When Cabot Circus opened in 2008 – just as the financial crash hit – it undoubtedly revitalised what had been a flagging part of Bristol city centre.
A decade later and retail is arguably facing bigger challenges than ever, with the future of House of Fraser, the centre’s flagship store, looking decidedly rocky and long-term tenants Soho Coffee Company closing its doors earlier this year, while Foyles was saved by a final hour buyout from former rival Waterstones.
Those championing retail and entertainment in the heart of the city breathed a sigh of relief when plans to expand Cribbs Causeway were rejected earlier this month, but the rise in online shopping and changing consumer demands continue to challenge the sector.
Read more: Cribbs Causeway expansion plans rejected
Despite this tough climate, Cabot Circus draws 18.5 million visitors a year and “remains an enduringly attractive retail and leisure destination”, according to James Durie, the chief executive of the Bristol Chamber of Commerce & Initiative and Business West, which played an instrumental role in its development.
“In assessing its impact ten years on, and whether it has been successful or not; just first ask yourself this important question: if we didn’t have Cabot Circus, what would Bristol’s city centre shopping quarter be like today?” asks Durie.
Part of the centre’s success relies on its ability to reinvent itself, so while the lure of online might detract shoppers from turning out, the draw of more ‘experience-led’ venues grows increasingly strong – this has led to the arrival of Jungle Rumble crazy golf, the UK’s first VR Star and, most recently, Escape Hunt.
Stephanie Lacey, general manager of Cabot Circus, says: “We continue to keep customers engaged through introducing new brands to the city which add a point of difference.
“In 2008, 75 per cent of the shops and restaurants in the new development were opening in Bristol city centre for the first time. This trend has continued, with more recent examples including L’Osteria opening its first restaurant in the UK and brands like Monki and Department of Coffee and Social Affairs opening their first stores outside of London.
“We’re also bringing & Other Stories and Bershka to Bristol later this year.
“The centre prides itself on integrating seamlessly into Bristol city centre and we continue to connect back to the local community through initiatives like the introduction of the Bristol giant letters and the high-level balloon art installation.”
Cabot Circus also strives to align itself with the city’s values and, as part of its environmental strategy, introduced solar roof panels (which generate enough power to light the car park) and food recycling, enabling it to heat its own water.
Lacey says the centre is an important part of the local economy, supporting almost 4,000 jobs, and over the last decade, has invested more than £116m into the local area and community through training, skills development and job creation.
Innovative as it is, Cabot Circus does mirror other UK city centres in hosting a majority of chain stores.
As one of the few independent businesses in the area, John Reid, owner of Garment Quarter on Penn Street, reflects on the impact of Cabot Circus.
“Having personally only visited Bristol once before Cabot Circus launched – it was clear the city needed modernisation from a retail perspective,” he says.
“After scouting several cities south of Birmingham, we chose Bristol, in part due to the opportunities a revived city centre destination offered against a more established location.
“It could be argued that Cabot is a very mainstream development – we are in fact something of an outlier now in terms of independent businesses. From our point of view that has its positives and negatives – footfall clearly is a positive, the cost of doing business is perhaps a bit higher than most independents can afford.
“However, in the eight years we have been here we have doubled our store size and recently taken on external warehousing space. From a small team of six we have been able to grow a retail business integrated with our online operation that now employs thirty people in the city.”
Reid adds that there is a “worrying increase in empty units” at the moment and says it’s important that flexibility and creativity is used to maintain the momentum that Bristol has built, while ensuring all businesses operate on an evening playing field and that the city is not held to ransom by “big groups opportunistically driving down their own rents at the expense of others”.
An ability to adapt is key in the current shifting landscape, and business leaders hope that plans to regenerate the flagging Broadmead area will help improve the entire city centre.
“In terms of what lies in store for Cabot Circus and the surrounding area, my hope is that we can develop a more distinctive retail offer,” says Durie.
“One that is able to focus much more on showcasing great local products and independents, alongside planning for a more mixed development that reflects the fact that more people are wanting to moving back to live in the city centre.
“Cabot Circus cannot afford to stand still and I’m pleased they are working with us, Bristol City Council and other partners on how we actively revitalise Bristol city centre.”