Meadowhall set to cap pandemic bounce back by filling former Debenhams

Meadowhall boss Darren Pearce is ’90 per cent’ confident of signing occupiers for his two biggest empty units.

Saturday, 12th February 2022, 12:01 am

If confirmed, they would cap the mega-mall’s comeback from Covid and prove that after 27 years he is still the right man for the job.

The centre was not immune to the closures that swept retail in the pandemic, losing a huge Debenhams, Topshop and Miss Selfridge.

But it can point to 25 new shops last year, with six more to come by May.

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Meadowhall has 200 cameras, three CCTV operatives and a manager, and 59 security staff. Picture Scott Merrylees

HOW MANY STORES ARE VACANT AT MEADOWHALL?

Of 280 units, just 12 are vacant, not so much bucking the trend as leaving it for dead. And footfall in January was back up to 2019 levels.

While few, if any, places have been able to find a retailer to take over former department stores, Darren is excited about filling his, and with, potentially, a multi-million pound fit-out to boot.

But who is big enough to take that huge space?

Meadowhall centre director Darren Pearce. Picture Scott Merrylees

Darren is saying nothing, but when asked whether it is John Lewis, he points out the company has been closing stores across the country including, very painfully, in Sheffield city centre.

He said: “As with any large space it is something we had to focus on.”

A master of making things sound easy, the pressure to fill those yawning gaps must have been intense. Despite the cuddly image, Meadowhall has one purpose - to make lots of money.

Meadowhall’s popularity is due to free parking and undercover malls. Darren says it’s also about security, cleanliness and a welcome. Picture Scott Merrylees

He said: “Clearly, the overall objective is to manage the estate to fulfill the objectives of investors.”

Retailers, many of them part of huge organisations themselves, his own staff and shoppers in their thousands are all encouraged to comment on his performance in regular, anonymous surveys.

The day The Star visits he’s had a phone call with the chief executive of British Land, Meadowhall’s co-owner. Representatives of the other co-owner, Norges Bank Investment Management, are always popping in to check on their asset.

He said: “I get assessed on occupier engagement that rates the centre and management. There’s also a team survey and customer surveys are independently analysed.”

In January, footfall was back up to 2019 levels, Meadowhall says. Picture Scott Merrylees

For the first two he reckons he’s on eight-and-a-half out of 10, for the last one its more like A** he jokes.

So what are the grumbles?

“Communication. People always want to know more than they think they have been told. And pay and benefits.”

Meadowhall’s bounce back means shops are hiring and it’s his job to find people.

The centre has competition from rivals like IKEA and Amazon, all vying to offer the best package to meet their need for staff.

Famously, Meadowhall’s popularity is due to free parking and undercover malls. Darren says it’s also about security, cleanliness and a welcome.

Women’s fashion brand, Vanilla, has just launched its largest store in the UK at Meadowhall.

HOW MANY CCTV CAMERAS ARE THERE AT MEADOWHALL?

That means 200 CCTV cameras, three CCTV operatives and a manager, and 59 security staff.

There are also four police officers and a sergeant on site, paid for by the centre to the tune of a third of a million pounds a year. There is also a ‘police facility’ in the red car park, he reveals.

A code of conduct is pinned up near every entrance which bans things like photography and bike riding although curiously not begging. But, like sleeping bags, you will never see it here.

Speaking in the control room as a camera tracks two youths, he says: “Everyone is welcome. We view everyone as a positive visitor.

“But this is private property and as a consequence we can request that people are no longer here and we can remove them using reasonable force. If needed, the police respond immediately.”

Those cameras extend out to the staff car park which also has a security lodge manned 24-hours-a-day.

With somewhere of this size there are people on site all the time including security, cleaners and store ‘replenishment’ teams.

The malls have doors that are closed at night but music is played to boost wellbeing, Darren says.

All that came to the fore in the pandemic when Meadowhall found itself on the front line of enforcement.

WHY WAS THE FIRST CHRISTMAS OF THE PANDEMIC SO TOUGH?

The first Christmas in 2020 was the worst. After two lockdowns and some easing, the rules had been tightened again.

Darren added: “The first Christmas was the most challenging time, especially around mask compliance. There were also restrictions on takeaway food and if someone was eating an ice cream on a bench we had to ask them to stop or remove them.”

December 2021, when ‘Plan B’ measures came in was completely different.

“We had a really positive Christmas,” he adds.

After surviving that, and with Meadowhall about to make hay, don’t expect him to go anywhere soon. And all those people who expect something?

He says: “It’s the diversity has kept me here all these years.”

WHICH RETAILER HAS JUST OPENED?

• Women’s fashion brand, Vanilla, has just launched its largest store in the UK at Meadowhall.

After starting out exclusively online, the new unit is the fourth to open in the UK since July last year – with others in Bluewater, Lakeside and Watford.

Michelle Burns, head of retail stores at Vanilla, said: "We have been very selective when searching for the ideal location to set up our northern flagship store and Meadowhall – with its strong location, big brands and experiential offering – is the perfect destination for us.”

Darren Pearce, centre director at Meadowhall, said: “Vanilla is a brand that has gone from strength-to-strength, and we’re over the moon that it has chosen Meadowhall for its biggest UK store.

“It’s the first in a range of new openings over the coming months and into spring, and we’re sure it will be really popular with our shoppers.”

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