Neighbourhood centres: the quiet achievers and why getting the layout right is critical to a centre’s success

Sean Byrne, ThomsonAdsett Group Director of Retail

As many of us were told en masse to stay close to home, with restrictions meaning some could only visit shops within a 5km radius from their residence, neighbourhood shopping centres have shown themselves to be both central to their communities and remarkably resilient.

This has a number of implications around design for new and re-developed shopping centres allowing them to offer consumers what they want, expect and need in a post-COVID world.

Online shopping is not the competition

Despite what many may believe is a contraction in consumer sentiment, the Australian Bureau of Statistics Retail Trade Figures reveal retail turnover across Australia increased by 3.2% in July 2020, up from a 2.7% increase in June.

Online retail shopping accounted for 9.7% (ABS) of total sales in July, falling from the April 2020 peak of 11.3% – though still higher than pre-COVID levels.

This suggests the fear among retailers that consumers would completely stop coming to local shopping centres has been ill-founded and that the real competition is likely to be other shopping centres.

The key to securing the custom of discerning shoppers will not necessarily mean building bigger and better shopping centres but may well rest in the design principles used.

The average neighbourhood shopping centre

Typical neighbourhood shopping centres tend to be uncomplicated, single-level affairs with easy access points, simple car parks and a range of retail offerings, anchored by at least one full-line supermarket with basic food and beverage to satisfy the weekly shop. It may also include medical services, personal services and specialty shops.

At last count, there were more than 1,100 neighbourhood shopping centres in Australia, and they are the backbone of non-discretionary retail sales.

Newer neighbourhood centres in fringe suburban areas generally follow traditional development patterns, often with some additional uses such as gyms and childcare.

However, there is scope to broaden what is offered and use this challenging time to learn and adapt.

While designers often don’t have a say over a site chosen to locate a neighbourhood shopping centre, they can focus on making them easy to navigate and employ sustainable practices where possible, fit in with their communities and provide a high level of customer comfort.

Adapting to the changes

With everyone now much more cognisant of the importance of hygiene, high quality amenities are expected from baby change rooms to bathrooms. Similarly, consumers now expect new builds to be done in an environmentally safe and sustainable way from the use of solar panels and other energy saving methods.

A great example of how this can be done is found at Brisbane’s Ripley Town Centre where solar panels over the car park provide weather protection as well as generate 75 per cent of the centre’s electricity requirements.   An energy monitoring system records energy and water consumption, and waste recycling is used throughout the centre.

Consumers also expect intuitive parking, good sightlines to shops, weather protected routes from carparks to the retailers, and mixed uses such as gyms and children’s playgrounds.

While the average shopper is unlikely to spend much time pondering what has gone into the design of a shopping centre, they will quickly become former consumers at any shopping centre they consider to be too complicated or inconvenient.

One hard to navigate carpark could lose a centre a considerable number of potential consumers.

The most successful shopping centres are those which are best thought-out and cater for everyone from teenagers to young parents to older professionals and senior citizens.

Depending on the demographic of a neighbourhood, a new or redeveloped shopping centre may need to include improved accessibility or places to rest and sit for seniors or playgrounds and easy access to baby change rooms.

While people are choosing to stay closer to home to shop and play, it is not a given that they will visit their closest local centre to fulfil these needs.  If the design is outdated, the centre does not accommodate their needs and does not offer the shopping experience they are seeking they will look elsewhere.

Clever design which reflects the needs of a community addresses this and should be a starting point for development.