Centre managers are using major UK brand names in the fight generate much-needed income. But innovation is key if brand promotions are going to work well
As recession-struck centres focus on commercialisation to support them through 2010, families – or more specifically children – are often a target audience. A single person might spend half an hour looking around the shops; families, on the other hand, come to the mall for a day out. Children play on the rides or meet their favourite cartoon characters while parents take a look around the shops, and afterwards they might all sit down for a meal.
No wonder, then, that centre managers are still keen to invest in children’s entertainment. Patrick Tranter from Rainbow Productions, a company providing shopping centres with licensed children’s characters, says that interest has far from fallen.
“Christmas was as busy as ever, and Easter was up on the year before,” he notes.
So why the high levels of interest in character appearances? “Because it’s a low cost way of bringing in footfall and boosting sales. A centre in the South East would spend £1,000
on an appearance and get 3,000 people in, not to mention promoting the centre to the right people who will continue spending money in the future.”
Licensed character appearances are comprised of ‘meet and greets’ or workshops hosted by well-known children’s characters, driving footfall and spend. Not a direct income generator, then, but according to Tranter the centre sees an impact on their figures immediately.
“A well-organized character appearance will draw at least 1,000 children into the centre with their families,” he says. Cafés on the mall see the benefit from higher footfall, and retail sales go up as families head for the shops. “It’s about bringing the right sort of people into malls: families who want to spend time in the centre and buy the related merchandise.”
When the cartoon character Ben 10 made an appearance recently, the centre manager advised toy retailers to move related products to the front of their stores. “The most successful character appearances happen when the centre manager and retailers work together,” Tranter stresses.
This type of event demonstrates the merging of commercialisation and marketing in shopping centres. Traditionally, commercialisation looks at direct income schemes like coin machines or rental revenue from RMUs. Now, there’s a trend towards hosting free entertainment that increases footfall and dwell time with a guaranteed impact on sales. And crucially, raising the overall reputation of the centre will encourage return visits and raise figures in the future.
The interactive nature of these events has other benefits. “Postman Pat visited centres in early December to collect letters for Father Christmas from the children. The centres could then capture data using information from these letters.”
Rainbow Productions carefully advises centre management to help them get the most out of each character appearance. A properly organised and well-publicised character appearance might attract over 1,000 children, while poor organisation might draw in 500. But Tranter stresses that centres shouldn’t over-publicise or else they’ll be faced with too many people to deal with. “These children’s characters are popular for a reason. Centres that put on a successful event always book again.”
He also suggests that centres avoid publishing the exact appearance times before the event, giving families extra time in the centre. “There’s usually an appearance every half hour, but it’s good for the centre if a family turns up 20 minutes early. So we suggest that the exact times aren’t pre-advertised, but instead that signage is put up on the day to let people know what’s happening and when,” advises Tranter.
The ever-popular kiddie rides are a mainstay of children’s entertainment, providing centres with a more typical channel of direct income. But like the character appearances, rides need to boost the perception of a centre. Just as Tranter claims that different types of character are more suited to some areas than others – “Garfield would work brilliantly in Liverpool and Birmingham, but Beatrix Potter characters belong somewhere like Tunbridge Wells” – a carousel needs to fit in with the feel of the centre and its local demographic.
Ride On Entertainment, which manufactures and supplies carousels to shopping centres, has recently launched a new design to be trialled in Westfield London this month. Craig Beswick, general manager of Ride On’s UK branch, stresses the importance of keeping up-to-date.
“Shopping centres have become more and more contemporary in their design. Nowadays they only have a smattering of RMUs, and those they do have are designed to a very high spec. So we’ve gone the same way with our carousels,” he explains.
Ride On’s standard carousel features a turntable with three popular characters for children to ride around on. The new design replaces these characters with 17-inch screens playing video clips of recent Thomas the Tank Engine episodes. Children can watch and listen to the clips as they ride around. This, according to Beswick, is the kind of innovation needed if major centres are to show an interest in children’s rides.
“Westfield London are never going to put Bob the Builder out on the floor, so we had to think totally out of the box. These rides have got to attract children and act like furniture in the malls – it can’t look out of place.
“The new design is a way of lifting the market by appealing to high end shopping centres. It’s something they can comfortably put in their malls, and it takes away the stigma of kiddie rides in centres,” argues Beswick.
Ride On’s recent innovation, as well as being up-to-date in look, is deliberately flexible enough to incorporate the children’s characters topping the popularity chart at any given time. “It takes only seconds to upload new themes, which means the ride can be instantly re-invented with the very latest characters while they are at their most popular,” says Beswick.
“It’s a great way to maximise appeal while cross-promoting exactly what your retailers are selling.”
A similar innovation is Primary Leisure’s Kids TV. The first of the coin-operated ‘kids pods’ launched in 2008 to deliver what Jonathan Smith, Primary Leisure’s co-founder, describes as “a complete move away from traditional kiddie rides”.
The product allows children to watch their favourite cartoons inside a kiosk for £1 a time. “Our aim is to attract kids into a very safe environment where they can select and watch cartoons,” explains Smith. And a new generation of Kids TV pods, launched last month at The O2 Centre in London, incorporates the latest in digital touchscreen technology.
“Kids eat up technology. They are like sponges, taking everything in.” In the fight to remain relevant to young people today, the new pods include LCD screens that children can touch to select one of four cartoons and their favourite episode. The options from licensor Classic Media include Postman Pat and Basil Brush, putting the age range between two and nine years. However, Smith recognises that the pods’ interactivity and digitalisation has the potential to reach an older audience.
“The experience of the pod itself is good for kids aged 10, 11 or 12. But the content isn’t,” says Smith. “We’re in talks with other licensors to include characters more suitable for a higher age, like Marvel which has Spider-man and Iron Man.”
If individual pods were branded as Marvel or Classic Media, they could be put side by side in a shopping centre to appeal to older children right through to the very young. “It effectively doubles the age range,” Smith affirms.
But having met the childrens’ requirements, Smith has taken on an altogether more challenging audience: their parents. “Attracting the parents’ attention and drawing their interest is the real difficulty. To do this, we’ve included a screen on the outside showing an advertising loop or other information which adults can watch while their children are in the pods.”
And as a commercialisation tool, the advertising potential is vast. Not only can brands advertise on the external screen, but a voucher-printing system allows advertisers to link commercial messages on the screen with a promotional voucher that can be used by shoppers in the centre. Bluetooth technology adds another dimension, allowing advertisers to market to shoppers within a pre-defined area around the kids’ pods.
But Smith does admit one flaw: “My only criticism is that we charge £1 for children to watch the cartoons they could be watching at home.
“That’s why we want to invest more of our budget into education. The touchscreen capability means that education and gaming can be brought in. We’re talking to a number of children’s education companies to get the right media properties inside our pods.”
Another product very much in the spirit of commercialisation is the Boobaloo Kiddie Kart. Used in several centres up and down the country, the karts allow children to ride around the centre while their parents shop.
“It’s about making the shopping experience easier for families with children,” begins Boobaloo director Robert Morris.
“Parents can either put their kids in a ride that last for 30 seconds, or they can rent out a kart which the children can enjoy for a couple of hours. And there are baskets on the top of the karts to carry any shopping.”
Morris points out that, although spend is down, people are still looking for ways to entertain their families. So managers need to sustain footfall levels by encouraging people to spend the afternoon in their shopping centre. The karts provide a unique point of difference in this regard. “If there are two malls nearby and one has the kiddie karts, that might be the deciding factor for a family,” Morris asserts.
Echoing Smith’s vision for Kids TV, Boobaloo karts offer optimum advertising space. After realising the potential for selling space on the sides of the karts, Morris has been selecting advertisers depending on their suitability. “I’ve been able to cherry-pick children’s-based companies. The milkshake company ShakeAway advertises on karts at the Dolphin Centre in Poole,” he confirms.
There is also scope for landlords to really support their retailers through harder times. “Shopping centre managers can promise tenants advertising on the pods as part of the service charge. They can give something back to their retailers.”
However, as with any product, the success of the karts depends largely on the centre’s management. “Centres have to really want to make them work,” stresses Morris. “Kingfisher centre in Redditch are spot on. They knew exactly where the karts were going to go, and they market them on posters and on the website. But the Frenchgate centre in Doncaster was making a lot less money than Kingfisher despite having a bigger fleet. I had to go in and tell them where to place the karts.”
Morris’s theory is that smaller centres can install and operate the karts far more easily because there are fewer levels of management. With larger corporate centres, the process takes a lot longer. “It’s the nature of the beast,” he admits.
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The Government released its long-awaited revisions to the Planning Policy Statement 4 (PPS4) planning guidance note between Christmas and the New Year, traditionally seen by civil servants as a time to bury bad news. But far from proving controversial, the new guidance has been broadly welcomed.
Firstly, the new guidance note – subtitled Planning for Sustainable Economic Growth – is simpler, running to just 32 pages against the previous 137. But in policy terms it reinforces the long-established preference for town centre development over out-of-town.
According to Housing and Planning Minister John Healey, it ties planning and economic development policies closer together in order to support sustainable economic growth while protecting local markets and small shops.
The revised guidelines keep the existing ‘sequential test’ for town planners, which requires the most central town centre sites to be developed first, with edge-of-town seen as the next best option and out-of-town sites seen as a last resort. Under the test, an out-of-town site can only be developed if the applicants can prove that no suitable sites exist in-town..
But in addition to this, a tougher ‘impact test’ is also being introduced. This will replace the existing ‘needs test’, which the Government described as ‘dysfunctional’ because it could unintentionally stifle diversity and consumer choice in town. In some cases, new shops in town centres were ruled out because out-of-town stores, especially supermarkets, already provided that function.
The change to an ‘impact test’ is designed to strengthen local authorities’ case in resisting new developments that threaten existing town centres on economic, social and environmental grounds. It will test whether impact is positive or negative on climate change, town centre consumer choice and retail diversity, investment and town centre trade and gives councils powers to cap the size of new retail developments where this is justified.
However one widely-expected change does not appear in the new PPS4, and that is the competition test for supermarkets. As recently as October 2009 a Competition Commission investigation into the UK grocery market called for the test which would require local authorities to assess planning applications for new grocery floorspace over 1,000 sq m for their impacts on competition, in consultation with the Office of Fair Trading.
The Government says it will formally respond to the Commission’s recommendations, including the competition test proposal shortly, but it claims the new PPS4 provides strong protection for town centres and will reassure town centre managers and independent retailers up and down the country.
Introducing the new policy, Healey said: “As the country moves towards economic recovery, the Government is putting in place new protections for local shops at the heart of communities as many high streets have been hit hard by a double whammy of the downturn and out-of-town retail parks.
“By strengthening the hand of local councils, we are giving them the expert tools they need to put the viability and vitality of town centres first in difficult market conditions. The new tools go further than ever before to protect town centres from the harm large out-of-town developments can have.”
Planning experts said the new policy is unlikely to make a substantial contribution to economic growth, but they conceded that it is likely to help smaller, independent retailers.
Mark Dodds, a partner at planning consultancy DPP, said: “The publication of PPS4 is very welcome and there are some very sensible changes, such as the removal of the needs test.
“However it is our opinion that it will do little to achieve the Government’s aims of stimulating sustainable economic development in any meaningful way. Larger and multiple retailers will, if anything, find it harder to push proposed developments past committed local councillors, particularly for small format retailing in local centres or rural areas.”
But Dodds, who advises Tesco among others, also says PPS4 is riddled with errors that developers and local authorities will undoubtedly find confusing and frustrating. “We have noticed a number of errors in the guidance accompanying PPS4,” he said, “most notably an annex that states that PPS4 cancels provisions in PPS7, relating to major developments in areas of outstanding natural beauty. The Department of Communities and Local Government has since confirmed that this is not the case.”
And he warned that while PPS4 may be a consolidation of policy relating to economic development and town centres, it will not simplify the process of getting planning consent.
“Developers will be well advised to make representations to the local development framework process as new limits and thresholds are set for retail development,” said Dodds. “They may also wish to influence assessments of need and capacity that are now set only at strategic level. Impact assessments will as a result become more complex.”
And David Jones, director at the planning division of Evans Jones, warned that the new policy could add to the workload of hard-pressed local authorities. “The PPS requires local authorities to maintain up-to-date survey data to assist in the identification of economic and property challenges to be considered in plan making, review and development control decisions,” he said. “The requirement for local authorities to prepare and subsequently maintain the survey data will place greater strain upon already stretched planning departments.”
According to Jones the Government clearly wishes to strengthen local authorities’ armoury to enable them to resist inappropriate out-of-town developments. But he cautioned: “The effectiveness of polices of restraint may be questionable in cases where local authorities fail to either collate or subsequently maintain accurate and robust data upon existing retail centres.
And he concluded: “Time will tell whether in the current climate the PPS will actually have any discernable impact. While retailing remains depressed and many town centre retail outlets remain vacant local authorities will seek to protect and improve the viability of existing centres. However, if local authorities fail to collect appropriate data, then it could prove difficult for them to defend appeals for new out-of-town retailing.