Meadowhall shrugs off effects of recession with big surge in sales

SALES at Meadowhall rose by seven per cent last year to £750m in spite of the deep recession, new figures reveal.

The Sheffield shopping centre had a slight fall in visitor numbers – down one per cent to 24.7m – but this did not deter shoppers.

Darren Pearce, centre director, said conditions were difficult at the start of 2009, but improved from the summer onwards and surged in the lead-up to Christmas as historically low interest rates and better-than-expected unemployment figures increased consumer confidence.

Footfall in this year to date is up 0.3 per cent, he added.

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In an interview with the Yorkshire Post, Mr Pearce revealed plans to double the size of Meadowhall's Oasis food court in an effort to get a bigger slice of the night-time economy.

He said the centre's owners, British Land and London and Stamford, are prepared to invest 20m in the 56,000 sq ft extension.

He is working on a business case with planners at Sheffield council and is confident the project will go ahead, having secured expressions of interest from food chains Wagamama and TGI Friday's.

Mr Pearce said: "We are there in terms of funding. We are there in terms of totting up tenants."

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If the extension wins council backing, he said the project will create 100 construction jobs and 150 full-time jobs at the centre.

He added: "We have not got a critical mass of catering. This will give us twice the floor space we have currently.

"It will help push the agenda all round.

"This will help us tap into wider catchment by offering a critical mass of catering along with a very strong retail offer."

Eight million people live within an hour's drive of Meadowhall, which has good transport links by rail and road.

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The owners are also keen to progress the 300m commercial and residential development on land next to the shopping centre, said Mr Pearce, who has been promoting the scheme to the city council. It has outline planning permission.

Mr Pearce said: "We have two investors here who are very willing to move this forward. We have not got a funding problem."

The centre is in talks with potential private sector tenants for the commercial element of the scheme, he added.

In the last two years, Mr Pearce has overseen a restructuring of the business, which has led to a streamlining of the management team and the recruitment of directors with backgrounds in retail, operations and marketing.

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The business outsourced cleaning and security staff in February this year and has cut around 110 jobs over the last 18 months, mostly through natural wastage.

To help retailers, Meadowhall also cut its service charge by 18 per cent.

Mr Pearce, who joined Meadowhall as financial controller in 1994, said he wants to encourage more retail brands to the 280-unit centre. Recent arrivals include Superdry, Hollister and Lipsy.

"We have not got enough brands in here. We are really very strongly pushing that agenda," he said.

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Targets include Scandinavian hardware retailer Clas Ohlson and homeware store Lakeland.

"Major retailers are telling us they are double-digit growth this year," he added.

"In terms of our appeal to retailers and caterers we are out there in the market. We have less than two per cent void rate. We will be down to one per cent very shortly."

The branches of Debenhams and Next are said to be among the strongest performing in the country, while House of Fraser is set to undergo a 5m refit to open up the front of the store, said Mr Pearce.

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Meadowhall is one of the UK's best-known out-of-town shopping centres, but Mr Pearce said he wants to promote the Sheffield's retail credentials as a whole "because it helps both of us".

The value of the centre slumped from 1.65bn in 2007 to 1.1bn at the end of last year.

British Land is set to update the City on its current value next week.

The theatre of retail

Chartered accountant Darren Pearce joined Meadowhall in a finance role in 1994 when former owner Eddie Healey, the property magnate, was still involved with the centre.

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Mr Pearce, 43, said: "In the early days, Eddie Healey said to me 'we provide the stage and the retailers provide the act'."

He added: "It's like running a department store. We have to make sure we are targeting the right customers with the right retail mix and right environment. Providing the stage is not enough these days. We have to be a lot more involved with the retail environment and set-up here."

The centre attracts a high proportion of ABC1s, said Mr Pearce. It markets to four key groups called suburban comforts, symbols of success, happy families and urban intelligence.

"We know who they are and we know where they are. We can market to them very effectively," he said.

The son of an entrepreneurial haulier, Mr Pearce grew up in Newcastle and went to the same school as Alan Shearer, the former England footballer.