Nine months in, Gateshead’s Trinity Square hits footfall high and eyes 100% occupancy
When Gateshead’s Trinity Square opened its doors in May last year, you could have been forgiven for being a little underwhelmed by the extent of the retail offer.
Sure, it was hard not to be impressed, as I was, by the scale and quality of the new Tesco; similarly, the development itself – while not to everyone’s taste architecturally – was a vast improvement on the miserable, unwelcoming buildings and spaces that it replaced.
Where the scheme felt a little below par, however, was in terms of its other shops, with only a handful – among them CeX, Greggs, Costa and Phones 4u – open on launch day.
Nine months on, anyone walking through Trinity Square today might still draw a similar conclusion. While the development’s excellent leisure offer is now largely open – including the Vue cinema, Frankie & Benny’s and, since last month, Nando’s and Anytime Fitness – shops remain a little thin on the ground.
Sports Direct is a great addition, and Ladbrokes and Boots have upgraded from premises elsewhere in the town centre, but the number of apparently unlet units remains stubbornly high, despite the promising smattering of ‘under offer’ and ‘let agreed’ signs.
Happily, however, I understand that letting activity is hotting up behind the scenes, driven by national retailers who have deliberately sat out Trinity Square’s early months to see how it performs. These potential occupants are encouraged by the development’s upward footfall trends as Gateshead residents get in the habit of shopping and socialising there, and, of course, by the prospect of 993 Northumbria University students moving into the housing above Tesco in six months’ time.
Footfall hits high
Figures released by Trinity Square at the recent Central Gateshead Conference, held at the Civic Centre, revealed that the scheme welcomed over 1.9 million visitors between May 2013 and January 2014. June – the first full month – recorded 248,846 visitors, slipping back in July, and then rising month-on-month to a peak of 272,233 in December, before, not surprisingly, dropping off a little in the quiet month of January.
Since the conference, I understand that footfall has risen again, with the first full week of February registering a new high of 77,500 visitors. The recent unveiling of the ‘Halo’ artwork should help to pull in more curious visitors: an eight-metre diameter inflated stainless steel sculpture by local artist Steve Newby, it forms the focal point of the square and is already being nicknamed the ‘Stargate’ (or ‘StarGateshead’, perhaps).
Stargate aside, my impression is that this rise in traffic is being driven by Trinity Square’s expanding leisure offer, but seems to also be translating into more business for the early openers – Tesco and Costa, for example, are feeling consistently busier after a predictably slowish start. In recent years, similar patterns have been seen at both St George’s Way and St Andrew’s Way in Eldon Square, where it took shoppers a while to get in the habit of visiting the redeveloped malls.
Gateshead, of course, has an even tougher sell – part of Trinity Square’s challenge is persuading more affluent residents who may have shunned the dowdy town centre in the past that it now has something to offer them; the arrival of respected names like Costa and Vue plays a big part in selling that message.
First casualty in Moffees
Sadly, the growing awareness and use of Trinity Square has come too late for Moffees, the independent sweet shop that was one of the first stores to open last summer, having moved from its established and successful location in the upmarket Gateshead suburb of Low Fell.
Curiously, Moffees’ now-mothballed Twitter feed spends more time lambasting Tesco, Savills (the letting agents) and David Cameron (for what Moffees says is his lack of support for small businesses) than it does in showcasing the shop or its products – there may or may not be merit in these protests, but I’m not sure a Twitter feed aimed at gaining and engaging with customers is the place to sound off.
For sure, Moffees spent the bulk of its tenure with limited pedestrian access, the proper routes only being opened up once the cinema was ready in December. For any retail business, however, there also has to be an element of taking some responsibility for your own decisions. For instance, it was pretty clear from the start that the High Street-facing unit was a challenging choice of location, with few existing neighbours likely to drive the right kind of footfall.
Similarly, the unit itself was strange, appearing overspaced and soulless and, hence, lacking in the delight and sensory overload that you might expect from a traditional sweet shop. The lack of any fascia signage for the duration of Moffees’ tenure also seemed a curious omission, meaning that the shop was only really visible once you were already outside it.
I can’t help feeling that a smaller, quirkier unit might have worked better, though even then it’s debatable whether Gateshead town centre is yet at the point of being able to support the kinds of mid-market independents that now thrive somewhere like Stockton’s Silver Street (which, of course, has its own successful traditional sweet shop, Chocs Away), or, indeed, in Low Fell.
So what about the better news coming out of Trinity Square as far as lettings are concerned? Well, there are three more lettings that have been confirmed: Poundland taking three units combined next to Boots (with fitting out due to start imminently), presumably relocating from its existing premises in the old Woolworths on the High Street; the Real China buffet restaurant, taking one of the two large High Street-facing units beneath the cinema; and Dixy Chicken, occupying one of the smaller High Street units along from Anzacs hairdressing. Excluding Tesco, this brings the development up to 63% occupancy by square footage, or 83% if Tesco is included.
Of the units that are left, I understand that all but two are at some stage of negotiation, with a dozen either at an advanced stage or under offer. Perhaps most significantly, almost all the national names in the frame would be new to Gateshead (rather than the relocations that have characterised many of the lettings to date), and include at least one fashion retailer that would provide a significant boost to Gateshead’s retail mix. Currently, the provision of both men’s and women’s fashions in Gateshead town centre is poor, with Peacocks (plus Tesco’s F&F, of course) as the only specialist fashion multiple in the retail core.
Little sign yet of a halo effect?
As Trinity Square approaches its first birthday, the positive signs on the letting front are welcome. Give it another year or so, though, and the scheme will be increasingly judged on whether there’s been a positive knock-on effect on the rest of the town centre. For now, this arguably remains the biggest area of concern, despite the development’s effective pedestrian links with High Street, Jackson Street (where Wetherspoon’s and Peacocks are), and the Transport Interchange and shops in West Street.
To date, none of the units vacated by tenants heading to Trinity Square – the old Greggs, Boots, Ladbrokes or temporary Tesco – have yet been filled, and Poundland is likely to leave another big hole. Admittedly, the architectural and internal quality of many of these units – some of which are owned by Gateshead Council – isn’t great, and it may be that further redevelopment is required to create the kind of space that modern retailers require.
Still, if the town centre can at least start to hook some decent retailers in to fill these gaps – such as northern variety chain Boyes, which has already made some positive noises about Gateshead as a potential location – then Trinity Square’s economic connections to the rest of the town centre will start to be as effective as its physical ones.
For now, at least, the good news on lettings and footfall is continued progress in the right direction.
My retail consultancy business, CannyInsights.com, provides bespoke place- and sector-specific market intelligence, including detailed coverage of the North East and nationwide. It also works with retailers to improve their stores, customer communications and market knowledge. For more information, visit www.cannyinsights.com, drop me an email, or give me a call on (0191) 461 0361.