Published: 12:01, 16 March 2014
Today marks the 15th anniversary since Bluewater first welcomed shoppers.
Many things have changed since - but it will never have a Poundland.
General manager Robert Goodman has put the shopping centre’s past success down to “evolution and innovation”, but is very clear on which end of the market he is targeting.
The store sits in an affluent catchment area of 6.5m people, with an estimated spending power of £13bn.
“We are looking at wealthy executives, mature money, career climbers – people attracted to brands,” said Robert.
“The value end of the market is doing very well but we know from the new shops that have opened – like Mont Blanc and Mappin and Webb – there is demand from those kind of brands for space at Bluewater.
“That’s the direction we want to go. Very much around the quality retail experience.”
Last year, 37 new brands opened stores at Bluewater, with another 25 undergoing store redesigns.
That equates to 180,000sqft of change in the last year, which is about 10% of the centre’s floor area.
Having gone through a recession, seeing shops close and new ones taking their place has been a common sight in recent years.
Yet the process is actively encouraged by Robert, who considers himself to have the top retail job in the UK. The centre went into Christmas nearly 100% let and the vacancy rate is now about 2%.
He said: “There is always churn. You always see leases coming to an end.
“Some of those refitted stores have relocated. We try to ensure we have vibrancy and new brands coming in.
“The nature of the retail environment is there is always change.
“Keeping Bluewater vibrant is really important.”
Impending openings from Victoria’s Secret and Adidas will continue that change, which has also seen the opening of the 52,000sqft Glow exhibition space and the growth of the Plaza nearby, with 12 restaurants.
The site has added free wifi for customers in a partnership with O2, linking into their offers, which has received 500,000 registrations so far.
Robert said: “What we are talking about now is being ‘surprising and memorable’. It’s about visitors having a great day out.
“We talk about our customers as guests and the team’s thinking is around hosting.
“We have moved that on with the introduction of daymakers, inspired by the Olympics.
“The idea of hosts surprising guests with treats, maybe an offer, just adds to the whole Bluewater proposition.”
Yet the change has not been without controversy.
Gravesham council contested a decision by their counterparts in Dartford to grant outline planning permission for a 329,000sqft extension of the West Village, adding 20% to the shopping centre’s floor area.
The permission was upheld by Parliament, throwing into doubt the viability of plans to rejuvenate Gravesend town centre.
Robert argues Bluewater mitigates that impact with employment.
“We are looking at wealthy executives, mature money, career climbers – people attracted to brands” - Robert Goodman
Since opening, the Learning Shop – a partnership with North West Kent College and Job Centre Plus – has helped 40,000 people find jobs, trained 20,000 and awarded more than 17,000 qualifications.
That should rise as more housing is built in the Ebbsfleet Valley, highlighted as a key driver for economic growth in the Thames Gateway in a report published last month by former transport secretary Lord Adonis.
Coupled with the proposals to build the Paramount theme park project on the Swanscombe Peninsula, it strengthened the case for the West Village extension plans.
Robert said: “The housing development will clearly have a positive impact on Bluewater and justifies us extending.
“What’s happening around Ebbsfleet and Paramount is very exciting. I cannot see it being anything other than upside for us.”