Published: 12:00, 14 March 2021
| Updated: 09:12, 15 March 2021
It's perhaps fitting the two biggest shopping complex developments in the South East are built on the site of former chalk quarries; out with the old industries which once supported the nation's economy and in with the new.
But has Covid accelerated another consumer change which could undermine the likes of giants Bluewater and Lakeside? And, for that matter, threaten many other out-of-town retail hubs around the county?
Few would argue the creation of Lakeside, which opened just over the Dartford Crossing in 1990 and Bluewater, which welcomed shoppers nine years later in Greenhithe, were not shrewd moves.
After all, they transformed the shopping experience for many; delivering a slice of American-style consumerism which embraced a wide demographic.
Huge indoor complexes with broad boulevards and shops of all shapes and sizes; food halls which served up cuisine from around the world; and multiplex cinemas to add hours to your experience.
They transformed a trip to the shops into a destination attraction - a genuine day out.
By the time you factored in ample free parking and it's little wonder they became such a honey pot.
But with progress comes sacrifice - neighbouring town centres were hit hard, at first at least, while our high streets struggled to provide an offer suitable to compete against such revenue-generating behemoths.
Yet, like fashion trends, the way we shop comes and goes and there is a sense now that Covid has accelerated that rate of change. Factor in a huge surge in online shopping - particularly from those who had been nervous about doing so before - and there's plenty of evidence to suggest there could be major changes ahead.
So, in an era where our priorities have shifted, and a fear of large crowds has been fostered, are we about to turn our backs on what were once our retail temples?
"Having the shops open is one thing," says Jo James, chief executive of the Kent Invicta Chamber of Commerce, of the impending reopening under the government's roadmap out of lockdown, "but having the consumer confidence for us all to return in the numbers we were pre-Covid, is another.
"Everyone's anxiety levels are completely different when it comes to Covid. You will get those who cannot wait to get out there, but there will be a percentage of the population who would have gone to Bluewater before who are actually quite anxious and will hold off going there."
And she highlights the threat to traditional retail centres posed by e-commerce.
"It's the way society is moving," she adds. "We're very much a 'I want it and I want it now' consumer. Everything is instant and that's reflected in our online shopping habits. Gone are the days we go online and expect to get it within a week. I'm ordering in the morning and if I can't have it by tomorrow I won't shop there - that's the approach we're taking."
Which while allowing traditional bricks and mortar stores the chance to capitalise when they reopen, the fact we don't have to leave our house to get what we want quickly - as we have all discovered - may be a sign of things to come.
It's a concern shared by the British Retail Consortium. In a report published this week it revealed 60.6% of all UK retail sales took place online during February - up from 30.8% during the same month last year. While few would bet against that reducing when stores reopen, the record share of retail sales would suggest many more will keep buying online. And any percentage decline on the numbers heading to stores will potentially have a significant impact.
Helen Dickinson, its chief executive, explains: "Many retailers are concerned about the months ahead. Many retail businesses will be hoping that customers will return to shops and have spent hundreds of millions on making their premises Covid-secure, but previous reopenings have shown that demand can be slow to come back. Government has a vital role to play in building up consumer confidence across the country to power the spending-led recovery.”
Jo James agrees that the next 12 months will be crucial for non-essential stores who have managed to survive three national lockdowns courtesy of the life-support offered by the government in terms of packages such as furlough, grants and loans.
"Everyone knows retail has struggled over the last 12 months. The likes of Bluewater will always be there all the while there are viable shops to go within it.
"It's over the next year we will see how they cope and if they could get out of the problems they currently face. It's the next year where we'll see the impact, when all the support isn't there. That's the biggest threat to it and the continued move to online.
"All these big retail centres are only as good as the tenants they have. We've seen so many store closures and these big sites rely on their anchor stores. And when you start losing the likes of Debenhams and BHS and all the others that have gone, the draw gets less and less.
"That's why over the next year the survival of the likes of Bluewater, Lakeside and other out-of-town shopping centres very much relies on what happens to the individual brands that are in there."
Paul Cannons, a senior investment manager at the Tunbridge Wells office of wealth management specialists Brewin Dolphin, agrees the big venues could face an existential threat.
“The problems at Arcadia Group (the collapsed company which used to own the likes of Topshop, Dorothy Perkins and Burton amongst others), Debenhams and much of the retail sector largely pre-dates the pandemic, which has simply accelerated the shift towards a more digital world.
“Indeed, the unparalleled growth of e-commerce will likely present an ongoing challenge to the high street as well as to destination malls that were designed to attract a large number of people for shopping, eating and entertaining. The pandemic has intensified this trend."
All of which sounds rather gloomy for the big centres we have come to rely on and which many are so desperate to return to. But, as with everything during this pandemic, evolving to keep up with the consumer changes is going to be key.
Adds Paul Cannons: "We think some of the best placed malls will continue to thrive, but they need adaptation for a more discerning public.
"In addition to chain stores, there could also be a development of independent brands and places to socialise and work - for example, more people working from home could decide to spend a day at the mall working and shopping - and this could foster local communities.
"Whilst many stores could close, either disappearing completely or moving online, others could thrive if they successfully adapt to a changed world and consumer.”
Jo James of the Kent Invicta Chamber, which represents businesses across the county, believes the threat may not be imminent, but in the same way we migrated from traditional high streets to the likes of Bluewater, that shift in what we demand may have already set change in motion.
"There will always be a place for those types of shopping destinations," she says. "The likes of the Designer Outlet, for example, in Ashford and Westwood Cross in Thanet were always busy. It depends on what your offer is.
"What we have seen during Covid is that people have got used to doing other activities as families so whether there will be that big draw to spend a day shopping remains to be seen.
"Some will just revert back, but others have seen the benefits mentally and physically of doing other things.
"It's like the way, during lockdown, wives have cut their husbands' hair because all the barbers are shut. Will everyone go back when they open? Some will, but plenty won't and that's what we're likely to see with shopping."
Non-essential stores are currently scheduled to reopen on April 12 - as outlined by Prime Minister Boris Johnson - but only if there is no significant rise in infection rates.