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Merry Hill facing double whammy of lockdown and a change in habits

Dudley | Business | Published:

The crisis was today engulfing the giant Merry Hill shopping centre at Brierley Hill – and it has the rise of internet shopping at its heart.

Covid-19 safety procedures at Merry Hill

The centre’s owner Intu has tumbled into administration, making it the biggest UK corporate casualty of the coronavirus pandemic.

It has more than 132,000 jobs in the company and in its wider supply chain and group companies also providing key services to its sites, including facilities management, IT, cleaning, security and maintenance.

All looked good for Intu Properties just two-and-a-half years ago as a £3.4 million deal for rival Hammerson to takeover the shopping centes chain was announced.

The continuing downturn for retail and the closure of many major shops chains, which had stores in Intu centres, led to a re-think and Hammerson, which owns Bullring and Grand Central in Buirmingham, pulled out.

Since then Intu, which is the UK’s biggest shopping centre group with 17 in the UK and three in Spain, has seen its retailers under pressure from changes in shopping habits with more and more people choosing to shop online and often using centres stores only to see purchases first-hand before buying more cheaply online.

Major retailers have also been asking for rent reductions due to the pressures they are under and there has been a huge drop in rents paid during the lockdown.

Intu Properties was struggling even before the coronavirus outbreak to fill vacant units in some of its centres and with some restaurant chains shutting, its debts had grown to about £4.5 billion.

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The business, which directly employs about 3,000 and owns some of the UK’s biggest shopping centres, including Manchester’s Trafford Centre and Lakeside in Essex, had been trying for months to achieve financial restructuring in agreement with its lenders.

The failure to obtain fresh funding from its banks and the administration could even see centres like Merry Hill closed unless a new owner can be found.

Intu’s centres were partially shut during the coronavirus lockdown, with only essential shops remaining open.

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But there were some crumbs of comfort for Intu this week, with shopper footfall at Merry Hill having increased dramatically on the first weekend all non-essential shops were allowed to reopen.

Gavin Prior, operations director at Intu, said: “Footfall at Intu Merry Hill increased towards the end of last week and visitor numbers were up by 321 per cent on last weekend across all Intu centres, with more than half of stores now open. We have welcomed well over one million visitors in total to Intu centres across the UK and the safety measures we have introduced are working well.

“People are visiting us on shopping missions, determined to spend money in their favourite shops, and many stores have told us that basket sizes are up on last year with several ‘big ticket purchases’ such as high end jewellery.

“Fashion brands like Primark, Next and H&M have all been really popular, with a regular flow of shoppers. Visitors tell us they are excited to be out shopping again and feel safe due to the measures we have in place. As more brands re-open over the next few weeks, we expect visitor numbers to continue to grow.”

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