THESE are testing time for town centre retailers.
So it may seem surprising that David Heathcote-Smith, manager of Huddersfield’s Packhorse Shopping Centre is looking forward to 2013 with some relish.
It’s going to be a busy year for David and his team – with a raft of initiatives in the pipeline to reinvigorate what was Huddersfield’s first modern covered shopping centre when it opened its doors in 1971.
Centre owners New River Retail and Morgan Stanley are investing money and time into making “substantial improvements” to the mall – with the launch of a new logo, possible alterations to the entrances and a particular emphasis on attracting independent retailers to its vacant units.
The centre is strengthening its community links with organisations such as Huddersfield University, Kirklees College, Huddersfield Giants and the Media Centre.
It also aims to work with other retail interests in the town centre to widen Huddersfield’s appeal to shoppers.
Electric doors and improved lighting have been installed in the centre while vacant space has been transformed into a gallery run by charity Support to Recovery to sell artwork and crafts from paintings to jewellery, sculptures to candles – mostly the work of local people.
Panels have been put in place featuring facts and images of Huddersfield and the centre itself plans to open a “shop” to showcase new ideas that could be incorporated into the complex.
The centre is working with college and university students on various projects.
And as part of efforts to make shopping more of “an event”, local musicians and actors are being encouraged to help provide entertainment.
David views these initiatives with evident enthusiasm. And he realises there’s much at stake.
The changes come against a backdrop of difficult times for retailing in general.
“It isn’t good for retailing at the moment,” he says.
“In some ways, retailers are having to ‘re-learn’ how to retail because there is so much competition from online shopping.
“It has to be all about the customer experience. Stores are having to go back to basics.”
But he is confident that the strategy is the right one.
“New River Retail is a very supportive landlord and is prepared to commit capital expenditure,” he says.
“The Packhorse Centre is at the retail hub of the town and as well as being a shopping location provides a link between other parts of the town.”
David has a wealth of retailing experience to call upon. As a student, his Saturday job was setting up and dismantling stalls at Leicester market, so it seemed destined that he would work in the sector.
However, his first career choice was in hairdressing.
“I didn’t go to college or university,” he says. “I wanted to earn some money straight away!
“I worked in hairdressing for four years. Once I was used to dealing with people, retailing became a natural progression.”
In 1987, David got a job with fashion chain Next in his home city of Leicester and by 1990 had become a manager in charge of a 4,000sq ft store.
When the recession of the early 1990s forced Next to close several of its stores, David found himself redundant.
He moved to Fosters Menswear in the city before getting the offer of a promotion to manage its branch in Accrington and later became an area manager.
He later worked for Austin Reed, then moved to the Boundary Mill factory outlet at Colne in Lancashire before taking up his current post at the Packhorse Centre nine years ago.
It was very much a case of “poacher turned gamekeeper”.
Says David: “I had always been a tenant and now I was a retail centre manager. I have been on both sides of the fence. That means I can empathise with the tenants here and work with them to achieve what they should be achieving.
“The big thing is ‘people’ That’s the focus of what we do, whether we’re dealing with tenants or customers.”
As centre manager, David heads a 10-strong team and has a whole host of responsibilities, including health and safety and security.
“It’s everything from dealing with someone who has slipped on a discarded sausage roll to coping with unruly football supporters on a Saturday afternoon,” he says.
But he has no regrets about the workload. “I applied for the job nine years ago because I had done so much in retailing,” says David.
“I had been a store manager and an area manager. I wanted more than just running a shop unit. This was the ideal thing.
“I enjoy working with the tenants. As this is a relatively small shopping centre, I get to know the tenants personally.
“I also enjoy working with others in the town centre through organisations like the Huddersfield Town Centre Partnership and Kirklees Council.”
Away from work, David enjoys golf and clay pigeon shooting as well as “good food and fine wines”. Holidays are also a must – with Greece, India and the Caribbean among favourite destinations.
Meanwhile, 2013 will bring a new set of challenges for David as the Packhorse Centre begins a new phase.
“There is never a dull moment,” he says. “And with exciting things going on at the centre this year, the ‘buzz’ is back again.”