It’s Thursday afternoon, and the delivery guy is unloading a handful of boxes destined for TM Lewin, the fancy shirt suppliers at the Met Quarter.
“We never deliver much here,” he tells Sevenstreets, “our policy is only to deliver when the existing stock has been sold. So, basically, we’re only delivering a handful of new lines every week.”
The result? TM Lewin in the Met Quarter doesn’t get the sharp new designs – the latest must have colour combinations for sharp-dressed city slickers – until last season’s stock has, eventually, slunk off the shelves. Hardly ideal for a destination which prides itself on its fashion credentials.
“The Trafford Centre does such good business that they’re always getting the new ranges in first,” he says, adding: “It’s dead here.”
Talk of death might be exaggerated but, front of house, the Met Quarter’s certainly looking peaky. With every new closure, the fashion mall looks ever more gap-toothed and becomes less of a destination, and more a cut-through from Victoria Street to Liverpool One. We’ve just counted nine empty stores. And, roughly, 19 shoppers.
They’ve a name for this in retail circles. The Met Quarter is fast becoming a Ghost Box.
And how long do we give Flannels, now that it’s opened up in Liverpool One? Will it, like Kirsty Doyle before it, simply accept that this town ain’t big enough for two branches?
Even on payday weekends, the central avenue of the Met Quarter is hushed, calm and crowd-free, when it should be bustling and animated. And plenty have tried to make it so.
Mark Paddock attempted to add some life into the proceedings with his Smoothie Express bar. “It just wasn’t worth it,” he says, “they wanted £25,000 a year in rent, and there was no way that anyone could recoup that. There just wasn’t the footfall. Some mornings you’d be lucky if you saw more than a handful of people.”
The site, rising from the shell of the city’s old Central Post Office, was opened in 2006 after half a century’s neglect and dithering – the Walton Group sitting on the rubble until Milligan bought it in 2004. Milligan had previous, dubious, experience in creating loftily ambitious ‘designer’ malls. Opening The Triangle in Manchester’s spruce new post-bomb development, they presided over a retail black-hole aimed at ‘Manchester’s Urban Achievers’ (you can see those deathly demographic profiler Powerpoints flashing in your head, can’t you?)
The Triangle bombed. It’s now owned by The Morley Fund, who tell us “It’s become the centre of fashion, culture and leisure for the young.”
It hasn’t. It’s a space scrabbling for a soul.
Milligan have bailed out of the Met Quarter too. Today it’s owned by Anglo Irish Bank Private Banking and Alanis Capital.
So why don’t we visit this £100million pound addition to the city’s retail offering. And what can we do to save it? Because, despite the fact that Samsonite’s gone, we still want the Met Quarter to succeed. We couldn’t live without our Molton Brown, and Paperchase usually comes up with the goods. So let’s see if we can’t turn this thing around, eh?
1) Raise The Roof
Pity the Met Quarter – it spent most of the money on erecting a new ceiling for the roofless shell, just when everyone else realised that Mall 2.0 was resolutely roof free. Take Liverpool One – its South John Street and Paradise Street developements are proudly open to the elements. Add a roof – and, crucially, a door – and the mall becomes closed off: somewhere you visit for a need, rather than to stroll through and browse. Lift the roof off the Met Quarter and watch the footfall flow back. Unless it’s raining, of course.
At the corner of Third Street and Fairfax Boulevard in Los Angeles, The Grove shopping centre is, to all intents and purposes, a mall. But it – like Liverpool One – is open to the elements. The plants are real, the air is fresh, and the accent is on ‘leisure’, not just ‘retail’. It opened in 2002 and revolutionised the retail landscape – plenty of time for Milligan, if they’d have done their research, to follow the acknowledged shopping capital of the world, and see the way the wind was blowing.
This year, every new shopping centre built in the USA will be roofless. Even in decidedly chilly Massachusetts – so don’t talk to us about Liverpool’s temperamental climate. If we’re hard enough to shop in our PJ’s and rollers, we can handle a little drizzle, thanks.
The Met Quarter PR Machine made a big noise, when it opened, about having ‘the world’s largest sculpture’ on its ceiling. In reality, it’s just a fancy light fitting – but it might well be a candidate for the world’s biggest retail mistake.
2) Ditch the Demographics
Why do we continue with the illusion that, to be successful, you need to pitch at the Urban Achievers? The Marketing Department’s wet dream: the young, affluent, stylish and totally illusory. The further down Niche Avenue you go, the less likely you are to stand a chance in this city (see also Champu – Herbert’s Champagne Bar). London’s Neil’s Yard area is a brilliant example of how top end fashions, funky independents, snack shops and pop-up boutiques can mix and mingle, and attract shoppers of every hue. Not just orange. Sure, you can focus on the fabled A’s and B’s in London or Tokyo, but, back in the real world, we’ll mix our Armani Exchange with our Primark – so why fear jumbling up the retail offer a bit? Has the Met Quarter been too selective in its mix?
3) Join The Dots
For all Liverpool BID’s campaign to ensure the smooth transition between Liverpool One and the city’s old shopping core, there’s a definite feeling, as you walk away from Liverpool One towards the Met Quarter, you’re leaving Paradise (Street) behind. It’s not just the temporary gadget shops, or the crap busker statues dressed in soiled sheeting. It’s the smell. Nowhere in the city smells worse than the drains of Whitehall Whitechapel. Yes, we know that’s where the ancient ‘pool’ of Liverpool once flowed. But, really, we can do without the history lesson. Have a coffee outside Fratellis on a particularly pungent day and you can practically taste the effluent. We don’t know what BID’s plans are. But we’d suggest this 100 metre stretch is the biggest gap in the city (and that’s even since Gap moved out) – and needs urgent attention.
4) Add some Fun
Since when did shopping have to be so serious anyway? For the Met Quarter to really seize the initiative (and assuming the roof stays) it should look to Sweden. Here, malls really are ‘mixed leisure’ – they even welcome Mall Rats, with skateparks and graffiti walls. At Gallerian, the city’s newest mall, there’s a huge spa – Allexon’s (http://www.axelsonsspa.se/) where stressed Swedes can strip, sauna and stretch out while a fierce Nordic athlete pummels their muscles. When Flannels goes, we say add a day spa – and keep it open at night, too. The Met Quarter is, belatedly, trying, with a fussball contest taking place over the World Cup – but is this taking place in extra time?
5) More Food, Please
Yes, we were gutted when that renowned culinary aesthete, Natasha Hamilton, closed her not-in-any-way-egotistical Hamilton’s coffee shop. But all the best malls have food. And, save for a chocolate twist at Costa Coffee, the Met Quarter’s hardly a gastronomic hotspot. Yeah, we know, to fit into the stuff at Armani Exchange you’re gonna have to cut out carbs for a year. But for the rest of us, what’s wrong with a little light refreshement? What about a wine bar? A deli? A sushi bar – anything that adds to the sociability of the place. Heck, we’d even be happy with another chain restaurant. We hear Raymond Blanc is still looking for a home in the city: I bet he could take on Cafe Rouge and come up smelling of tart tatin.
To succeed, the Met Quarter needs to work hard to become a destination in its own right – and to offer something more. Whether it becomes a mixed leisure venue, or appeals more to thrifty shoppers, something better change.
Loyal tenants will only renew their leases for so long. The key to survival is a stark choice. Change or die.