Retail investor registers technology breakthrough

Copyright: David Lawson appeared Property Week 1998

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A revolutionary technique for collecting sales figures in one of the UK's biggest new shopping centres could help transform retail management in future schemes.

More than 100 tenants at Bristol's Cribbs Causeway have been phoning a computer each day to register their takings. And in only three months since the centre opened, this has begun to reveal information which has led to changes in the way retailers are run. 'One clothing business was found to be performing far below the levels of its competitors,' says centre manager Jonathan Duckworth. 'We were able to go in and advise on a change of product line.'

The system could also help reveal wider weaknesses, such as poor performance in particular retailing sectors that might need special promotional marketing. The data has already shown in detail which units are affected when the anchor store, John Lewis, closes each Monday.

'It is easy to use anecdotes and footfall figures to judge this, but the daily reports have shown us hard facts about spending changes,' says Duckworth. Surprisingly, some retailers are immune to the loss of this prime draw. That can help to plan the future mix of tenants.

Information on takings is essential to the owner, Prudential Portfolio Managers, because it charges turnover rents on top of Zone A charges of between 200-280 pounds/sq ft. Big operators like Marks & Spencer provide annual accounts but more than 100 smaller retailers are required under their leases to report more regularly.

Normally this would be a monthly report, usually on paper. But collecting data each day is much more immediate, and the direct feed into a computer provides almost instant analysis of trends. The numbers are crunched by experts in Canada who themselves dial into the Bristol computer to extract the figures.

The system was discovered on one of the many expeditions by Prudential executives across the Atlantic. It is used in 130 malls across North America but Duckworth says this is a first for the UK.

The ideal system might be linking all tills to a central computer but there are so many types that this is not feasible. Tenants have to dial a code into a touch-phone and then feed in figures. If they do not, the computer rings them the following day with a reminder.

Information does not flow all one way. The Prudential feeds back weekly reports to each operator. 'They can then tell for themselves how they are performing against others in their category,' says Duckworth. It is unlikely that rivals would volunteer such information otherwise. This gives retailers constant information to judge performance against other locations. The system effectively provides benchmarks for both landlord and tenant.

It is also an incentive to make the call each night before locking up. Some operators are excluded - such as mobile telephone retailers, which make their money outside the normal daily turnover. The rest have no obligation to participate but if they don't, there is no weekly feedback to help their own business planning.