How Leeds is keeping city centre retail relevant

What is Leeds doing to attract shoppers to its city centre and stay ahead of the curve in a challenging period for the UK high street?

July 18, 2019

As the shift to online shopping continues, Leeds is just one of many cities around the UK seeing first-hand how modern consumer preferences are reshaping its traditional shopping areas.

Today’s shoppers want a mix of leisure, retail and restaurants, cafes and bars – and the challenge for landlords is finding the ideal mix of tenants to create a lively environment which draws people in and encourages them to linger, and of course, spend money.

Nick Ferris, JLL UK director for retail and leisure, says success depends on how quickly city centres can adapt. In Leeds, the focus is on ensuring the city maintains its position as a key destination for both locals from the surrounding areas and visitors from further afield.

The city has attracted almost £1 billion investment in retail and leisure over the last decade, and in 2017, research from retail strategy consultants Javelin Group placed Leeds in third place for shopping in the UK outside London.

“There’s no doubt that Leeds still has the pulling power for shoppers, but these days to be successful, developers need to consider how they make their developments more sustainable in the long-term, by offering a number of uses,” says Ferris.  

Creating a modern experience

Increasingly, it’s about offering a range of entertainment options that are relevant for different age groups. The Light leisure scheme offers a mix of retail along with a cinema and numerous food and beverage outlets, but now also includes indoor golf and an escape room experience. Meanwhile, the Leeds Arena is a major entertainment venue which draws more people into the centre.

Events like a monthly food market bring independent food producers into the centre and the city’s wide selection of bars and restaurants, including The Ivy and El Gato Negro which has announced plans to open at the former Jamie’s Italian, in Park Row, help to maintain the city centre’s buzz after the shops have closed.  

Leeds’ retail scene is also evolving as more big-name brands look to join vibrant, bustling locations. Department store chain John Lewis has opened in Victoria Gate, while Trinity Leeds, a major city centre shopping mall is home to the likes of Apple and M&S, not to mention an array of street food vans in Trinity Kitchen.

And these retailers are increasingly adapting their offering for the digital age. “Today’s shoppers want an immersive experience when they enter a shop – that’s not something they can get online,” says Ferris. “Whether that’s offering click and collect services, adding a café or creating an in-store digital experience that allows shoppers to experience products, it’s all helping to keep shoppers visiting Leeds’s city centre.” 


A place to live, work and socialise

Footfall within retail areas is also set to increase as more people opt to live in the city centre apartments that are planned or under construction. More than 16,500 new homes in high-rise towers – including the tallest residential development in Yorkshire - could reshape the city’s skyline in the coming years.

Developers are increasingly introducing mixed use schemes such as Leeds’s current tallest building Bridgewater Place, which towers 112 metres and offers a mix of office, residential and retail. Other new developments, such as the 106-metre Sky Plaza, are specifically catering for the city’s large student population. 

“We’ll see quite a change in the city centre over the next five years, as more people choose urban living,” says Ferris. “Mixed-use developments, incorporating stylish cafes and retail, will also become more popular.”

One of the big attractions for many of the new residents of the high-rise housing developments is the presence of big brand employers. Channel 4’s decision to move to Leeds and firms like tech unicorn Sky Betting and Gaming provide the creative and digital jobs young professionals seek.

Meanwhile, major Grade A office developments like Wellington Place are providing high-quality mixed-use space that’s bringing employers like HMRC into the centre.

Work is also underway on a £161 million plan to redesign Leeds rail station amid further plans to regenerate the area around the station. And while this is a step in the right direction, more investment is needed to upgrade transport links between Northern cities to improve connectivity and boost visitor numbers, Ferris says.

“To maintain its position as a leading retail destination, Leeds needs to continue to focus on understanding its customers,” he concludes. “Those cities that are in tune with the needs and preferences of shoppers are those that will fare best.”