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If you build it, how do you make them shop?

Grand DesignsAcres of glassFoodLayoutNot Just Shops

By Sarah Bell
BBC News

With the economy plunging into recession and growing fears of large-scale job losses, people are keeping a tighter grip on their purse strings. But shopping centres have always been one step ahead in getting the consumer to splash cash. How?

On Thursday, Europe's biggest inner-city shopping centre opens on what was once an unlovely semi-industrial site in West London.

It is the latest in a string of such openings around the UK, each drawing crowds to shop or to just browse. A till is expected to ring every 30 seconds at the new centre, but its owners hope people will come not just to buy but to eat, socialise and pass the time in their shiny new box.

What are the tricks designers and architects use to lure us in and relieve us of our money?

GRAND DESIGNS

Shopping centre design has progressed from the vast concrete clones blamed for sucking the life out of traditional shopping streets, to distinctive constructions aiming to be design icons in their own right.

Viewing gallery at Victoria Place shopping centre
See and be seen in Belfast's Victoria Square shopping centre

"It's moved away from the monolithic shopping centres which could be anywhere in the country, to places which are part of the area where they are created," says Peter Coleman, director of retail at BDP design practice, whose recent projects include Liverpool One and Belfast's Victoria Square.

"We want to try to integrate into the surroundings so a sense of place is part of what it is. One of the problems with creating a shopping centre is it can be alienating, and not interesting if it doesn't have that."

Victoria Square's key feature is a glazed viewing gallery where people can gaze out over the Belfast skyline. It has proved such a draw that at times entry has been restricted because of the queues to get into the building to use the gallery.

"It's giving something back, creating a sense of place, somewhere you can enjoy the city and do some shopping as a social event, instead of just walking about with a bag in your hand," Mr Coleman says.

LAYOUT
Marks and Spencer
Anchor stores draw the eye in

Decisions about which shops go where is all very simple, says Mr Coleman. "You get a good and extensive collection of shops, with a good coverage and range of choice."

A long established principle of mall design, devised in the United States in the 1950s, is for "anchor stores" - a large outlet of a popular brand, be it a chain or a department store - to be placed at each end.

The idea is people will be encouraged to move between these, drawing them past - and perhaps into - the shops placed between.

Bristol
The central atrium in Cabot Circus

At Westfield the layout aims to be more intuitive, with clusters of similar shops grouped together to provide ease for shoppers seeking particular items.

The layout should be simple and clear, Mr Coleman says, "so people can get a good idea of what they are doing, plus orientation spaces so you know where you've got to go to".

For modern centres avoid long straight corridors which can make shopping seem like hard work. Bristol's recently opened Cabot Circus centre, for example, has shopping "streets" radiating off a large central atrium, and at Westfield, there are short walkways opening off at different angles and levels, linked by 96 escalators.

ACRES OF GLASS

It is the building material of the 21st Century, thanks to advances in computer-aided design and glazing techniques. So now just about every landmark building includes some tricksy use of glass.

Roof at Westfield
Letting in the light

At Westfield the glazed roof dips and dives and the stores within feature far more glass than traditional frontages warrant. In fact, there are 3,361 glass panels in the entire complex.

Its architects eulogise about the roof, saying it represents "fluidity and movement" and is the central feature of the design.

Mr Coleman explains the obsession with the material. "People want a sense of well-being, they don't want to feel like they're trapped inside. If they can experience what is going on in the environment outside, that's a good thing.

"Most people would prefer to shop in the natural environment, but want convenience as well as not getting wet."

As with other projects, all this glass is put to eco-friendly purpose, to maximise natural light and create warmth from the rays of the sun.

NOT JUST SHOPS

It may be a national pastime but even the most dedicated of consumers cannot live by shopping alone.

It's about making it somewhere to meet friends and have whole host of things to do
Peter Coleman

Belfast's Victoria Square has its viewing platform, and many a shopping centre is built around a multiplex cinema complex. And the world's largest mall, soon to open in Dubai, boasts a vast indoor aquarium, a supersize indoor gold souk modelled on traditional Arabian markets, and an Olympic-size ice rink.

Why do this?

"We sometimes describe it as 'what's the pixie dust on this scheme?' It's about making it somewhere to meet friends and have whole host of things to do," says Mr Coleman.

Donald C McFetridge, head of retail studies at the University of Ulster adds: "The alchemy of retail design is of paramount importance in deciding whether or not a shopping centre will realise the footfall necessary to keep it operational and in business."

Westfield's unique selling point is a luxury enclave including Gucci, Tiffany and Prada, with dedicated parking and its own entrance.

While those spending money here will be in the minority, simply being in the presence of such outlets will have broad appeal, as shopping decisions are fuelled by aspiration and the need to impress.

"People's decisions on where to shop is based on 'what will people think of me if they see me shopping there'," says Paul Buckley, lecturer in marketing and consumer psychology at the University of Wales Institute.

"We used to do interviews outside supermarkets. If we were outside discount stores people would almost act as if they were caught in the act. You didn't get that if you stopped people at Tesco or Sainsbury's.

"Some people just don't like being seen going to certain shops. It relates to how they see themselves."

AND FOOD TOO

Of course, stopping tummies from rumbling is key to keeping people spending.

Food court at Whiteleys shopping centre
Posh nosh only will do

"You need good-quality catering to provide sustenance throughout the day, a range of choice, so you can get anything from a quick cup of coffee to a rather nice lunch and everything in between, in a nice environment," says Mr Coleman.

Westfield, in its bid to be upmarket, has barred fast-food classics such as KFC and McDonald's in favour of more upmarket choices such as the Square Pie Company.

Nor is plastic cutlery to be tolerated, with proper metal cutlery on offer instead.

When one has spent millions setting up a shopping centre - especially one opening as the UK slides into a recession - the aim is to catch shoppers hook, line and sinker.



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