Reports of the death of bricks and mortar retail is greatly exaggerated, says Chris Bliss of Momentum Group and former boss of Liverpool ONE, but he adds customers can not be ‘taken for granted’. Tony McDonough reports
Smaller town retail centres across Liverpool city region can still thrive post-pandemic if enough vision, energy and new ideas are applied.
That’s the view of Chris Bliss, director of Liverpool city region property consultancy The Momentum Group. As the former estates director of the £1bn Liverpool ONE retail and leisure development, he understands the dynamics that can drive retail-led regeneration.
“Last year I observed that city centres were in a stronger position to prosper than smaller towns as we emerged from the pandemic,” said Chris. “However, there is still plenty of potential for smaller retail centres to grow. It comes down to how much attention asset managers and owners want to put into it.”
Since the end of the last lockdown in 2021 Liverpool city centre has enjoyed a significant rebound in footfall. This back’s Chris’s view that city centres are in a stronger position. However, there is plenty of positive activity happening in the other city region boroughs.
For example, he was impressed by the change in strategy employed by Southport BID during the festive season. He explained: “Rather than putting everything into one night with a celebrity and a big lights switch-on, they focused on a series of events and attractions to bring people in over the whole period.”
In Knowsley, the council and the Combined Authority are working with developers and retailers to reinvigorate the local retail centres. Big investment has gone into Kirkby town centre while the new Shakespeare North Playhouse is already proving to be a catalyst for the town centre even before it opens in 2022.
“There is still an appetite among many people to shop local and support their local retailers,” added Chris. “But retail centres and asset managers cannot take that custom for granted. You can’t just keep doing the same thing – you have to keep re-inventing and improving your offer. And now, more than ever, places have to be clean, safe and secure.”
Despite the challenges of the pandemic, The Momentum Group has enjoyed a healthy period of growth over the past 12 months. In 2021 it moved into new offices in Temple Square in Liverpool city centre. Headcount has increased by 15 to 35 people with more on the way.
It offers a multi-faceted range of services it claims are hard to find under one roof elsewhere. That includes advisory, construction, property management, and facilities management services. Or, as Chris succinctly puts its… “we advise, build, manage and maintain”.
Chris left his role at Liverpool ONE four years ago but he remains heavily involved with the ongoing development of the complex. Momentum is currently assisting owner Grosvenor with the repurposing of the 185,000 sq ft Debenhams store, which recent reports suggest may house a new leisure attraction.
Elsewhere on the estate, Momentum is involved in stripping out the refitting of the former Disney and Gap stores for new tenants. Outside of Liverpool ONE, in Church Street, they are overseeing the transformation of the former Next store to make space for retailer Decathlon and a new self-storage concept for the upper floors.
It is continuing to support ‘retail delivery’ at the upmarket Metquarter mall in Whitechapel on behalf of owner Queensberry and it is also providing facilities management for the Boudoir Hotel in Seel Street (renamed after launching as Urbanista in 2019).
Over in Manchester Momentum is project-managing and fitting out a new £2.5m ‘urban playground’ concept at Manchester’s Arndale Centre. It is based around the ‘high octane’ game show The Cube, which was a hit on ITV and was presented by Philip Schofield. The ‘world-first’ concept will also include a crazy golf attraction.
“We are pretty busy on most fronts at the moment,” said Chris. “During the lockdowns a lot of the decision-making was put on hold. Investment ground to a halt and nothing was happening. However, there came a point when people were suddenly saying ‘right, now we have to start getting on with stuff’.
“I guess the big question now is how much of the current activity we are seeing is a result of pent-up demand and will we see another dip in activity during 2022? Other parts of what we do are a bit slower. A lot of offices have yet to fully return so securing facilities management contracts is quite slow at the moment.
“In terms of project management it is mostly around the three main clients in Liverpool and Manchester. But those three main clients are providing quite a lot of work. Mellors Group, which is behind the Arndale project, really sees the value of offering the project management and the fit-out together as a package. That is really one of our big strengths.”
And, returning to the theme of local high streets he added: “I think high streets, both in cities and in smaller locations, have been more resilient than some imagined they would be. There is a demand from people to shop local and, with the right offer, that can help high streets recover.
“All the local shops in the village where I live are now fully let. And in our household we have stopped buying our fruit and veg from the supermarket and instead we are using the local farm shop. Stuff may cost a bit more but people are prepared to pay a bit more if you offer them the right experience.”