Following the UK government’s announcement that all non-essential shops would be allowed to open from 15th June, we decided to catch up with the Centre Director of one of the South West’s best-loved outlets: Clarks Village. We spoke to Chris Davis last summer, but after having to close Clarks Village and go into lockdown earlier this year, how was the centre’s first day back?
Anna: Chris, it’s great to see you again. Who would have thought when we last met that we would be going through all of this?
Chris: Nobody could have predicted this crisis. It’s a bit of an odd one.
Anna: So you opened your doors yesterday for the first time in three months, how did it go?
Chris: It went as well as we could have expected! There were no major issues and we achieved what we set out to achieve. Landsec has been very helpful with any problems leading up to the reopening and the government guidelines have been relatively clear, so we have spent the last few weeks setting up everything up as best we can as an outdoor centre.
Anna: Surely that must be a benefit, being an outdoor scheme?
Chris: Well, benefit, yes, but a bit of a hindrance too. Our indoor centres can use stickers on their doors and floors, whereas we have had to bring in barriers and spray all of our arrows and footprints on the floor. Also, because we’re not a standard indoor centre, we have had to work out where all of our bottlenecks are, where we need to create a one way system and where we can allow free roaming.
Anna: How many visitors did you see yesterday?
Chris: We were way above what we expected and we hit our capacity two or three times during the day. In fact, we maintained our footfall capacity for just shy of two hours – impressive but manageable – which allowed people to be in the centre while still keeping safe.
Anna: And how did that compare to a normal day?
Chris: Obviously it was down on normal figures. Give it another week and we will likely see that go up. We want to make sure that people who make the effort to come here feel safe, so we’ll only increase capacity when we can. We were running one-in-one-out for about an hour and a half at the busiest part of the day, which customers seemed very happy with.
I think we saw quite a lot of local customers yesterday because they’re used to coming five or six times a year, if not more. It will be very interesting to see if that changes over the coming weeks. We asked all of our customers to “only travel if you really need to come to us” on social media yesterday, and that kept it at a manageable capacity.
Anna: Are there any stores that haven’t yet opened?
Chris: About 60% of our stores have opened and we will be at about 80% by the end of this week. A lot of brands are doing a phased return, so they’re opening in certain areas of the country first – they want to make sure that their staff can go back to their stores and manage everything safely. Other brands have been keen to see what happens in the first week, saying that if we have everything under control then they will open in week two. We have also had brands open in some Landsec sites but not others; to test the water maybe.
For the first couple of weeks, our focus is on helping our brands and looking after them. We’ve done several good deals in these last couple of months due to strong partnerships, despite the circumstances. Inevitably there will be some victims coming from this, but Clarks Village as a whole will be okay. We have new brands keen to come in pretty much straightaway.
Anna: What about pricing? Are the brands all offering big discounts?
Chris: It’s a bit of a mix, actually. We’re not advertising the discounts and offers as our primary message, we’re sticking to the safe and secure message right now. We’ve seen quite a few brands open with a full on sale of 50-70% off, like Jack Wills. Timberland has brand new product straight from the high street that they are discounting by 30%, plus additional offers of 60-70% off. Sports Direct even launched with a 50% off discount for NHS workers. I think some stores have the best product they have ever had!
Anna: So the footfall may be down, but is the spend higher?
Chris: We had fifteen brands report to us yesterday how they may not have been able to match last years’ figures, but the spend per visitor – the average transaction value – was incredible. M&S was at capacity for a good couple of hours, as was Sports Direct.
Anna: How are you managing the queues for stores that get that busy?
Chris: Right now, we are asking people at the back of the queue to come back later when it’s quieter! We don’t really have the space here for queues of several hours. The good thing is that people haven’t really come to Clarks Village for a specific brand this week. At other Landsec centres, however, there have been queues outside Nike for three hours and even overnight.
Anna: Sounds like the outlet version of Primark!
Chris: Yes, and we still have the weekend to come.
Anna: It’s been a pleasure to catch up at such a novel time for the outlet sector and I hope everything continues to go well over the coming months.
It looks like Clarks Village is once again setting the standard for outlet shopping. How and when its policies will change over the next few months remains to be seen and relies, as we all do, on the ever-changing government guidelines.
Let us know if you’ve been to an outlet or high street this week. How was it different from shopping before lockdown?