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Westfield preaches 'fewer but better' in adapting to new retail reality

Westfield has a huge pipeline of work either under construction or coming to tender over the next few years. With technology changing the face of retail, head of design and construction Keith Whitmore talks exclusively to Construction News about how Westfield is adapting by building bigger and better - and what contractors need to do to win its work.

The face of retail is changing. New technology has altered shopping habits like never before. Customers shop online, only visiting stores to collect ordered products, or even not at all.

But Australian shopping centre developer Westfield is still planning to build stores – and build big.

Rise of the flagships

When the company first entered the UK market it acquired a number of shopping centres, but that portfolio has now been narrowed down to its two flagship London centres at White City and Stratford.

With one at Bradford under construction and another at Croydon progressing towards being built, the company’s strategy is clear.

“We’ve reduced the number of shopping centres, but we’ve increased the quality and the size of them. They’re bigger and better, with more things to experience”

Keith Whitmore, Westfield

“I call it fewer but better,” Westfield head of design and construction for the UK and Europe Keith Whitmore explains.

“We’ve reduced the number of shopping centres, but we’ve increased the quality and the size of them. They’re bigger and better, with more things to experience.”

Mr Whitmore identifies this ‘rise of the flagships’ as one of the most important trends in retail today.

With retailers building fewer shops and becoming increasingly selective about where they build them, there is now a greater emphasis on iconic, flagship stores – and the shopping centres to house them.

“In terms of our £5.5bn pipeline, our intention is to create these flagship centres,” Mr Whitmore explains. “They offer far more than the typical regional shopping centre: they offer a day out.”

Big day out

This ‘day out’ approach has seen both the company’s centres offer more than just shopping, with Stratford home to a large food offering, a cinema, a bowling alley, a casino and even a hotel.

Westfield London’s cinema is the best-trading Vue Cinema in the UK and the expansion programme there is set to include a new IMAX screen.

“The size of the atrium there also allows us to hold film premieres,” Mr Whitmore says.

“The design takes a considerable amount of time; it’s all about improving that experience and lifting the bar each time we do a new centre or expansion”

Keith Whitmore, Westfield

“The building is working to service a lot of different things. That means the design takes a considerable amount of time; it’s all about improving that experience and lifting the bar each time we do a new centre or expansion.

“If you tried to do that in a region it becomes unsupportable financially, because there’s so much cost and R&D that goes in.”

Technological changes

While centres are getting bigger and providing more diverse attractions in response to changing consumer habits, the rise of technology has also changed the buildings themselves in more subtle ways.

Mr Whitmore acknowledges that most people will now check an item online before visiting a physical shop to buy it. But he argues that people still want to “see it, feel it, experience it”.

“Not many people realise that, while the retail environment is changing, we have to change how we engage with that environment as a shopping centre owner,” he says.

“We’ve already spent millions of pounds, particularly in London, to put in and accommodate that technology.”

“To enable us to include technology we need the support of contractors that understand this stuff. We’re quite open to approaches from that field, as well as the usual building companies”

Keith Whitmore, Westfield

The company has a division based in San Francisco – Westfield Labs – whose job it is to develop and anticipate the new technologies consumers will want to see in shopping centres.

From facilities to help you find your vehicle in the car park, to easing the process by which you pay for that parking, the aim is to make the experience as seamless as possible.

“These types of technologies are being built into our centres,” Mr Whitmore says.

“To enable us to include it, of course, we need the support of contractors and organisations that understand this stuff. We’re quite open to approaches from that field, as well as the usual building companies.”

Building for the future

Implementing this technology helps ensure the centres remain relevant as consumer habits change – a trend contractors need to be aware of to win work.

The centres already open are also under “continual evolution” according to Mr Whitmore, with the land Westfield London is now expanding into purchased six years ago in anticipation of growth.

Both Westfield London and Westfield Stratford have the capacity to expand further, either by adding additional floor space or going higher.

In Stratford’s case, Mr Whitmore says the foundations were “futureproofed” to allow the building to go downwards if need be.

“What we need is constantly changing. We always challenge it and change our mind”

Keith Whitmore, Westfield

“You need the construction expertise with you to do that, so we’re more than happy to look at new techniques and technology,” he says.

“Across the board, from designers to consultants, through to contractors and specialist contractors: what we need is constantly changing. We always challenge it and change our mind.”

Mr Whitmore concludes with an appropriate analogy from the world of retail: that building a shopping centre for Westfield is “like being in the fashion world”.

“Fashion retailers are all about what’s happening next, not today. You have to think ahead.

“Change will continue to happen at shopping centres, so from a construction point of view we need to have a relationship with the supply chain.

“It’s very much about the expertise of the supply chain to help us do this stuff.”

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