In a nod to suburban sprawl, town centres are springing up on the Auckland’s outskirts, creating self-sufficient communities with little need for their inhabitants to travel far from home for work or leisure. These new developments are bringing the town to the people, rather than pulling the people to the town.
As Auckland finds its feet as a ‘super’ city and comes to grips with the unity plan, massive changes are taking place in the region. New Zealand’s latest contemporary shopping centre, NorthWest, is in one of Auckland’s fastest growing areas and until now, planners have found it impossible to keep up with retail demands.
The mall seeks to be so much more than just a shopping venue – it’s connected to the $1 billion North West Transformation Project, which includes the Westgate Town Centre. By providing a pivotal place to interact, collaborate, and mingle, the NorthWest Shopping Centre has set out to infuse its retail offerings with a sense of suburban togetherness.
This ambition harks back to the first shopping malls in the US in the 1950s. These early malls were developed with the intention of creating environments that were more than just rows of cookie-cutter shops.
Austrian architect and pioneer shopping mall designer Victor Gruen had a vision of communal areas that brought people together to shop and socialise in a consumers’ utopia.
Yet somewhere along the way, it seems the earnest image of a community hub of products and services was lost. Shoppers have become more familiar with environments which are stark and sterile, bathed in harsh lighting and a lack of ambience.
The $155 million NorthWest Shopping Centre, owned and managed by the NZX-listed DNZ Property Fund, has been 18 months in the making. With a net rentable area of over 27,000 square metres, there is a lot of space to fill.
The shopping centre is on Fred Taylor Drive, off the Northwestern Motorway at Westgate Town Centre, between Maki St and Gunton Drive, and sits opposite the established Westgate shopping centre.
Steve Lewis, DNZ Property Fund’s national manager retail development, says a team of industry experts with strong credentials were charged with delivering the massive project, including the Buchan Group and Fletcher Construction.
Anchor tenants Farmers and Countdown have been around since the ink on the plans dried, and they are joined now by around 100 speciality stores.
“The design for the shopping centre has been conceived in conjunction with key retailers who helped to make it happen,” Lewis says. “At NorthWest this involved obtaining commitments from Farmers and Countdown prior to committing to the project.”
In the retail mix are iconic Kiwi and Australian brands including Glassons, Barkers, Max, and Hannahs. Dining options include Coffee Club, Mad Mex, Kiwi Grill, and Pita Pit.
Stage one of the project opened on 1 October, and in October 2016 phase 2 of the centre will open. NorthWest Two will be a purpose built main street retail environment, comprising four separate buildings providing 7,700 square metres of additional dining, retail, and office space and adding even more scope to the Westgate Town Centre.
Why here, and why now?
West Auckland is ripe for the picking. In terms of available retail spend, the region is one of the more affluent in New Zealand.
The viability of such a large shopping centre project means examining a number of specific attributes from every angle, says Lewis.
“NorthWest is situated at the centre of a large catchment of 220,000 people. The trade area is characterised by families with incomes above the national average. Retail expenditure by total trade area residents is projected to increase from $2.5 billion in 2013 to $4.4 billion in 2026.”
Accessibility and convenience are the key attributes to consider when scoping location, says Lewis.
“The centre has excellent connectivity to Auckland, being located at the junctions of the North Western and Upper Harbour motorways, and only 15 minutes drive from the CBD. There are 500,000 people living within a 15 minute drive of NorthWest, so with regard to the supply of retail in the area, the area is underserved with retail amenity relative to the population.”
Planning a town
The creation of the NorthWest shopping centre cannot be viewed in isolation - it’s part of something much much bigger. The $1 billion North West Transformation Project is well underway, with phase one including the Westgate Town Centre. The 56 hectare space will include street-based retail, the NorthWest shopping centre, specialty shops, large format retail, and yard-based retail.
Jennifer Andrews, centre manager NorthWest Shopping Centre, says that something of this size and scope does not happen without the support of the broader community, plus local and central government.
“The NorthWest Shopping Centre and the North West Transformation Project recognise the increasing importance of the Western region of Auckland, and the huge population growth in the area. The NorthWest Shopping Centre and the other facilities are planned and designed to meet the growth in a currently under-serviced part of Auckland.”
On a smaller scale, Hobsonville will welcome an expansion that includes a new supermarket and retail shopping area. Other additions throughout the 435 hectare North West development include schools, community centres, open spaces, new roads, and better transport links. There is also the creation of 20,000 jobs, and 5500 new homes, so with the prospect of many new customers, the North West certainly seems the right place for another shopping centre.
Um, but aren’t we all shopping online?
There still seems to be a little confusion - why do we need another physical space devoted to retail, when we’re shopping online and letting our fingers do the walking?
Well, because there is so much more to shopping than just shopping.
Andrews says the demand for physical stores is still very high, and this is reflected in the NorthWest Shopping Centre development.
“We appreciate the role of ecommerce in retail but we also have the consumer appetite for visiting physical stores, and shopping for leisure. That need is not diminished, and the social aspect of the environment plays a very large part.”
In September, John Batistich, the marketing and digital director of Westfield owner Scentre Group corroborated this perspective by speaking dismissively of ecommerce’s impact against shopping at bricks-and-mortar stores. At a conference in Sydney, Batistich said customers still crave physical experiences that online retailing can’t provide, and said sales growth at Westfield shopping malls was almost matching the growth of online sales.
“In Australia, online had been growing at 20-30 percent but it is now growing at only 6.9 percent and Westfield is growing at 6.1 percent on AU$21 billion worth of retail.”
Batistich said “very few” pureplay online retailers had ever made a profit, and questioned how many would be around in five years.
Andrews says stores also encourage instore shopping by engaging directly with customers. Technology plays an essential component in the instore experience, and retailers are continually exploring ways to connect with their customers. NorthWest is the first fully-fibre-connected centre, and this alone will provide businesses with efficiencies, in addition to providing a solid platform on which to interact with shoppers.
A sign of digital times
While it was once thought that ecommerce would destroy the bricks and mortar stores, it seems that the two channels are merging.
Shoppers now have the best of both worlds. By physically being in a retail environment they can absorb the atmosphere, while being able to engage with any number of digital platforms that provide retail insight straight to the palms of their hands.
NorthWest Shopping Centre will engage its shoppers with a world class digital advertising network, built and managed by oOh! media. Central to the network is the large format double-sided digital banner, displaying full motion creative, which will hang above the centre court.
Retailers will also engage with shoppers via 22 of the latest-generation digital and static panels. Near Field Communication (NFC) and Quick Response (QR) code enabled panels mean that advertisers can further connect with shoppers beyond the panel via their mobile phone.
Ecommerce simply cannot claim to offer atmosphere, and aesthetically, NorthWest is pleasing to the eye.
NorthWest Shopping Centre’s retail design manager Martin Skinner says that the architecture has a balance of contemporary form with natural materials and themes derived from the local landscape.
“When it comes to store design retailers are going back to basics - it's a minimalist approach to store interiors which is prevalent overseas as well. Many are paring back their fitouts and investing in raw materials such as exposed concrete and timber creating a more natural and authentic feel. Mild steel, handmade tiles, rough-sawn timber, industrial incandescent lighting, for example. Natural themes are especially noticeable in food and beverage fitouts where there is an emphasis on creating relaxed, authentic environments supporting the good, healthy, fresh food on offer.”
The natural themes also assist in tying together the interior of the shopping centre with the town square and surrounding environs. It’s this planned indoor-outdoor flow that is somewhat unique to the urban shopping mall.
Andrews says that the planned integration of the shopping centre with the town centre has been fully thought through. The mall connects seamlessly with the main street shops, giving shoppers the choice of indoor or outdoor retail therapy.
“It flows really well. We have the main entrance of NorthWest facing out onto the town square, through to the main street area and the pedestrian and vehicle integrated area.”
The design of NorthWest also invites a continuity between the shopping and the main street of open air shops, removing the traditional competition of mall versus main street that’s seen in some of Auckland’s more traditional suburbs.
The message is clear - west is best when it comes to providing the whole spectrum of needs for a community.
“NorthWest is the first stage of the integrated development,” says Andrews. “The Westgate Town Centre will become the business, retail, and entertainment hub for this region.
“We’ve designed NorthWest with its end users in mind, and we’ve researched the customers to understand their needs. We’ve ensured that the centre is easily accessible, it has the amenities that they require, and that people can relax and enjoy their visit and, most importantly, return here.
“Having said that, nothing of this nature remains static, and people’s needs will keep changing. NorthWest will keep evolving over time for the foreseeable future.”
Victor Gruen would be proud to learn that in this case, the world of malls has come to its senses and realised that there’s more to retail than just shops.
This story was originally published in NZ Retail magazine issue 740, October / November 2015.