‘We’ve proved the doubters wrong:’ Boss of Norwich’s Castle Quarter reveals footfall up by 10%

PUBLISHED: 06:00 30 January 2020 | UPDATED: 13:33 30 January 2020

Robert Bradley, general manager at Castle Quarter. Pic: Archant

Robert Bradley, general manager at Castle Quarter. Pic: Archant

The man who set out to turn around the fortunes of Castle Quarter is reaping early rewards.

Castle Quarter. Pic: ArchantCastle Quarter. Pic: Archant

Robert Bradley, general manager, revealed excellent results in footfall and sales which buck the national trend.

He said the number of visitors to Castle Quarter was up by 10% year-on-year, while sales last week - often a lull after Christmas - in the Norwich venue were 9.2% up compared with last year and the car park, one of its biggest sources of revenue, showed the number of vehicles coming in up by 7.2%.

These results starkly contrast with the national, bleak picture for shopping centres with the number of visitors down across other sites by as much as 0.8%.

The news is welcome, as a year ago Mr Bradley launched his strategy for Castle Quarter for 2019. He introduced huge changes including a name change, rebranding it from Castle Mall, and faced a backlash from many members of the public who thought the venue was finished.

Robert Bradley, at Castle Quarter. Pic: ArchantRobert Bradley, at Castle Quarter. Pic: Archant

And the growth is set to continue as he hinted that a large leisure operator is about to go into the space formerly occupied by the post office as well as two more retailers taking up other units. Mr Bradley's big ambition is also to introduce an art gallery into the venue.

However, last year, with some retailers pulling out of units and a general malaise on the high street, Mr Bradley said he had to remain tight-lipped even when he knew the shopping centre was on the up.

Some of the big developments such as Superbowl UK and Pure Gym signing up could not be divulged at the time and he also had to move existing retailers such as Poundland to make space, causing some people to think more closures were taking place.

"It was incredibly frustrating," he said. "But we've proved the doubters wrong. Sometimes you have to do things before people believe them.

Robert Bradley, Castle Quarter. Pic: ArchantRobert Bradley, Castle Quarter. Pic: Archant

"When I said we'd get Superbowl in, people laughed. But look how we've reinvented a shopping centre - the nature of shopping has changed. We needed to get people in - so we gave them a reason; leisure and started showing them they could have fun here. In January people aren't spending as much in the shops but people are coming for leisure."

Mr Bradley has believed in filling the units even if it meant negotiating on rent, and spearheaded the provision of seating areas and free activities such as ping pong at the expense of Castle Quarter, which still has to pay business rates on the units.

He has also encouraged charity businesses to take space - such as the YMCA which opened a large retail outlet on the ground floor and social enterprises such as New U, whereby clothes are bought and sold using tokens.

He has also tried to give new businesses a great start by offering pop-up space in the venue with the Made in Norwich stand offered to vendors on a rota basis.

Castle Quarter. Pic: ArchantCastle Quarter. Pic: Archant

"I can't rest on my laurels. Things are changing all the time. We have to react to the world but our January figures are through the roof. I haven't always had a reason to be upbeat and happy but I am right now."

Mr Bradley was operations manager at the former Castle Mall from 2003-12 and then returned as general manager in 2017 while also still working at a centre in Liverpool.

He remembers sitting in BB's coffee shop, over near where Pure Gym is now situated, and observing the lack of footfall.

He said: "The owners of Castle Quarter, a property investment firm, wanted me to be sure I wanted to come back to work here. I sat in BB's and watched what was going on. I knew we needed to reinvent it. The area near to BB's was the problem area, we needed something to anchor it. Our dream was a big leisure operator like Superbowl and we got it.

Castle Quarter. Pic: ArchantCastle Quarter. Pic: Archant

"Our research showed people wanted leisure, a gym and the results just released have validated this. People said they wanted to be part of a community and wanted independent retailers. People didn't want us to be a clone of another shopping centre, we needed our own identity. I think what we've got is pretty unique, I haven't seen another shopping centre with this kind of retail and leisure all under one roof."

While Mr Bradley did not want to criticise other venues, he said too many landlords were not prepared to take risks and to accept tenants for lower rent - instead keeping units empty, which he did not agree with.

"Landlords, particularly when it's a firm which has an asset and doesn't deal with it day to day are less prepared to take a risk, less ready to change but you have to be flexible. So it's about being strategic - we try and place food and drink outlets near to our leisure activities so people spend money in Castle Quarter and stay longer here.

"I've introduced the four quarters; Shop, Dine, Watch, Play and I'm just wondering if I can add another," he said.

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