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The life of a Shopping Centre Manager in lockdown

This year has been a little unpredictable to say the least, especially when it comes to Shopping Centre Management. The role of a Centre Manager is already very varied with no two days being the same, however, lockdown has placed additional challenges on our teams. We asked two of our Centre Managers: Chloe O’Donnell at Idlewells Shopping Centre and Marie Gribben at Middleton Shopping Centre what it’s been like for them over the last 11 weeks of lockdown...

We’ve had to temporarily say goodbye to occupiers, which has completely changed the feel of the schemes. We usually spend our days injecting personality into our centres, fostering a sense of community and delivering positive change for the local area in which we operate. Instead, we have found ourselves restricting how many people can shop at once, how long people can shop with us and discouraging visiting unless absolutely essential. This is a totally alien concept and goes against every grain of our being. We have had to take on many roles and be empathetic and support all retailers with their individual requirements to make their shops safe for reopening. In some cases we’ve just needed to lend an ear to listen to worries about now and for the future. Some occupiers have required additional support and reassurance, whilst others have just asked for help on how to conduct risk assessments or to interpret the regularly changing government guidance.

We have been pulled in every direction, with occupiers asking how the service charge can be reduced and in turn, a reduction in opening hours whilst other retailers want longer opening hours which will come at additional cost. Managing health, safety, fire and environmental risks is part of our everyday life but the additional risks presented by COVID-19 have meant creative solutions have been required.

Managing shopper expectations and attempting to change engrained behaviour has perhaps been the most challenging aspect of lockdown. We have spent years encouraging shoppers to visit our centres, trying every tactic in the book! Within a matter of 24 hours, we were asking customers only to visit us if it was absolutely essential and if they do, that they mustn’t stay longer than is necessary. We can honestly say we never thought that we would see the day when we ask people not to visit.

With workloads having increased two-fold, we have had to battle with the hard decision of putting staff on furlough which unsurprisingly means less resource, thus placing additional pressure on the remaining teams, who must be commended for their efforts. Dealing with the ever increasing demands of the ‘new normal’ in addition to increased strain on home life such as balancing childcare and being unable to travel to foreign shores, the past 11 weeks (is it really that long?!) have stretched us to our absolute limits.

Being a Shopping Centre Manager means your people skills have to be diverse with the ability to step it up a gear when the going gets tough, but wow it has been an extremely demanding period of time. We’ve all been leaning on our ‘Dare to be Brilliant’ customer service skills to be able to support our retailers in a positive and effective way. If volatile times have taught us anything, it shows how a team can pull together to continue and deliver brilliant service to our retailers and by extension our shoppers. The Ashdown Phillips team have supported each other endlessly, sharing best practice with colleagues, listening to each other’s gripes over weekly Teams calls but above all, trying to find the best in this awful situation.

Both of us are planning Christmas decorations, so the occasional chat about bauble colours did manage to break the mould of endlessly discussing COVID-19!

As ever in this role, we need to be three steps ahead. As soon as we had implemented partial lockdown restrictions to our centres and took a deep breath, we turned our attention to planning for easing them! We have been busy reading government guidance (and every other available guidance resource!), plotting customer flow, one-way systems, maximum capacity, social distancing measures, enhanced hygiene measures, procuring hand sanitiser by the bucket load (gold dust would have been easier), resourcing, retailer’s individual return planning, communication strategies, budget planning and engaging with our key stakeholders to name a few! We very quickly learnt that implementing lockdown restrictions was far easier than lifting them!

We are ramping up now and eagerly ready to safely welcome back the public to our shopping centres on the 15th June.

Chloe O'Donnell, Centre Manager at Idlewells Shopping Centre & Marie Gribben, Centre Manager at Middleton Shopping Centre