Intu Watford has come a long way since it first opened in 1992, when it was then known as Harlequin Shopping Centre.
Since its name change, the UK retail industry has seen a raft of tremendous changes. The introduction of AI, Instagram’s shopping feature, Amazon Go, dwindling footfall amidst the rise of online retail, and of course the ongoing economic uncertainty around Brexit.
But none of this prevented Intu from achieving its ambitions for the centre. Six years after the change of owners, Intu Watford has just unveiled its 400,000sq ft expansion to the existing centre. It took three years to complete and cost £180 million.
Located 15 miles north west from central London, Watford has never been a tourist hotspot historically. However, since the Warner Bros Harry Potter Studios opened, visitors from all over the world have suddenly started to flock there. The town’s accessibility is boosted by the fact it’s on London Underground’s Metropolitan and Overground lines, as well as a regular stop for trains on the main line from Euston station. In addition, several big companies, including Wetherspoons, Warner Bros and TK Maxx, have their headquarters at the heart of Watford.
The decision to expand Intu Watford centre fuelled by a strong demand from retailers and a growing number of shoppers.
“Watford is a great location. Intu Watford is close to the local home town centre,” Intu Watford regional director Rebecca Ryman told the Retail Gazette.
“We knew that the opportunity was huge here and we wanted to look at how we can tap into such a strong demographic profile.
“There was a demand from retailers as well, and also the need to really add further experiences to the shopping centre itself. It had been our ambition for a long time.”
When starting the project, the thing that mattered most for Intu was the first thing that customers would see when they walked in to the shopping centre.
“Before we start on a development, we look at lots of different things such as, is there a demand there from our customers? Is there a demand there for retailers? What will be the first thing customers see when they walk in?” Ryman explained.
It started with redeveloping the car park, as a lot of footfall was brought in from shoppers who lived farther away, including Harry Potter fans who visited Intu before or after the Warner Bros tour. The new expansion featured a red fence which hid the car park from customers’ view.
Intu aimed to capitalise on Watford’s location as a means to drive footfall from the Harry Potter World visitors. As well as the new car park, the centre attempted to focus on advertising to pull in tourists.
“We often have quite strong advertising at Watford Junction station to capture that audience and we’ve now got the cinema open with the Imax screen, and we’re working with them to see what types of events they can put on with Harry Potter films, to please the significant amount of Harry Potter fans – even though they haven’t brought out a film in a long time,” Ryman said.
She added: “Naturally, a significant part of the work is undertaking desktop studies on the available retail spend in the area.
“We’ve brought in a cinema – the first cinema in the town centre for a significant amount of years.”
Indeed, the new cinema complex means locals who had to drive out of town previously to visit a cinema were now likely to stay in Watford. This also meant the centre’s retailers were able to benefit from the increased footfall the expansion was going to attract.
“By providing extra facilities and developing 400,000sq ft of extension here, we have helped the town significantly because it has become attractive to a wider pool of retailers,” Ryman told Retail Gazette.
In order to further get an idea as to what consumers want from a newly-renovated shopping centre, Intu did research with shoppers to find out what retailers they really desired to see in the new expansion. One of the results was Debenhams.
Despite gloomy reports of Debenhams’ uncertain future dominating business news headlines, the brand new 80,000sq ft Watford branch of the department store became a key part of Intu Watford’s expansion.
“We brought in an extra department store and more retail and leisure catering, which has meant that the town itself has propelled it into a top 20 location from a CACI perspective, which is what retailers tend to look at when they look at location planning,” Ryman said.
Intu Watford’s expansion is also closely intertwined with the high street. Ryman said this means footfall is likely to increase as there aren’t many doors to separate the centre from the high street, and shoppers are likely walk right through both of them.
“There has been a significant change in footfall since the expansion,” Ryman added.
She also believes Intu Watford’s success wasn’t simply because of its status as a major shopping centre for the area – it was also a community hub.
“Our approach isn’t just about the shops we put in, and the way the centre looks, its also the way it operates and feels, and the enjoyment that we give to our customers so that they want to come back and see what else is going on,” Ryman told Retail Gazette.
“A great example is our kids club here, so for Halloween we provided a trick-or-treating environment because we know some parents may be fearful of letting their kids go out for Halloween.
“We let 1000 children register, and we worked with our retailers so that they had little bits of goodies, so if you were a registered child you would go around and find which retailers were participating, you’d talk to the retailers and then you’d get a little prize.
“It was brilliant, it was so busy and excellent from a customer’s perspective.
“The retailers are really pleased with the interaction as it drove footfall, it drove engagement, it drove sales, and that makes us really proud that we’ve done something that helps our retailers flourish, because ultimately that’s what we’re here for as well.”