Malls make merry in the days before Christmas Paul Rodgers finds that choice and easy access are shifting shoppers from the h igh street into out-of-town retailers by the busload

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The Independent Online
A FLEET of powder blue, double-decker buses ferries Christmas shoppers, each with a long present list and a wallet stuffed with credit cards and cash, from the coach park to the Lakeside regional mall in Thurrock, east of London. One coach drove d own from Stevenage, another came all the way from Leeds. Sometimes tours come from even further afield.

All the passengers, except possibly for a group of visiting Russian businessmen, have high streets nearer home. But the lure of the mall is proving more powerful than local loyalties. This yule-tide is demonstrating that there has been a shift in Britishshopping habits over the past three years - from town centre to greenfield mall.

Last year, London's Oxford Street was the country's busiest trading location, measured by turnover. This year it ranks fourth behind Meadowhall in Sheffield, Metro Centre in Gateshead and Merry Hill in Dudley, according to a survey by DTZ Debenham Thorpe, a marketing consultant. The overall picture for Christmas sales is gloomy - but the giant shopping centres are shining bright in the darkness.

"The malls have come of age over the last couple of years, and particularly at Christmas,'' said Clive Vaughan, a retail consultant with Verdict Research, a leading independent analyst. "It was no surprise to learn that the doors at Meadowhall in Sheffield have been torn off their hinges by the crush of people."

At Lakeside the press is not yet so great. The mall rates 10th nationally, but that still means 100,000 customers pass through the doors on a Saturday, each with an average £100 to spend -- leaving behind a staggering £10m in a single day.

Paul Keenan, a spokesman for Metro Centre, said sales were up 15 per cent this year. "Usually in December, we see a dip in sales but this year we've had one record week after another,'' he said. Eighty per cent of the chain stores represented in the mallsay the location is among the top five in the country. Four of John Lewis's top six stores are in shopping centres.

The only things more surprising than the number of visitors are the distances some of them have travelled. "We're getting coaches from South Wales, Devon and the Midlands," said Heather Davis, a spokeswoman for Lakeside. "We can prove that from the addresses that people give when they enter our competitions."

Metro Centre can claim an even larger catchment area. Color Line, which runs a 48-hour round-trip ferry service from Bergen in Norway to Tyneside, has bought larger ships to accommodate an increase in traffic, 80 per cent of which is going to the Newcastle area to shop. Half of those are heading for the mall. In a variation on coals to Newcastle, some even return to the tree-lined fjords clutching artificial Christmas trees.

While shopping-centre operators and their tenants are gleefully raking in the seasonal dosh this Christmas, they have done so at the expense of the high street. The malls, which concentrate on durables rather than food, are doing to clothing and other retailers what edge-of-town supermarkets and DIY superstores did to corner grocers and ironmongers.

Some high streets that face new competition from regional malls, notably in Newcastle, have survived for now, but others are not doing so well. "The high street in Dudley shows significant signs of deterioration," DTZ said.

Even people who have personally suffered from the edge-of-town shopping centres are seduced by the abundance of choice, the ease of parking and the comfort of not having to brave the elements as they dash from Boots to BHS.

Norlean Wright, 42, used to run the North Street cafe in Sudbury, Suffolk. But the town centre is slowly dying. "A lot of the shops in the high street were closing down and people were going to Tesco,'' she said. North Street closed, too. But Mrs Wright,sipping a coffee in one of Lakeside's 18 restaurants and cafes (not counting the food court), shrugged and said she bears no grudge. "It's my second trip here this year. It's the Christmas decorations and all the atmosphere I like."

Other Lakeside shoppers were more embarrassed about their desertion of high-street merchants. Peter Edwards and his wife Susan travelled 35 miles from Maidstone to do about a tenth of their Christmas shopping in the mall. "I'm a great believer in supporting the high street," said Mr Edwards with a sheepish grin. ``I believe in what [Environment Secretary John] Gummer has done -- saying there will be no more edge-of-town shopping centres."

He should. Mr Edwards owns the Maidstone Star, a free newspaper that relies on advertising from local businesses for its existence. Mrs Edwards also has a vested interest in high-street prosperity; she's an estate agent. Decaying town centres do nothing for property values, and the couple are hoping a planned town centre mall will revitalise Maidstone.

Mr Gummer's announcement of a moratorium on greenfield development, combined with the cut in money for road building in Chancellor Kenneth Clarke's latest Budget, signal an abrupt about-turn by the Government. But the Conservatives, more than any other party, realise that shoppers vote with their feet. And shopping-centre operators say it is clear they are choosing the convenience of malls over the hassles of the high street. Facing that kind of pressure, the Government will have a hard time resisting for long.

"Shopping centres offer customers free parking, a wide range of shops, protection from the weather and a crime-free environment," Mr Vaughan said. "It's an ideal combination for a family day out."

Surprisingly, in a straw poll of shoppers at Lakeside last week no one mentioned the weather outside, possibly because it has been such a mild winter. Prices were not a concern either, as most customers said they were comparable to those on the high street.

The most common reason for visiting the centre was the huge variety it offered. The mall boasts 14 department stores, from Argos to Woolworths, eight furniture shops, five record and video outlets, 15 shoe stores and no less than 32 women's fashion shops.

"I spend more when I come here because I see more that I like," said Sharon Brown, a housewife from Gravesend. Russell Beswick, a property developer from Hastings who planned to spend £700, had a similar view. "We come up here once a year to do all our Christmas shopping. You can buy anything here."

A second big factor is transport. While driving to the high street can be a nightmare of traffic jams and futile searches for often expensive parking spaces, malls provide acres of free stalls.

"There is no doubt that free parking is a big draw," said Eileen Connolly, a consultant with Donaldsons. The largest shopping-centre manager in Britain, it has 50 malls around the country, including Brent Cross in north London. "By contrast, town centre s were designed for the era of the horse and carriage."

There is still a glimmer of hope for the high street. Some chains, notably Laura Ashley, said they had noticed little difference in performance between the two types of location.

Retailers in town centres can also take comfort in the fact that despite the lack of a "feel good" factor, sales in general seem likely to rise this year.

The Confederation of British Industry said that wholesale and retail companies "remain optimistic about the business situation over the next three months" and retailers "expect sales to pick up in December". Father Christmas may not have forgotten them after all.

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