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Beware over-design of shopping centres says Hammerson sustainability head Louise Ellison

The way that shopping centres interact with both customers and tenants is going through a period of change that will shape future developments, says Louise Ellison, group head of sustainability at property group Hammerson.

Earlier this month the company published its True Value of Retail Report, which sought to establish the wider socio-economic impact of its Bullring Estate in Birmingham. Hammerson is seeking to optimise positive impacts across its portfolio and set benchmarks for future performance.

Hammerson’s figures show that each year the Bullring attracts more than £362m of indirect investment into the UK’s second city, creates more than 4,300 full time jobs and generates £22m in business rates.

The report is recognition of the importance of social capital, and of the changing nature of shopping behaviour, says Ellison. One example of the latter is the growing importance of leisure operators to shopping centres – which reinforces that further change is needed in the way that space is leased and paid for.

The days of 25 year fixed rate retail leases may be long gone, but that does not necessarily make the current system fit for all purposes. “The way in which space is paid for will shift. Leisure operators have a different business model [to retailers]. The idea of a specific rent for ten years doesn’t work for them,” says Ellison, who says the status quo needs to change: “That allows people to think about space in a different way. We can reconfigure space for a climbing wall for six months, or for community activities.”

This different view of space helps to keep levels of interest for customers high, by frequently updating attractions. Some leisure operators can prove enormously popular, but prove to have a short shelf life before customers feel they have exhausted their interest, says Ellison.

Frequent changes also mean more opportunities to create novel features that customers will want to share via social media channels, another key feature of modern consumer behaviour. And opening up these channels of communication offers further chances for two-way interaction. Social media has helped to raise awareness of issues that Hammerson has taken on board at a national level: all of its centres recently took part in Autism Awareness Week, for example. “I would love to say we would have done it spontaneously but business doesn’t work like that. There is a growing awareness that as a society we have to get better at this kind of stuff,” says Ellison.

Hammerson also seeks to work with local organisations and charities, helping it strengthen community ties – and reinforcing to local authorities that it is a long term investor in places. “It’s about building social capital. If the community doesn’t feel that their local shopping centre is relevant they won’t continue to go there,” says Ellison.

Shopping centres can benefit substantially from improvements made to the public realm, and from changes that make visitors appreciate – and use – the spaces more. “It drives footfall. You get more people and increase the dwell time, and possibly the money they spend,” says Ellison.

And while design is crucial to that it is important that customers feel comfortable, and feel they can take ownership of the space, she adds. Features such as sufficient seating, and versatile areas that allows customers to step back and rest – or for local organisations to stage events – are essential. “You can over-design. It’s about having a combination of those things and thinking about your audience and who you want to communicate with,” she says.