Retail Focus: Is Trinity the jewel in the crown for Leeds?

Trinity Leeds has been attracting some good headlines for retail, taking some of the focus away from the now trotting pace of the horsemeat scandal. I visited on the opening day and I have to say that I was impressed overall, if a little surprised by its small size.

One thing that stood out in Trinity Leeds is that you couldn’t fail to notice how Arcadia is investing in its brands there. Dorothy Perkins, Burton, Topman, Topshop and even BHS have each opened new retail concepts here. For me, it represents a big shift in what the company has done before. It’s like Arcadia has finally woken up to the fact that better retail design can be a profit driver.

My only criticism of this welcome move is that it appears that these brands are being innovated together, perhaps even using the same design agency. As a result, they seem to have lost their individual brand identity as, for the most part, they now seem to compete using similar design thinking, themes and ideas. These new concepts all tread a familiar path of attractive store design simply using new fixturing, décor and lighting, with graphics and more displays. In my opinion though, each is a ‘me too’ copy of themselves, which cannot be right. Blurring the lines between brands can potentially cannibalise sales (for example, Burton looks like a mini Topman). Given the scale and opportunity with the Arcadia business as a whole, personally, I’d appoint several top-notch agencies to manage the design evolution and customer experience for each brand. In my opinion, this would retain identity, exclusivity and edge.

Back to Trinity Leeds itself, it may be the only UK shopping centre to open this year, but by the usual standards, it’s a small centre. It’s an infill of land in-between the historic Briggate, Commercial and Trinity streets. This has caused several large, unoccupied gaps to open up in the surrounding streets, following Next and River Island’s relocation to Trinity Leeds.

It’s clear Arcadia has learnt from investing in Topshop. Whether it will invest further to refurbish older stores across the country remains to be seen.

Leeds was already a great shopping city, and while this new development has added a few new stores, on balance, will it be seen to have taken something away? Development is good generally, but only if it has an overall positive effect.

It has to be said that Trinity has an attractive design, an iconic glazed roof, restaurants and a city cinema etc., but in five years time it will have aged like any other city mall.

That said, individually and taken as a whole, this is still big news. The question is, to what extent do the stores represent a series of one-offs, or a serious commitment to upgrade the estate and refurbish what are, for me, so many tired old shops with these better concepts? I witnessed a similar story a few years back when the once retail goliath Sears UK innovated several brands together shortly before some of these fascias were put up for sale. While there is no suggestion that this is in Sir Phillip’s thinking, a cynic would argue that before any disposals took place, investors would expect to see a new retail format producing positive performance results before they too sought to make any investment in these brands in future.

Physically, it’s left its mark on the rest of Leeds’ shopping districts, with lots of big old stores now lying empty. With so many retailers now having gone to the wall, who’s going to fill up this space? I suspect that many shops will lie empty for some time – downgrading the rest of the city. For example, the area closest to Debenhams and Harvey Nichols looks tired already, with the Trinity Centre having shifted Leeds’ centre of gravity by a couple of streets.

It’s down to Leeds City Council and Leeds’ retailers to ensure that it doesn’t suffer like Derby did in the wake of its own super mall.

So finally, to the best stores. Next has a very attractive new concept. This multilevel space has a lighter design aesthetic and a sophisticated, aspirational feel. With this, Next seems to have come of age. It’s not gimmicky and reflects the brand’s ‘quality credentials’ better than the showy ‘black’ store design phase.

Love it or hate it, Superdry demonstrates some great VM, powerful merchandising and colourful displays, although it’s big, sprawling and confusing layout and endless sea of ‘samey’ products very quickly lost its appeal.

As I mentioned, Dorothy Perkins was good with its long overdue new store design – the first in ages for the brand – with the resulting effect being lighter, sophisticated and feminine. Similar things could be said for the new Burton, but with more emphasis on product VM and displays. Finally, River Island was a very attractive store with areas of particular note being the men’s denim area, women’s footwear and accessories, and women’s trend area.

So, overall, an interesting trip up north. Trinity is attractive, human scale and appealing. Smart and tidy, just like the brands that have set up shop there. Leeds, beware though. Trinity is good, but you WERE great. You need to do more than this to retain and improve your retail crown.