David Jackson has taken the helm at the West Midlands Designer Outlet as the new Centre Manager and, with the shackles of Covid removed, insists that it is an exciting time for the retail hotspot.
The McArthur Glen development - in which the Richardson family hold a stake - has 80 units, with room for expansion, and David has been tasked with overseeing the growth of the Centre as it moves into its second year of business.
The £160 million centre on Eastern Way, Cannock, recently celebrated its first year of trading, having opened its doors last April on the first day that covid restrictions were lifted.
“It was an unbelievable time to open a shopping centre,” says the 37-year-old. “I think to open up right as the pandemic was coming to an end really shows our commitment to Staffordshire and the region.”
Starting out with 40 stores and restaurants – including Adidas, Boss, Five Guys and Calvin Klein – the centre welcomed 21,000 visitors on its first day of opening as shoppers threw off the shackles for a bout of ‘revenge spending’.
Mr Jackson said the centre has gone from “strength to strength” since that initial boom, and now has 56 stores having been joined by brands including Puma, Vans and Castore at the end of 2021. Champion and Pizza Express have opened this year, along with Italian designer shoe shop Moda In Pelle. Lyle & Scott and Paul Costelloe are set to open in the weeks ahead, and Mr Jackson teased that more “big names” are lined up.
The immediate goal, he says, is to fill the site – which has space for an initial 80 units – before looking at the potential for expansion.
“We’ve still got a lot of work to do to get the centre full and in doing that we want to have brands that will appeal to our guests,” said Mr Jackson. “I’m confident we will have added more by Christmas. For us it is about having a great retail offer that people from the wider Midlands will travel to.
“If we do that well – and make the centre a household name in terms of retail in the Midlands – then long term we may look to the expansion of the centre.”
Mr Jackson cut his teeth with Next, spending a decade in London in roles including West End area manager, before joining McArthurGlen in 2015 and serving as deputy centre manager at Designer Outlet Ashford. He said he was determined to build on the “strong partnership” with the local community that developed through McArthurGlen’s work with council chiefs that brought the designer outlet to Staffordshire in the first place. And local brands were central to that aim, he said, citing the example of Lichfield’s Contact Coffee, which has a shop at the centre.
“Local operators certainly have a bigger voice since Covid,” he said. “The pandemic has made us look at what consumers want in a different way. People like local things, they like artisan coffee, for example. As we move forward there will be new brands joining the centre, and as part of that we want to bring in more local businesses. It’s not just about these big brands that we have, it’s also about working closely with local brands.”
Mr Jackson added that talks were ongoing with “two or three” local companies the centre was hoping to work with in the near future. He said recent months had seen a growing trend in people visiting the centre from further afield, while spend levels “continue to be high”.
Meanwhile the amount of time people stay at the site has also risen, he said, and now stands at just under two hours. He said far from signalling the death of ‘bricks and mortar’ retailers, the pandemic had simply opened up a new chapter.
“What Covid did was move us all forward digitally by five to 10 years,” said Mr Jackson, who is originally from Gateshead. “So e-commerce has completely changed, but what is clear is that there’s a sheer desire among our consumers to come out and spend time with friends and family.
“People want to feel enriched when they spend time in a shopping centre. Yes, they want the great brands we have here, but they also want a great dining experience. They want their day made easy.”
He also insisted that designer outlets were not contributing to the death of the high street, saying more small businesses now had the opportunity to open up in town centres by taking advantage of reduced rates and rent.
“It’s an opportunity to develop as a business that to be honest they would not have had a few years ago,” he said. “And as a result we will get to see more variety in the high street.
“This shopping centre has actually brought more people into the local area. We want to work with the town centres in this area and look at how we develop more as a destination rather than just a stand alone shopping centre.”
He says part of this development will see staff numbers at the centre – currently around 900 – rise to between 1,200 and 1,300.
And he said the centre is committed to social initiatives, such as a tree-planting scheme with Mill Green Nature Reserve and a link with Walsall College to train retail workers.
Big plans are already in place for a “magical” Christmas, he said, including Santa’s grotto, a tree lighting event and live music.
“This is a standout retail destination and our mission is to develop that further and play a major part in the community,” he added.
“We will continue to develop and I would urge everyone to come and see what we’ve done.”
A version of this article first appeared in the Express & Star: