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Interview: Retail chief warns of bleak future for 'secondary' towns

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Councils with small town centres need to think beyond retail if their places are to have a future, the retailer behind a rapidly expanding chain of shops has told LGC.

Philip Bier opened the first UK branch of the Danish chain Tiger in premises owned by Basingstoke & Deane BC back in 2005. Since then the operation has expanded to 80 shops, about half of which are in London and the south-east.

However, Mr Bier said the changing retail landscape driven by the increase in internet shopping over the past decade had meant he had downscaled his original expansion plans, from a maximum of 600 stores to around 100.

Asked how he decided where to locate new stores, Mr Bier said: “We won’t go for the secondary [centres] because they don’t have much future. There’s not going to be the volume of retailers.”

Philip Bier

Philip Bier

Philip Bier, managing director of Tiger

Mr Bier was speaking to LGC at a conference organised by Revo, formerly the British Council of Shopping Centres. The conference heard there was an increasing polarisation between large centres and smaller places as some of the big retailers reduced their number of stores. As a result “secondary” centres could no longer expect to just host smaller versions of big shops, delegates were told. 

Asked to define a “secondary” centre, Mr Bier told LGC it was not all down to size and they were typically places with a lot of vacancies and brands that are not “relevant” to the modern market or are “tired” but have very long leases.

“I’m very instinctive in how I judge places; you need to make them living spaces, you need to make people want to go there, whether it’s a retail offer or a leisure offer or [activities],” he said.

“That’s no different to what retailers have to do themselves. It’s generally acknowledged that just opening up the retail box and expecting customers to come is finished. We have got to make them want to come.”

Mr Bier said some town centre managers needed a “wake-up call” in terms of understanding the changed environment in which they were now operating and urged them to be less restrictive on how public space is used in order to attract the public. For example, he said councils could help by making their facilities available or other cotributions which do not “necessarily have to cost money”.

“Think with imagination and don’t let the bureaucracy or rules stop you doing things,” Mr Bier added.

Mr Bier also suggested councils could help revive struggling town centres by making it easier for small businesses to open by removing costs and urged town centre landlords to think beyond securing big name tenants.

“If you have a secondary place… and you get tenants who might be household names but you have the same tenants in the towns around you, or they’re not particularly on trend, or you get a local person that comes with a brand new concept that’s not in other places [then that] could be bringing people into your town,” he said.

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