How do you make one of the country’s biggest shopping centres even bigger and better in tough economic times?
Well, that’s a question Sue Anderson-Brown must find a good answer to in the next few weeks as she aims to become the new permanent director of thecentre:mk.
Currently ‘interim’ boss of the centre, the 50-year-old Yorkshirewoman is looking to make a significant impression before sitting down with the owners, Hermes Retail Estate Management, for the biggest job interview of her life in late September. “May the best woman win,” she says.
Mrs Anderson-Brown took over from Robert Hall at the end of July after he left to manage a shopping centre in Kuwait, and she is adamant the future of thecentre:mk is bright – especially if she is in charge.
But she also believes that big changes will be needed to keep up with the competition from other shopping centres – including the new MK1 retail park – and the internet.
In her words, the shopping centre must ‘move forward or die’ and that means widening its catchment area. It is not simply a shopping centre for Milton Keynes.
“The more you add to the mix, and the more you offer customers, the better,” said Mrs Anderson-Brown, who has a varied background in property management, retail and marketing. “I just see it as healthy competition. Retail is a constantly evolving process where you can’t stand still.
“This centre is the heart of Milton Keynes – the heart of the community – and is the high street. We’re just blessed with a lovely big roof over it.
“It’s about making sure the customer feels they can come to Milton Keynes and there is enough choice and variety to make them want to continue visiting us. We want people to come here out of choice rather than necessity.
“Our catchment area is up as far as Derby and obviously the south east. It’s wide and varied – for customers that want an experience which is basically not having to go into Central London. They can find such an array of retailers here.
“Thecentre:mk is still the fourth largest shopping centre in the UK and it is very much our aspirations to put it on that regional shopping centre footing. That means we have to widen our catchment area; 94 per cent of shoppers come from within one hour’s drive time, and our aspiration is to reach out even further.”
Mrs Anderson-Brown has a vision to ‘smarten up’ the look of thecentre:mk, including its security guards wearing suits for a more professional image.
She would also like to make even better use of the centre’s biggest asset, Middleton Hall, which she insists will deliver even more popular attractions in the coming years.
However, she arrives at a fairly challenging time, with numerous empty units giving a slightly negative impression of parts of the centre. She puts that down to wanting the right sort of tenants and says there is not a shortage of interested parties to take advantage of a yearly footfall of 27 million.
“Our current void space is in line with the general high street average – probably we are fairing slightly better than the high street,” she said. “We are certainly achieving better results than other centres of our type.
“We will always have a small percentage of void space, that is only natural in the high street environment.
“But that has not meant we have dropped our standards in who we select. It’s critical, every new potential tenant partner is chosen after careful discussion to make sure they are absolutely the right fit for the centre’s profile.”