The year 1979 was a different world. The first female Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher had just moved into Downing Street, Queen Elizabeth had been on the throne 27 years, and Michael Jackson’s Don’t Stop Till You Get Enough was a top 5 hit.
It was also the year that saw the opening of Centre:MK, a 1.2m sq ft single-storey shopping centre in Milton Keynes – itself a fledgling town that had been founded 12 years prior as part of the wave of “new towns” in the wake of World War II.
“Around 50 years ago, the government decided it needed to move some people out of London to ease housing shortages because it was becoming overcrowded, that’s when Milton Keynes was developed,” Centre:MK centre director Kevin Duffy told Retail Gazette.
“At the time, Centre:MK was developed as a retail destination that acted as an original draw for everything. When Milton Keynes was built, the shopping centre was actually the second building that started construction.
“It was really about establishing a new out of town location for people in London to visit. Milton Keynes is the most successful new town that’s ever been built in the UK.”
As shopping centre giants Hammerson and Intu endure difficult periods in the wake of dwinding consumer confidence and a raft of store closures and retailer administrations, Centre:MK appears to be bucking the trend. Last Christmas, it reported a 2.5 per cent increase in footfall year-on-year after welcoming more than three million visitors during the period.
It also welcomed nine new retailers in the last year alone – Neon Sheep, Newbie, Typo, Morano’s, Trailfinders, Skechers, Lovisa, Lush and Primark.
Duffy attributed Centre:MK’s success to “an accumulation of the hard work that’s been done to keep the centre relevant to customers over the last few years”.
In 1993, it witnessed a fire that tore apart a large area of the complex. But from the wreckage arose “an opportunity”, according to Duffy. Indeed, Centre:MK witnessed a 7750sq ft expansion, which saw Marks & Spencer brought in as an anchor retailer – now one of three, alongside John Lewis and House of Fraser.
Fast forward to 2020 and Duffy believes the centre “now has a connection with customers through reinvention”.
Last year, Centre:MK brought in a 75,000sq ft Primark store into the empty unit which was formerly occupied by the now-collapsed BHS. Duffy said the store was extended to make it a regional flagship for Primark.
“We took off the roof, stripped out the inside, built another floor, put the roof back on and then sort of designed it for Primark,” he explained.
“That was one of the biggest lettings we’ve had in the centre in 25 years. It was a really, really fundamental change point for the centre and its demographic because it was one of the big retailers that we missed, and we’ve been looking to get them in the centre for quite a long time.”
Duffy said that given the “casualties on the high street” in recent years, Centre:MK was attempting to keep up with customers’ demands, and bringing in Primark was just fulfilling one of those.
“Primark was the most requested store among visitors to the shopping centre,” he said.
“It’s all about looking at what your customers need, then thinking, ‘how are we connecting with those customers?’.”
When asked how Centre:MK accumulates demands, Duffy said his team “never stops listening”.
“We do two focus groups a year. We do research with CACI, who question 1000 customers off peak and peak,” he said.
“We can understand what the customers are saying and see where the trends are.
“We asked ourselves ‘where are the opportunities in the market and how you can capitalise on that to make sure that your customer feels engaged?'”
Not far from Centre:MK lies Intu Milton Keynes, a connected but rival shopping centre anchored by Debenhams.
When the department store chain collapsed into administration and then launched a CVA last year, Duffy said prompted a flood of brands into Centre:MK.
“What we found was that some of the brands that were in Debenhams, happened to increase their presence within the retailers here at Centre:MK,” he told Retail Gazette.
“These included beauty brands which increased their presence in Boots and John Lewis, and some of the fashion brands in Debenhams increased their presence in House of Fraser, John Lewis and other fashion stores.
“Debenhams’ downfall was a huge loss for the high street but we benefited from it. It’s a really difficult retail trading period and we’re bucking those trends so it’s good for us.”
Duffy said Centre:MK is a step ahead from other shopping centres because it has “all the big stores” and that it would be “difficult for any local competitor to really say they’ve got that same mix”.
“The centre is also really accessible. We’re a single-storey centre. It’s a really easy place for people to shop,” he added.
“We developed a strategy called ‘Open To All’, which means we looked at ways at how to bring consumers into the shopping centre. And not just anyone, we also considered people that are maybe disabled? Or elderly? Or young mums?”
Duffy went on to highlight Guest Services Team offers Centre:MK customers a personalised service, as well as a space that acts as a central hub for a variety of free activities each month – including two fashion shows each year.
Meanwhile, during summer it offers an artificial beach in Middleton Hall for six weeks, and a Christmas theme during the festive period.
“What works for us is that Milton Keynes has got a big and growing population and a lot of those people work in London,” Duffy said.
“We’re their weekend destination. But working with London is a double-edged sword.
“You’ve got London people who’ve got the experience in London, are working and doing stuff in London, but we know that actually when returns come back it’s actually from London – so what that does is drive people into our centres on the weekend.
“When people are coming back, they do a little bit of shopping and have a mooch around. It’s not about us not competing. It’s actually about offering something different.
“We’re not designed to compete – the whole idea was to move people out of London to give them a much better quality of life, but there’s a lot of amenities here in Milton Keynes.”