When asking a friend of mine who used to live in Cardiff where the best shops were in the city, she gave a long pause before informing me that there was not much to see there.
This person had not been back to the Welsh capital city in a number of years however and would surely have given a different answer had she ever visited the renovated St David’s shopping centre.
St David’s now dominates the shopping landscape in Cardiff after its facelift and expansion was completed in September 2009, and it has managed to bring international retailers such as Cath Kidston, Hollister, Apple, Calvin Klein and Vans into Wales for the very first time.
At the end of last month its joint-owner Capital Shopping Centres (CSC), which shares the scheme with real estate firm Land Securities, reported that despite opening in the midst of the UK’s current downturn the centre has all but nine of its 160 units filled and has achieved 90 per cent of anticipated income.
Of the remaining vacant units, four are in the process of agreeing terms and with footfall figures rising eight per cent in its second year to 38.3 million, the management team behind the scheme can feel justified in feeling pleased with its progress.
“It was not just about opening another shopping centre, it was about creating a real destination in a capital city,” Joanne Skilton, Retail & Leasing Director at CSC, told Retail Gazette.
She explained that research conducted prior to the extension showed that Welsh consumers often travelled all the way to London to shop at their favourite stores, and this information helped shape the type of centre that was created.
It led to lots of youth fashion labels being approached and then signed up for the scheme and of the traders now based at the site over half had never set up a store in the country before.
“I like to think that we have put the heart back into Cardiff retail, regenerating a rather tired section of the city centre,” Skilton said.
Not everyone has been thrilled with the transformation however and George Osztreicher, spokesman for the city’s High Street and St Mary Street Traders Association, recently complained that St David’s was draining business away from Cardiff’s other major shopping areas.
Osztreicher told Wales Online: “It’s like a neutron bomb has gone off – the buildings are still standing but the people are gone.”
When Retail Gazette visited the Welsh capital it was noticeable how quiet the independent-dominated Arcades were in comparison to the shiny new shopping centre, even though there were some quality food and record stores hidden amongst the alleyways.
Skilton defends the impact of the centre however and points out the introduction of Urban Outfitters, Schuh, White Stuff and Vendi on to The Hayes street near to the centre in the last two years, and says that a vibrant trading environment outside of St David’s is essential to its success.
“The overall retail mix of any city or catchment is critical and it is down to all of the owners of commercial property in Cardiff to make sure we are giving the people in this city the right retail offer,” Skilton added.
“We want to make sure that anybody in Wales that wants to go shopping sees Cardiff as a legitimate destination to spend the day.”
And it seems that the perception of Cardiff as a regional retail hub is starting to emerge in Welsh consumers’ minds, which could mean big business for the site.
CSC believes that St David’s has a 45-minute drive time catchment; a wealthy area which was previously underserviced in terms of high quality retail.
But this leads on to another recent criticism of St David’s following its early successes: that it is helping to kill off local high street’s right across south Wales.
A cursory search for “St David’s” on Twitter will show you plenty of comments similar to @Newportionian’s at the end of last month: “I am in Starbucks Cardiff. I love St David’s centre its absolutely top drawer!!!”
It is towns like Newport and Swansea which have been filling train carriages and M4 motorway lanes with visitors to Cardiff since the centre’s launch and the South Wales Chamber of Commerce warned last month that these places are suffering due to St David’s success.
Newport has seen Marks & Spencer and Next leave the town in recent times as trading has declined on its high streets.
Skilton dismisses these fears and explains that she likes to think of St David’s as acting like a hub for these other spoke towns and believes the wins achieved in Cardiff could be passed on to other areas in due course.
“What we have done is create a hell of a lot of press activity for Wales, 50 per cent of the retailers we have brought to the site have never looked at Wales as a target catchment before but now they may look to expand further in this country after the success they have had.”
Tenant demand at St David’s remains high and the new names for Cardiff keep on coming, with Gilly Hicks the next US invader to launch at the site, and it has to be said that the retail offer inside the centre is fantastic.
Across the city the retail offer may be nowhere near as numerous but Cardiff only has a small centre, easily walkable, and it does not have the historic retail infrastructure of a place such as Bristol just across the border.
Cardiff has been transformed into a serious retail destination by St David’s arrival and whether they like it or not surrounding high streets and other towns will have to up their game to compete for consumers’ attention.