shopping centre with nine different iterations of the same brand! Naturally that’s confusing for a customer. So you have to consider the basic essentials: what it is the brand stands for; what it is the customer wants and needs from its shopping centre. For us, a lot of that comes down to the customer experience which shoppers can expect from our centres.
“In terms of branding, we feel strongly that the logo is just one part of the customer experience and that a brand identity must have a relevance and locality. We’re not in the business of creating a national NewRiver shopping centre brand at each centre. Each centre has its own values and local identity, but we want to ensure there is a consistency across them.
In contrast to the regional shopping mega-centres which people may visit once in a while, NewRiver’s centres are invariably embedded in a town centre location and used frequently on a weekly basis by the local community as a convenient place to shop. But whatever the character of a centre is, the common denominator is knowing your shoppers. NewRiver puts considerable resource into this ‘data mining’.
“We take a very customer-first approach. The better we understand our shoppers, the more we can deliver. We run focus groups at the shopping centre level and consumer surveys with CACI which gives us a detailed understanding of each centre. So we get a really strong understanding of the shopper and have the opportunity to improve the retail mix, enhance F&B and to strengthen our click-and-collect facilities. Click-and-collect is very important for us because we can offer centrally-located free or affordable parking and the opportunity to do additional shopping.”
Away from the shoppers who throng the NewRiver centres, the other major target audience for Mitchell and her team are the retailers, operators, property agents and all the other players that make up the retail property scene.
To better reach these audiences, a new suite of marketing collateral has been developed by The Completely Group which mixes online property listings with hard copy and digital items to showcase the portfolio and its opportunities. Mitchell believes that it is essential to have the right marketing toolkit but that face-to-face time is also essential.
“For example, the two Completely Retail Marketplaces each year are fantastic because they’re really focused events that bring retailers and property owners together. It’s cost effective, and everyone’s on a level playing field. Initially when we heard it was going to be twice a year, we thought ‘do we need that?’ But we definitely do: we pack in a huge amount of meetings and generate a lot of value from them. Our team really enjoy them.”
To date, the primary property marketing focus of NewRiver has been enhancing existing assets but that will all change with the development of new centres in Burgess Hill in Sussex and Cowley just outside Oxford.
The core essentials are accessibility, price, choice and a pleasant environment
At Burgess Hill, the £65m development plans which recently received unanimous planning approval include an eight-screen multiplex cinema, 63-bed Travelodge hotel, 136 residential apartments, library, five restaurants and 200,000 sq ft of retail. The £64m 330,000 sq ft Templars Square project in Oxford reflects a similar mixed-use offer and will become Oxford’s only covered shopping centre. Both these developments are major town regeneration projects.
With NewRiver due to deliver around 1.25m sq ft of new retail space across its portfolio, the marketing task will continue to grow but Mitchell seems unphased by it.
“At NewRiver, we have a very flat organisational structure, and I work with senior management on a day-to-day basis which is tremendous for getting things done. We are a very hands-on and collaborative team. There’s a willingness to try new things, an energy to create real value. Refreshingly, marketing is very much seen as an investment, not a cost. And we have a lot fun.
“Shopping centres are about customers and NewRiver is about the people that make the company.”