Boasting the biggest cliffs and the largest castle in England – which attracts 650,000 visitors a year – Dover is not shy of attractions.
However, its retail position had been struggling for quite some time. Notably, the two-storey Marks & Spencer in Biggin Street came to the end of its lease because the town centre wasn’t attracting enough footfall.
However, when St James Dover opened, it brought hope to the area. The new £53.25 million, 157,000sq ft retail space offered M&S a new space and encouraged retailers to believe there was good enough reason to reinvest in the town.
St James Dover’s phased opening started with Cineworld’s first screening in March last year. As there was no official opening date, the decision was taken to allow retailers to open when ready after fit-out.
“We’ve still got a little bit more to build, as you can see we’ve got a couple of units to let,” said Richard Poyser, head of retail relationships and leasing at Legal & General, the investment firm that owns the site.
He told Retail Gazette that the main focus of St James Dover was to appeal to the local community and the local catchment.
“Essentially we’ve got half the catchment because half of it is in the sea, so it has to work quite hard to bring people in, but we believe that the line-up here is appealing to those people,” he said.
The line-up is multi-faceted: Card Factory, Carphone Warehouse, Next, Superdrug, Shoezone, Poundland, The Entertainer & M&S are all located within this retail park, expressing a sense of convenience for both tourists and locals.
It was also a Wednesday morning when the Retail Gazette popped by for a visit, and the 445-space car park was quite full.
The initiative for the St James Dover development came when it was revealed that around 11.7 million passengers travelled through the Port of Dover in 2017, including 200,000 cruise passengers a year – making it the UK’s second busiest cruise terminal. Investors clearly did not want to miss out on the opportunity to capitalise on a potential spend of £1.2 billion a year.
“What we’re getting is everybody arrives early because they’re thinking ‘I need to catch the ferry’ and they arrive two hours early and think ‘what are we going to do now?’” Poyser said.
“So what happens is they find their way into here, and make use of it.”
St James Dover offers retail as well as a gym, cinema, restaurants and a Travelodge hotel which, according to Poyser, are “all very different reasons to come in”.
Poyser also said the variety on offer “smooths out the footfall”, with the cinema and restaurants giving St James Dover that evening economy boost.
“The fact we’ve also got a hotel, restaurants and gym, it further emphasises on the fact that it’s not just strictly retail anymore, the modern world is changing,” he told Retail Gazette.
The retail space has not only offered new shops, but it has also created new jobs.
“For 20 years there was a big office on the site which was never used.
“There were discussions about knocking it down and creating a new supermarket, and that would’ve generated many jobs, but now by having individual stores, it has generated more jobs as well as footfall,” Poyser said.
The shops are also open until 8pm, compared to the earlier closing times of the stores along Biggin Street. The later opening times is also an example of how retailers were shifting their basic principles for customers.
As the shopping district is on the side of a road which leads to the ports, many tourists and locals tend to find their way in easily.
On a comparative measure, there has been a 60 per cent increase in footfall since St James Dover has opened, which Poyser said were “locals and tourists coming in from ferries”.
“It was quiet in the first couple of weeks when it opened but once people discovered what was here its turned into a real local attraction,” he said.
St James Dover location on the A20, the main road leading to the Port of Dover, also makes it easy to access for people taking roadtrips or weekenders.
The Poundland store also accepts the euro currency, so EU tourists arriving in the ports can shop easily without having to convert their cash into pounds, while locals coming back from their trip on the mainland can use up any left over euro cash.