Designer outlet operator McArthurGlen opened its first new U.K. center in more than 20 years on Monday, coinciding with the decision in England to lift the latest Covid-19 lockdown restrictions and allow non-essential retail to restart. A further European debut from the company is expected in France in 2022.
The $220 million West Midlands location joins six others in the group that are reopening today. The new addition is a confidence boost for the retail sector after net store closures reached almost 10,000 in 2020. As well as being the only stand-alone shopping village to open in the U.K. this year, West Midlands will further extend McArthurGlen’s market share versus rivals such as Value Retail, a luxury outlets specialist which has a single location—Bicester Village—in Britain, with another eight in Europe and two in China.
The footprint at West Midlands is 280,000 square feet, about average compared to McArthurGlen’s other locations. The first-phase opened on Monday covers 187,000 square feet of retail space with up to 80 brands present, ranging from homeware and dining, to premium designer fashion, lifestyle and sportswear.
Plenty of international labels are present: Adidas, Calvin Klein, Coach, Gant, Guess GES , Kate Spade, Hugo Boss, Levi’s, Lacoste, Nike NKE , Tommy Hilfiger, Under Armour UAA and more. The British-led brands include Joules, Kurt Geiger, Reiss, Radley and Ted Baker. In France the company is also going ahead with a center outside Paris that will put luxury brands at its heart.
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In the West Midlands, McArthurGlen spotted an opportunity good enough to end its 20-year development hiatus in Britain: a location in the heart of England with no “true” designer outlet competition nearby and just 30 minutes from Birmingham, the second biggest city in the U.K. It has an estimated 42 million visitors each year.
Speaking to Forbes.com, Susie McCabe, the co-CEO of McArthurGlen since November 2020 says: “Not only that but our West Midlands centre has the largest 60-minute catchment in our U.K. portfolio. Some six million shoppers live within an hour’s drive, and as you head out further, there are 11 million people living within 90-minutes.”
Pandemic has focused shoppers’ minds
The company is looking at around two million guests in the first year despite capacity restrictions due to health guidelines but this could ramp up if the center can established itself as a major U.K. retail destination.
McCabe expects the numbers to grow quickly as more new brands are added and as restrictions ease. She references, Cheshire Oaks, probably the company’s best-known U.K. center, which opened in 1995 and introduced the designer outlet concept to Europe. Served by the regional cities of Manchester and Liverpool, more than eight million guests were welcomed there pre-pandemic.
To get to that level of footfall, McCabe—a former senior vice president of Under Armour and a Ralph Lauren veteran—accepts she will need to “evolve our customer proposition.” Taking it in a more high-end and fashionable direction would be one way to do that and also raise average transaction values.
McArthurGlen’s global performance was hit by multiple lockdowns throughout the past 12 months, but various reopenings of the previously 25-strong network across Europe and Canada have shown encouraging signs.
“While sales and visitor numbers were understandably down on 2019, customers came back with a stronger, more purposeful intent to purchase, and they spent more per visit than historical levels,” notes McCabe. “In the second half of 2020, our average spend per visitor was actually up by 15% on the previous year across our six U.K. centers, demonstrating the demand was still there.”
It was the same story for McArthurGlen in multiple markets in Europe when it came to average spending. Pre-pandemic the company welcomed over 90 million guests globally.
Accessibly-priced fashion retailer Next also noted robust retail performances in the two months before Christmas specifically at out-of-town retail parks. They did around 15% better than those in city centers and shopping malls as shoppers opted to steer clear of perceived ‘busy’ shopping streets due to Covid-19 fears.
According to a PwC and Local Data Company report, in terms of store closures last year, retail parks (-3.3%) were twice as resilient as shopping centers (-7.1%).
Outlet centers, while not strictly in either camp, are nearer to retail parks in their style of shopping format, and being predominantly open-air has been a bonus. Their core offer of well-known brands at often deeply discounted prices has been a winner in the past—and during a pandemic, when purse strings are tied, has also come up trumps.
Driving sales as well as growth rates
In the five years from 2015 up to Covid-19, McArthurGlen’s group sales grew at an annual rate of nearly 10% to exceed $5.4 billion (€4.5 billion) annually. “That is clearly quite strong relative to other brick-and-mortar businesses,” McCabe tells me. “While last year was challenging for non-essential retail, we are confident our estate is well-positioned to return to pre-pandemic growth rates.”
However, growth rates are not sales so new centers like West Midlands and the new one in France will be important in driving the latter. The $240 million project under construction to the west of Paris at Giverny will be the first and only luxury designer outlet in this part of France according to McCabe. It will feature an artisan village along with 100 sought-after luxury and premium brand partners, as yet unnamed.
The Giverny site, 45 minutes from the world’s fashion capital, encroaches on Value Retail’s luxury outlet territory. The latter’s La Vallée Village is about 40 minutes east of Paris and home to more than 120 designer boutiques. Another similar shopping village in similar proximity—even though it is on the other side of the city—could change the post-pandemic dynamic of the high-end shopping scene in Paris when it opens in late 2022.