IT’S the shopping centre that’s right at the very heart of Portsmouth.
Gunwharf Quays, an outlet centre, which also boasts bars, restaurants, a cinema, bowling alley, plus much more, is one of the city’s most visited attractions.
It’s often – along with the neighbouring historic dockyard – one of the most recognisable aspects to Portsmouth. Ask any tourist.
But who is behind this shopper’s mecca? And what have they got planned for 2019?
We meet centre manager Colin Wilding, who has been at its helm since June 2014. The 60-year-old has an impressive career history in retail – he started as a trainee at M&S, before working his way up to senior positions for rival outlet centre chain McArthurGlen opening the McArthurGlen Designer Outlet Ashford, as well as working for Bluewater Shopping Centre in Kent and for Body Shop.
But there’s no taking it easy for this grandfather of six – Colin is a hands on manager. As he shows The News round and we talk, he stops to pick up a chocolate bar wrapper that’s being blown across the square.
He stops to talk to several people and he certainly knows every square inch of his centre. And he’s proud of what it’s achieved – picking up industry awards and bucking the national retail trend by being fully occupied – and it’s clearly popular with shoppers.
He said: ‘The outlet model still seems to be very attractive for lots of customers and we are finding that we are not only popular with our local customers but we are getting quite a lot of people visiting from further afield.
‘Obviously we like to think that is not just to us, there also is the dockyard, and other things in Portsmouth, so although we are very confident about what we offer, Portsmouth has got a lot to offer too.
‘There has been a lot of work done over the last 12 months with Portsmouth generally, with Portsmouth City Council and we’ve had underground campaigns that we’ve all been part of it, from what we can see and the feedback we get from our brands, that definitely seems to have been successful.’
The centre has been part of a campaign to advertise on trains, and has seen its adverts appear in carriages and at stations on the London to Portsmouth line. Something that Colin says has proved fruitful.
He said: ‘We had a lot of exposure, and the train company said that their passenger numbers were up coming to Portsmouth Harbour. We don’t know exactly how many people are coming to Portsmouth specifically for the centre, but bring the two together, it’s bound to be working for us too.’
Gunwharf Quays, owned by Landsec, opened on February 28, 2001. It was built on the site of HMS Vernon, which closed in 1995.
It has 90 outlet stores and 30 restaurants, pubs and cafés, selling wares at discounts up to 60 per cent.
The outlet centre model became popular in America in 1980s and it was imported to the UK in the early 90s by Joey Kaempfer, an American construction boss with an MBA from Harvard, who bought the European rights to McArthurGlen and opened the first site in Europe – Cheshire Oaks in the north west of England.
Today there are a wide range of centres across England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. The model still has enormous global appeal, with places such as Bicester Village, an outlet in Oxfordshire, which boasts more than 160 stores, being the second most-visited destination in England by Chinese tourists, second only to Buckingham Palace.
But will British shoppers ever get tired of looking for discounts?
Colin said: ‘People are always looking for ways that they can get more for their money, or get the same for less money, and we continue to offer up to 60 per cent off, and that is very attractive to people.
‘We’ve opened, in the last year, nine new brands. Big name brands like Yankee Candle, Whittard of Chelsea, which came back to us, Kate Spade and Five Guys. We are always keeping the offers fresh. When you come here, there’s always something new, and that’s incredibly important, because when people come to an outlet centre, more than a shopping centre, they’re looking for brands they wouldn’t see so often.
‘When they come to Gunwharf Quays, there are brands they would have to go further afield to normally see in one location.
‘Here, you’ve got all of these brands together, so it’s very convenient. It seems to be working well. This year, we’ve got more plans to bring new offers in.’
Restaurant Cosy Club opens on March 26, the Parade Tea Rooms is opening in May and there are plans for a major overhaul of the Armani shop, and a refresh of nightclub Tiger Tiger. It’s a tight ship at Gunwharf Quays, with all units currently spoken for, an unusual sight for any UK shopping centre.
Restaurants Indian Palace and Watermargin shut down in 2017 – and this big space has been under renovation, with Cosy Club being the first to open on that site, with two more restaurants following later this year.
Colin said: ‘We are trying to make sure that we are getting brands which are a little bit different and that people will be really excited by, as with the retail brands, people look for new, look for fresh, look for different, so we are trying to keep that going through food and beverage as well as retail.’
As well as shopping and restaurants, the centre is one of the only outlets to offer leisure attractions, such as the cinema and bowling, and Colin is keen to out on events to attract more customers.
Earlier this year they held a Secret Sale – where people could pre-register for extra discounts and get Black Friday-esque offers – and a special student shopping event, which proved incredibly popular with hundreds of students descending on to the centre for shopping and music. The centre was also packed out for celebrations to mark the Chinese New Year and for its fireworks night.
There are also plans to host the Portsmouth Seafood Festival in June.
Colin said: ‘It will be our third year of the festival. The history of Portsmouth fishing is incredibly rich. It’s one of the oldest fishing ports in the country, and it seemed interesting to celebrate that. It’s a fun event, but there’s also quite a lot of education there especially for children, in terms of where the fish comes from.’
With shops closing in nearby Commercial Road such as Clarks, Mothercare and U Need Us, there have been some comments that the success of Gunwharf Quays has negatively impacted on the city centre, something that Colin says is not necessarily true.
He said: ‘When people come to an outlet centre, they have a slightly different mindset. What Gunwharf does have, it’s also got the location, it is one of the most pleasant locations on the south coast, but also in the country. On a sunny day, where else can you see a tower and a waterfront with lots going on, the ferries, the warships.
‘Gunwharf Quays has got strong outlet competition, but it’s got the location. Also we have continued to invest, continued the refresh, not just in the brand, but also the environment.
‘We’ve put more landscaping in, we’ve softened the environment, we put new seating in, new lighting in the centre, so come twilight time, it is fully adjustable and we can change the tone, we can change the colour, so we can moonlight it. People can see the constant investment, and that helps people to say “I want to go back there”.’
‘Gunwharf Quays is in a good position, not only has it had investment, but also is in one of the best locations. An outlet centre with bars, restaurants, and clubs, is very unique. It is right in Portsmouth, a very unique overall proposition and we’re all very proud of it.;
Colin says that he sees Gunwharf Quays are being ‘very much part of the city’ – and he’s keen to make it as attractive to locals, as it is to tourists.
He said: ‘We very much see ourselves as part of the city. We contribute very productively to the city, in terms of employment, we created 500 new jobs over the last two and a half years, so there is a lot of overall investment that Gunwharf Quays brings to the city.
‘We work very closely with the council in terms of sustainability, and pollution. We are very much part of the city and work to make Portsmouth one of the places everybody wants to come to.
‘We know Portsmouth has a lot to offer and it is our job is to help the city shout about those great things.’
3,100 people employed on site
92 retail shops
29 bars and restaurants
1,572 car parking spaces
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