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In Focus: Centre:mk's Kevin Duffy talks shopping behaviours post-lockdown

Tom Shearsmith
08 September 2020

As consumers continue to slowly return to high streets and retail destinations, is looking at the impact of the last six months at centre:mk, one of the UK's top 10 shopping centres.

Since reopening in June, shoppers have been asked to play their part and abide by the social distancing measures that remain, including using the hand sanitising stations, following a one-way system in each section of the centre, and wearing a face covering.

The measures put in place and the public’s willingness to follow them meant centre:mk was able to provide a welcoming and positive experienced for all those that ventured out.

The design of the destination, its 2.5km of wide malls, and 18 exterior doors all helped shoppers return safely and in confidence. spoke exclusively with Kevin Duffy, Centre Director at centre:mk.

What does the average day look like for you now, post-lockdown?

"It’s hugely busy – the journey from COVID lockdown, reopening, to a new normal has been a rollercoaster. It’s been a huge learning curve for everyone. The centre is busy, we’re busy. It’s really about managing the customers and the retailers and ensuring everyone is happy, feeling safe and secure while shopping."

How are customers behaviours changing?

"What we’re finding from a public point of view is that when they were coming in up until August it was really those dedicated shoppers who were coming in, spending and leaving – which therefore meant that our average transaction value and average spend was higher but our dwell time in numbers was lower.

"Once 'Eat Out to Help Out' started we have had a pretty steep rise in customers – we’re about 27% behind where we was last year, which is ahead of the national average and other big shopping centres. The scheme has allowed people to think differently about how they shop – they’re hanging around more, they’re making each visit more of a day-out.

"As a lot of our restaurants are busy, they’re operating a notification system to let them know when their table is ready, which allows them to go and browse which sometimes generates additional spend. Spending itself is up in the centre as well!"

As Eat Out to Help Out concludes, do you think this trend will continue?

"I think it will. It has helped people get out, feel comfortable shopping and make them more inclined to come out and do some other stuff. It’s really helped break down the barriers between those who are a little frightened, to understand that it can be a safe environment. People are still mindful of social distancing, people are still mindful of procedures put in place such as one way systems and mandatory face coverings."


As shops reopened, consumers across the country flocked to make purchases as footfall soared on the first day back.

Centre:mk announced in July that Dune London, the footwear and accessories brand, would launch its latest store and first to open post-lockdown, at 31 Silbury Arcade.

Designed by the brand’s expert in house team, the boutique showcases footwear and accessory collections for both men and women.

How have you managed staff through the process of returning to work?

"We’ve brought staff back from furlough as and when we required them, with everyone coming back after a re-induction, taking them through all of the policies and the new-normal, which I guess now is the normal. We’ve tried to make our staff as comfortable as possible. We’ve listened to everyone’s personal circumstances and we made it clear to staff that we’d only bring them back if they felt comfortable coming back."

Is there a certain demographic of customers you have noticed are returning in higher numbers?

"When we first reopened it was very noticeably a majority young adults (18-25), who were probably more easily persuaded to come back out. We’ve seen that really level off now, as we’re seeing a more varied demographic of customers coming into the centre."

Do you think there’s still a demand for shopping centres in this new world we’re living in?

"Absolutely. You can’t get away from the fact that people are social animals. I think that whilst a lot of people shopped online, it was forced upon them. Now that it’s not, people will definitely return. We’re seeing the return already – as I said, we’re only 27% on our pre-COVID level compared to last year.

"Just before lockdown we had done a deal with Harrods for H Beauty, for them to take the House of Fraser store. That process is still ongoing, and we’re looking to open that in the first quarter of 2021. So consumers and businesses definitely still see Milton Keynes and shopping centres as a destination that they themselves need to be represented in."

Since reopening, are there any sectors that you have seen have particular success?

"I think the main area for sales for us was kids clothing, including shoes and homeware, including home decorations. Fashion really isn’t where it should be but that’s seen across the UK – people aren’t really going out as much as they used to which means they aren’t  buying as much clothing for those types of social engagements.

"On the other hand you’ve got retailers like Next, who really have performed strong during lockdown and reopening. I think businesses that have got a good balance between online and in-store offerings will really see a benefit."

To look at the future, is there a program for the future of centre:mk?

"I think for us it’s about understanding our customers needs and keeping the centre relevant. Our mission is to manage our retail dominance in the environment which including making sure we have the right services, the right facilities, the right retailers - adding all those things together to make sure that the centre is still relevant to the modern consumer.

"A recession always brings out those create and entrepreneurial businesses that want to establish themselves and I think we’re going to see that happen again. We’re actually working with Milton Keynes City Council at the moment to help encourage those types of businesses and potentially offer them space in retail environments where they can do big business and succeed.

"There’s no business in this country that still thinks the same as it did in February 2020, everyone has totally changed how they operate and plan."

Christmas John Lewis

The Milton Keynes shopping destination, last year attracted 3 million visitors over the Christmas period with 100,000 visiting the centre on Boxing Day.

Some shoppers were reported to have joined the queue at midnight with 1,000 queuing specifically for the Next sale.

During lockdown there was talks in the press about saving the summer – is there a chance of saving Christmas?

"I think there’s definitely going to be a strong trading around Christmas but it’ll be different from any in the past. People will still be weary and abide by social distancing. Shopping trips are going to be more calculated and in-out, rather than browsing.

"It doesn’t matter what happens with Coronavirus, people will still want to celebrate and experience Christmas. This year might have made it a bigger reason to celebrate Christmas and get out there to make the most of it.

"I also think that people are more conscious now about supporting their local economy, as people think about businesses in their town or city. It’s about creating growth and generation of wealth in the places that people live."

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