The emergence of shopping centres as day-out destinations has been a major factor behind the growing success of the UK’s out-of-town retail hubs in recent years, and British railways operator Network Rail is now leveraging this idea in an attempt to boost sales and footfall across its stations nationwide.
Retail sales at the company’s train stations across the UK rose 5.2 per cent year-on-year during the first quarter of 2011, and construction work currently being undertaken at a number of its travel destinations, including London Waterloo and Birmingham New Street, may well boost this figure further in the coming years.
More imminently on March 18th 2012, the much maligned Kings Cross station, an outdated and cramped site once notorious for heavy levels of prostitution nearby, is set to unveil a new modern looking station complete with a number of retailers that would not usually be associated with travel locations in the UK.
“Station mainstays Pret a Manger, Marks & Spencer Simply Food and WHSmith have all confirmed they are opening at Kings Cross, but we have looked at bringing in new niche operators as well,” explained Network Rail’s Head of Retail Gavin McKechnie, who has helped drive the commercial side of the project on since joining the company from his role as Chief Commercial Officer at Delhi International Airport last year.
“We don’t want our stations to become homogenised, and instead of hosting McDonald’s, Burger King or KFC, the food offering is going to bring real quality to the destination.”
Intriguingly a well-known fashion retailer is taking on a 3,000 sq ft unit on the ground floor on the main concourse too, and this will represent the as-yet-unnamed business’s first foray into station retailing.
“I was actually surprised they signed up - they are a very exciting big fashion brand,” McKechnie revealed.
“Some of our regular brands will be kicking themselves that they did not take the unit themselves.”
The work to Kings Cross station, due to be completed in December this year, will significantly open up the site, provide over 27,000 sq ft of new retail space and has involved approximately £500 million worth of investment from Network Rail.
Once opened it should benefit from the expected surge in visitor numbers to London in 2012 due to the city’s summer Olympic Games, and with a new angel-like swirling roof, huge customer information screen and 20-metre high Western Concourse the place is sure to be a more inspiring place to spend time waiting for trains and meeting friends and family.
English Heritage has been closely monitoring developments at the station too, ensuring that lots of the site’s original 19th-century features remain in tact and, in many cases like the old-fashioned ticket hall, have been brought back to life.
Adding a host of retailers and restricting grab & go eateries to a minimum is just one part of Network Rail’s plan to increase dwell time at its stations, but it is thought that Kings Cross’s presence as a typically long-haul destination station means it is well situated to attract visitors who stay around for a longer period of time anyway.
“We’ve got to capitalise on this dwell time, but make the station more comfortable for people,” McKechnie argues.
“Our aim is to improve customer experience in our stations because for too long many of them have been far too congested.”
It is not just passengers who Network Rail hopes to attract though; like Kings Cross’ more glamorous neighbour St Pancras there is fantastic potential to make the station a go-to place for non-travellers too.
Popular UK shopping centres such as Bluewater, Westfield London and Liverpool One all see themselves as retail-led day-out destinations, where shoppers come to buy goods, sit down to eat and access other entertainment facilities - and Network Rail has similar ambitions.
McKechnie said that 40 per cent of people using retail units at London’s Liverpool Street station are non-travellers, and there are similarly high levels of shoppers at the city’s Euston and St Pancras rail hubs who are not rail passengers.
“Around Kings Cross there is a large local community and extensive office space – these people want places to meet,” he states.
“Our aim is to turn the station into a destination in itself by providing ‘retail on the way’ not ‘retail in the way’.”
To help achieve this, retail deliveries will now be made through the service yard at the north side of the development and unloaded underground, meaning cages on the concourse will no longer an obstacle for passers by.
Whichever retailers are confirmed as new tenants at Kings Cross station between now and the end of the year, they will spend January to March 2012 fitting out their stores in time for the grand opening in the spring.
Network Rail has ramped up its efforts to build better relationships with the UK’s retail businesses over the last 12 months, seeing expansion in this area as a sure-fire money maker, and during the year ahead the people of north London should be able to benefit from another thriving shopping destination as a result.