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Comment: Craig Smith of Rolton Group on how engineering can help UK shopping centres meet consumer demands

Craig Smith examines how shopping centres in the UK can continue to meet visitor demands in the face of ever-changing expectations for comfort, safety and convenience.

Brent Cross shopping centre opened in 1976 and was packed with excited shoppers keen to try a totally new retail experience. The novelty of an enclosed retail space represented a shift in the demands and desires of the discerning customer and, even today, these continue to develop at a rapid pace.

Fast-forward forty years and the spread of shopping centres around the UK – from small local malls to large out-of-town developments – has been significant. Today there are nearly 900 shopping centres and malls across the UK, and this has only served to heighten consumer expectations when it comes to producing the best possible layout, aesthetics, space and services. With these changes in preferences and overall expectations of the retail and leisure experience, how can major shopping centres stay up-to-date with the latest demands, while keeping costs to the minimum?

Ensuring the comfort of shoppers

Making sure customers are comfortable in their surroundings is crucial to keeping them in a shopping centre for a sustained period of time.  It also means they will be more likely to visit again.

The modern day multi-storey centre must be equipped with a combination of elevators, lifts and stairs to cater for all levels of mobility. By positioning these in the proximity of all main entrances queues can be greatly reduced –allowing customers to reach the shops they want without having to wait at the back of a gridlocked staircase. These should be regularly tested for floor damage and mechanical health. Queensgate shopping centre in Peterborough has recently undergone a project to install new escalators – replacing ones which had been in operation for over 30 years. Rolton Group’s work included surveying top and base service pits and installing occupancy controlled inverter drive motors, which not only improved escalator performance but also reduced energy consumption.

Making sure that buildings are maintained and that central plant systems are kept in tip-top condition is the driver towards keeping a successful centre operational.  It is crucial for the appearance of the centre that any large plant items are made as scarce as possible – by embedding them into the structure. Queensgate shopping centre, for example, has discreet vents to the perimeter of all mall spaces with ductwork linked to central air handling units on the roof to reduce visibility and be of no inconvenience to shoppers.

Aesthetics and appearance

Light is also an obvious yet important and complex consideration for the well-being of shoppers and atmosphere of today’s shopping centres.

Newlands Shopping Centre in Kettering, for example, has recently seen a 100% LED lamp source lighting replacement project throughout the front-of-house public-facing spaces, something which not only aided the visual appearance of the centre but also significantly reduced electricity consumption.

Every shopping centre – large and small – needs thorough, reliable and compliant cabling for life safety systems such as emergency lighting. These cabling systems, after thirty years of life are like the veins of the building. LV distribution, VIR cabling and emergency lighting all need to be prepared in order to provide reliable power to shoppers and retailers. Where it is possible, natural light should also be maximised through roofs and windows to save on energy costs.

The smoking ban has greatly reduced the need for eradicating unwanted odours from indoor facilities, but shopping centres still require a healthy circulation of clean air for the well-being of visitors. Full fresh air natural ventilation systems via opening roof lights not only form part of the general ventilation strategy but also double up as smoke ventilation - whilst delivering high levels of natural daylight. This can be a key way to reduce site wide energy consumption, which is a key factor for Rolton Group projects.

Customer Safety

Another facet of shopping centres which is perhaps taken for granted is the safety of shoppers. Commonly this includes conducting regular maintenance checks on flooring; repairing any cracks or signs of wear-and-tear in tiling. Failure to do so can result in injuries – particularly when shoppers are rushing about and paying little attention to the ground beneath them.

A lot of modern multi-storey shopping centres also use galleries to provide towering views of the shops below. While this gives shoppers a good opportunity to look for stores that they may have missed, shopping centre management need to be aware of security issues, and regularly check perimeter walls to ensure that they are robust to withstand being leant on.

With more and more people shopping online, shopping centres will have to continue to develop and adapt in order to improve the shopping experience. High quality engineering is going to be vital for them to succeed against the threat of alternative consumer buying habits – and to produce the best possible shopping experience – for customers and vendors alike.

Craig Smith is associate director at multidisciplinary engineering consultancy Rolton Group,