Big Interview: King of the outlet centre – Rioja Estates’ Giles Membrey

Retail Gazette speaks to Giles Membrey who has built some of the UK's most successful outlet centres to find out why the sector is thriving and how his new development, Grantham Designer Outlet Village, will capitalise on the boom.

Giles Membrey
Giles Membrey.

Giles Membrey, managing director of Rioja Estates, has long been obsessed with retail.

“I even did my dissertation at university on the impact of outlet retailing on the high street back in 1987,” he laughs. 

It should come as no surprise that he has helped launch some of the most successful designer outlet centres in the UK and Europe, including McArthurGlen in Bridgend, Swindon, and the East Midlands.

Rioja has been in existence in some form for almost 30 years and Membrey is considered a pioneer of the outlet industry.

Despite the challenging environment on the high street, outlet centres are in boom. “Outlet seems to shine in downturns,” Membrey says. “I remember the 2008 recession and how the rest of the market was really on its knees, but outlet still traded really well.

“McArthurGlen for instance, has seen an 11% increase in footfall across all their schemes since reopening last April, compared with 2019.”

Membrey is looking to make the most of this boom.

He helped develop the Designer Outlet West Midlands scheme in April 2021. It is already the second best performing outlet in the UK and is likely to be in the top five of all UK outlets, according to Membrey.

And he has bigger plans still for his most ambitious project to date, a “state-of-the-art” retail destination called Grantham Designer Outlet Village.

The scheme, which is set to officially open in 2023, will create around 1500 jobs and will become the UK’s only premium outlet with a visible frontage to the A1, allowing direct access from the UK’s third busiest highway.

Rioja Estates
Designer Outlet West Midlands

The pioneer of outlet centres

Membrey has a long career in retail, most of which has been spent developing outlet centres. He worked on his first scheme, Swindon’s outlet village back in 1993, one of the first outlet centres in the UK.

He is the godfather of outlet retail in the UK, pioneering the concept of a closed roof development, similar to a shopping centre.

“Outlet centres have never been new. They’ve been in existence forever. But the concept of a purpose-built shopping centre environment as an outlet village, that was new.”

Despite his long tenure, Membrey is still as obsessed as ever with the outlet sector.

“Retail property is the most exciting field of property development and management because success depends upon numerous stakeholders, including consumers and retailers,” he says.

“Outlet retail is even more exciting due to the mutually beneficial relationship between the landlord and the tenant – which was unusual in retail property before outlets.”

The man who brought Ikea to the UK

Membrey may be the king of the outlet centre, however, he also played a part in bringing the world’s most successful homewares retailers to the UK.

“I was responsible for bringing Ikea into the UK,” he says.

Giles Membrey enticed Ikea to open in the UK
Giles Membrey enticed Ikea to open in the UK

Membrey’s first role involved working for a West End retail specialist broker at the beginning of 1988 where he headed up their out of town team.

“We went over to see Ikea in Sweden and said you should have a look at the UK as potential markets.

“I worked with Ikea for about 20 years. I advised their board on expansion in the UK and also in certain parts of Europe, such as Spain and Portugal.”

Putting Grantham on the map

Membrey is using his vast experience to make Grantham, where Rioja Estates is managing the leasing, funding and detailed tender design process of the 273,000sq ft open-air outlet village, a success.

“My experience with the UK’s first schemes, and some of the most successful ones across Europe, provided learnings that have informed the development of Grantham,” he says.

“There is no true premium designer outlet village in the area, especially not with the visibility and access Grantham Designer Outlet Village will enjoy from its adjacent new junction on the A1,” Membrey.

Grantham is also an hour away from London by train making it even more accessible to shoppers.

Rioja Estates
Grantham Designer Outlet Village

Membrey estimates Grantham’s occupancy rate to be around 75% upon opening. It is currently at 30%.

Rioja expects to welcome 3.5 million visitors to Grantham Designer Outlet Village in the first year.

“We’re going to pull visitors from Cambridge, Peterborough, Leicester, Nottingham, and Lincoln. That is our sort of catchment,” says Membrey.

Harking back to his dissertation subject, Membrey is keen that the outlet centre does not negatively hit Grantham town centre, which is located just three miles from the outlet centre. He is working with the council to find ways to make it easy for people to go into the town centre.

He adds that his main goal is to create retail schemes that will be of lasting benefit to UK regions.

If Membrey can pull this off and help boost the wider retail scene in the town, Grantham will be toasting Rioja’s success.

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  1. Integrated leisure is the key to success. Outlets, and especially leisure-based outlets are outperforming the rest of retail. Springfields Outlet & Leisure is a good example. They are the premier leisure-based outlet covering the East of England and have just had their 16th year of growth. Finishing the year 19% up on the same period pre-pandemic. It’s the combination of leisure, 25 acres of gardens, Adventure Land, and the hotel combined with the outlet retail and FnB that makes it so attractive for people from South Yorkshire to north of London, the East Midlands and East Anglia . Outlet shops, a car park. and some lunch just isn’t enough these days.


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