Keeping it casual

Festival Place centre director Neil Churchill talks F&B trends

The impact of the pandemic on consumer habits has long been anticipated, and now as restrictions ease to their bare minimum across the UK, a fuller understanding of the post-pandemic consumer has begun to manifest.

Boosted by the long-awaited spending splurge set by retailers and shopping centres reopening country-wide, Neil Churchill, centre director of Basingstoke’s popular shopping centre, Festival Place, shares his perspective on why casual dining has become key to the retail experience.

“One of the key trends to emerge post-lockdown has been the growing convergence of shopping and dining,” says Churchill. According to business advisory firm BDO’s sales tracker, high street retail spend is said to have jumped 83.3 per cent from a base of 22.6 per cent for May last year. Shoppers’ spending on eating and drinking increased by 28% in the week 17 May to 23 May compared to the same week in 2019.

Churchill says that the Basingstoke centre has been no exception to this upward trend, and that its town centre location has been essential: “Festival Place has seen large uplifts in its F&B category compared to the same time last year while certain restaurants are seeing uplifts versus the same period in 2019, despite operating under government restrictions for some of this time.”

Over the last few years, Churchill says that creating the best overall visitor experience for guests has become key: “Visitors are not coming to just shop anymore but, rather, are seeking an experience that caters for both shopping and eating out. This means that retail destinations are increasingly required to deliver an offer in line with both the retail and F&B needs of consumers.”

This demand acted as the catalyst for a boom in casual dining chains during the first two decades of this century, which is now giving way to a mix that also includes more localised, independent brands. Festival Place was ahead of the game, having launched its street food offer at Festival Square back in 2002 before enhancing it in 2018-2019, now offering a roster of changing vendors – some of them being independent brands – catering for the needs of shoppers and local workers alike.

Since the beginning of the pandemic, Churchill says that the centre made the strategic move to grow its grab-and-go and casual dining offers. The space now includes national operators alongside local brands such as Asian street food operator Chi, which has been trading well since opening in Feb 2020 and has just increased its footprint by 50%. Others, including Spicy Tadka and Kokoro, are, he says, proving popular with visitors who are taking advantage of this convenient and affordable food offer.

Churchill adds: “We see the evolution of our F&B offer as key not only to help ensure the success of Festival Place in the future but also for potential further expansion. One thing we can say for certain is that the retail landscape will keep changing – so adapting to the evolution of our guests’ needs is more than ever paramount.”

This was first published in Retail Destination Fortnightly. Click here to subscribe.

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