Consuming concepts

Bluewater continues to spearhead innovation in retail, Sarah Balmond discovers, with plans to extend its leisure and entertainment offering.

When Bluewater shopping centre opened seven years ago to a media frenzy, its design credentials stole the spotlight.

Built in a triangular formation, with an interior scheme that supposedly paid homage to English folklore iconography and the surrounding Kent countryside, Bluewater was heralded as a venue to change the face of out-of-town retail forever. Viewed as a radical alternative to the more traditional shopping centre format, it was positioned to challenge London’s bustling West End. Now, almost a decade on, its competitors have upped the ante. Retail parks have grown in popularity and consumers increasingly shun the high street in favour of these one-stop-shop destinations, which offer more leisure and ‘play’ shopping elements.

Bluewater is raising its game in view of Battersea Power Station’s ambitious retail complex, which is designed in part by Universal Design Studio and is set to shift the boundaries of lifestyle-shopping yet further. Bluewater is poised to launch a vast entertainment and events venue on a 5200m2 site, just next to the existing shopping centre (DW 23 February).

Designers will be appointed to work up a separate identity for the venue – as well as potential lighting, interior and landscape schemes – but how revolutionary or forward-thinking the concepts will be remains unclear. Last month, a planning application was submitted to Dartford Borough Council to build on the site, but no visuals are available, and the Bluewater management team is cagey about providing details of the scheme.

Linsey Wooldridge, head of marketing at Bluewater, explains that an emphasis will be placed on design across the complex. Currently, the lead architect on the scheme is Denton Corker Marshall.

‘This is a fantastic public area. The complex will be built as an addition to Bluewater in order to amplify the Bluewater experience, and it will be in- keeping with its original vision. The new complex will be a stunning space with beautiful architecture,’ she says.

The venue will stage themed events and specialist leisure shows, such as fashion shows, which will link through to existing Bluewater retail offers.

‘People want more out of shopping these days – they want more of a leisure destination. We want to give the shopper a more rounded experience overall. Since we opened, other shopping centres have been catching up, so we needed to move forward and retain our number one position,’ she adds.

Bluewater’s new venture, in terms of design, has a challenge in that it must meet its preceding reputation as a ‘retail innovator’ head-on. Commercial tenants at Bluewater work closely with its in-house retail delivery team to create interior concepts that they have the opportunity to trial at a retail space that is guaranteed high footfall figures, explains Wooldridge. This has resulted in many of the UK’s leading brands launching flagship ‘concept’ stores at Bluewater. Design consultancy names, such as Conran Design Group, Lumsden Design Partnership and Fitch, all regularly emerge as Bluewater stalwarts.

‘We are very good at engaging exciting design and looking at all the plans to make sure they work for Bluewater. We are the perfect venue for trialling concepts, in part because we are so representative of the South East and get 27 million visitors a year,’ says Wooldridge.

Yo! Sushi is the latest retailer to experiment with a fresh dining concept there. It launched an alternative tea format, designed by Philip Watts Design, in an attempt to lure stay-at-home mums and children. New items are being introduced into the Yo! Sushi menu – such as Western-style cakes – with packaging drawn up by Intro. If successful, the concept will be rolled out across the Yo! Sushi estate where appropriate (DW 23 February).

‘The site required us to have this sort of concept and trial this kind of all-day offering. In terms of the location, we had to bear in mind the demographic,’ says a spokeswoman for Yo! Sushi.

Overall, Bluewater’s new events venue is likely to give a shot in the arm to the shopping centre, boosting sales, footfall and dwell time.

Richard Perks, director of retail research at Mintel, says: ‘This is so sensible for Bluewater because ultimately retailing is a leisure habit. You expect to spend a long time shopping and this will be another reason to pull people in. Retail parks are popular because they are convenient. There is an awful lot of sameness on the high street at the moment.’

Stephen Cribbett, managing partner at Landini Associates, believes retail/leisure venues are growing in popularity, in part, because of ‘mass consumerism creating boredom in the mind’s eye’. He highlights the importance of creating ‘a collage of experiences’ for the consumer.

The diversification of out-of-town shopping centres into more lifestyle-led offerings looks set to persist, so long as the inevitable homogenisation of the high street experience continues. And with this, the test will be to create designs that are as bold as the new concepts are brave.

Design at Bluewater:

• Bluewater holds between 300 and 330 stores at any one time. It also has 40 cafés, bars and restaurants

• Bluewater’s in-house retail delivery team work closely with tenants and appointed consultancies

• New entertainment venue awaiting planning permission

• Design appointments to follow

• Bluewater visitors spend, on average, three hours at the shopping centre

New Bluewater Development

• 5200 metre squared exhibition and events venue

• A year-round consumer-orientated leisure facility

• Located to the south of the shopping centre, it will be accessed off Thames Walk, through the existing Water Circus at Bluewater

• Proposal involves reconfiguring some existing areas at Bluewater

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