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Behind the scenes at Monk’s Cross retail park in York

PUBLISHED: 00:00 10 April 2015 | UPDATED: 11:21 24 October 2015

Dawn Franks with her mother June Grad shopping for perfume in Debenhams.

Dawn Franks with her mother June Grad shopping for perfume in Debenhams.

Joan Russell Photography

Out of town shopping centres learn to adapt to meet customers’ ever-changing buying habits, as Martin Pilkington discovers

Katherine Sharp - the Centre Manager.Katherine Sharp - the Centre Manager.

Retailing has probably changed more in the last 15 years than it has in the last 50. At Monk’s Cross retail park on York’s northern edge one element hasn’t changed since it opened in 1998 – centre manager Katherine Sharp. ‘The centre opened in September 1998 - with a Jeff Banks fashion show - but I started here in June that year when it was still a building site,’ she recalls. Fashion may have been harnessed to launch the development, but the early focus was elsewhere: ‘When we opened we had a huge PC World store here and Dixons too. When the original owners looked at retail they leaned towards the white goods sector, but have moved it through the years to more of a fashion park, with Debenhams opening here in 2009, and the Arcadia brands, New Look and Monsoon.’

And an even greater focus on fashion can be expected by the end of this year following the recent announcement that a huge new Primark store, occupying 45,000sq ft, is to open on the complex.

Its significance can be judged by the impact on numbers employed: the 31 existing outlets have approximately 400 staff; it’s anticipated the Primark store alone will employ more than 220.

Katherine does a daily walkabout as part of her management routine, checking the services are running smoothly, talking to retailers, getting a feel for what the stores are doing, so over the years she has witnessed first-hand how our shopping habits have evolved. ‘Online retail has changed how our retailers operate,’ she said. ‘We have a lot of click-and-collect now that 17 years ago just didn’t exist. The mobile is another major factor - you can look at goods online, using WiFi in store to look at what’s there and compare them with things elsewhere is becoming more usual.

Monks Cross retail park in York.Monks Cross retail park in York.

‘Something else you see now is people taking photos of products; you’ll hear them saying to the person they’re calling: “Can you see this dress? What do you think? What did Janet say she wanted for her birthday..?” The mobile was around in 98, but is was nowhere near as prevalent. It has become part of how we shop.

‘You have to embrace technology, not try to fight it.’ To that effect Monks Cross has put effort into developing a social media presence, with Twitter and Facebook to the fore; has revamped its website and in a city with more than 20,000 students in higher education, launched a student e-newsletter. ‘We never stagnate, it’s a dynamic environment, things are changing all the time. I love that. We have four companies who own the centre, and they are all very positive.’

Part of that positivity comes through in the centre’s engagement with the wider community, through actions like a school gardening initiative, student partnerships, and customer talent shows, plus support for local charities like Cats Protection, Yorkshire Cancer Research, Martin House and SNAPPY.

It must help stores survive and indeed thrive that going to the shops is no longer regarded, even by male family members, as a chore: ‘It has become a whole leisure experience going out shopping, especially at the weekend, with the full family maybe sitting down for a pizza or burger together at lunchtime, or at least having a coffee,’ she says.

That shopping-for-fun mindset makes Katherine relaxed about having the rival Vangarde Shopping Park just over the road, confident their combined gravitational pull on shoppers benefits both – and with 100,000 visitors to Monks Cross in peak weeks, it certainly seems to be working. The same leisure-logic means she is delighted the council plans to build its new Community Stadium, to include swimming and fitness facilities, very close to Monks Cross.

Katherine also thinks that along with the leisure aspect, our human nature will remain vital in how we shop: ‘The way some people shop is very different now, but I also think that people still want to come into the stores, to actually see and try the clothes for example, have that tactile element of the experience. We will probably get more “virtual stores” using screens in-store to see what’s available, and if they don’t have your size or colour immediately, you’ll just order it to be in store next day. But human beings will always enjoy and need that personal contact in the majority of their purchasing.’

She’s confident Monks Cross will stay on its upward trend: ‘For us having the ability to offer what is a whole day out – coffee, lunch, shopping, activities at the community stadium in a couple of years - will make it an even more exciting environment in the future.’

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