A diverse shopping experience in our city centres is vital in the future
The face of retailing in Belfast city centre has evolved enormously over the last 24 months. Two years ago, headlines mostly related to the number of vacant units and the difficulties Belfast was facing in attracting new names to the capital.
Although retailing is still going through a difficult period, with rumours of a number of fashion retailers facing financial problems after the Christmas period, at a cursory glance the city centre appears to be thriving.
Property vacancy within Belfast city centre is at its lowest level for a considerable number of years.
This change has been in part due to a number of new entrants coming to the market, such as Patisserie Valerie, Greggs, Kiko Milano, Stradivarius, Sostrene Green and Moss Bros.
A number of retailers have also been upsizing, such as Pandora and the Spinning Wheel, and existing retailers, such as Caffe Nero, have been acquiring additional units.
Perhaps the best example of how the face of retailing has changed in Belfast can be seen in Castle Lane, which links Donegall Place to Arthur Square.
During the last 12-month period, Castle Lane has seen a complete resurgence, with a large number of the new occupiers in Belfast - some of whom are mentioned above - choosing to 'set up shop' there.
It is also interesting to note that two of these new occupiers - Greggs and Patisserie Valerie - are food operators. This is a reflection of how the public wishes to shop within our cities - supply meeting demand.
No longer is shopping seen as a means to an end - it is now regarded by many as an experience to be enjoyed.
The time spent in buying a product is now often complemented by ancillary activities such as 'having a coffee'.
In addition, those that live and work in the city also wish to 'nip out' for a quick meeting in a coffee shop rather than have that business conversation in the formal environment of an office. It is, therefore, perhaps unsurprising that some of the most active occupiers within the market at the moment are food-based.
Although some may decry the loss of 'traditional' retailing, there is an alternative view that the existence of food and beverage occupiers creates diversity and helps to preserve the status of retailers who may be located close by
This alternative view is certainly being accepted by landlords and developers, who are now designing bespoke shopping schemes to take into account the manner in which we now shop.
The challenge now is to ensure that we also continue to incorporate a sufficient and diverse shopping experience into our city centres.
- Brian Kidd is a member of the RICS (Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors) and a partner at Frazer Kidd.