BCSC review: Food flavour reflects market shift

Jonathan SuttonJonathan Sutton, corporate director, GL Hearn in Glasgow, offers his thoughts on this week's British Council of Shopping Centres Conference & Exhibition in Liverpool.

So that's BCSC over for another year with its usual divergence of views providing plenty of food for thought for the next 12 months.

Firstly, hats off to Liverpool itself for hosting a conference which I felt worked very well indeed from a conference-goer's perspective; lunch and evening venues, hotels and convention centre were all handily placed between the attractive bookends of Liverpool ONE and Albert Dock, both of which showcase perfectly the city's dramatic regeneration story over the last 20 years. Well worth the extra 30-mile trip across the M62 [Manchester hosted BCSC for past three years].

Inside the conference it was clear from visiting the showcase that retailer activity was much more polarised than in previous events, indeed the only significant sectoral presence being from the food sector with none of the big fashion names taking stands. This was a disappointment to many delegates I spoke to and in straitened times an open invitation to prospective delegates to do the fringe and not take up a pass in future years, all of which weaken the event as a whole.

Strong representation from Wm Morrison, Sainsbury's, Co-operative Food and Waitrose sparked lively debate among delegates as to the real momentum of the convenience format roll-out programmes for some operators and how various trial stores are working for some of the operators.

From a leasing perspective, the theme seemed to be tenant churn to improve retail offer and fill voids. The food and beverage operators were very active. From talking to a couple of large scheme owners there is clearly a lot of interest in widening the food offer in schemes, particularly the sub-regional centres, to provide a more rounded offer and USP to schemes hard pressed to differentiate themselves from rivals.

On the investment front there is clearly appetite for purchases but a dramatic divergence in what is on the various buyers shopping lists. Little interest in mid-market schemes which were the previous staple diet of the UK-debt driven Propcos was a recurring theme with either regional schemes or easily worked small developments being the talking points.

In terms of keynote speakers the witheringly blunt views of Mary Portas and Luke Johnson have been well documented elsewhere. That said, they do seem to have truly set heads thinking as to how to arrest town centre malaise and get landlords thinking about retail offer and not only where the quarterly valuation sits as a measure of asset performance. I think it is a case of 'only time will tell' if their views and initiatives have teeth but well done to BCSC for getting both speakers to the stage and for the speakers themselves to take up the challenge face-to-face.

Anyway, it's off to sunny Glasgow next year. Hopefully the same eclectic mix of market chat, networking and thought provoking speakers will enliven what from the mood of the BCSC 2012 is still a patchy marketplace at best, but with deals to be done in the right places.

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