The Trafford Centre is on thin ice. Once the jewel in Manchester’s retail crown, the shopping behemoth has an uncertain future as owner Intu teeters on the edge of administration – battling with debts of £5 billion.
The property group – which owns nine of the UK’s top 20 shopping centres – has been struggling to cope with the shrinking bricks and mortar retail market for some time, unable to hide from the fact that although some 30 million people visited the Trafford Centre in 2018, often the savviest of shoppers look up items they’ve spotted in stores online, browsing for discount codes and tempting offers of free next-day delivery.
To those who revel in hitting the shops, I’m sure the Trafford Centre in its current form is a cracking day out. But for the rest of us, people like me who avoid shopping at all costs, any building that has 200 shops under one roof is the
stuff of nightmares.
I last visited the Trafford Centre last September, regretting it within minutes of stepping off the escalators and into Selfridges make-up department.
This place is hell, I thought to myself, trudging down squeaky-clean floors from shop to shop, searching for a birthday present for my mum.
Swarovski crystals glared at me through sparkling window displays. “Panic buy me,” they hissed, bracelets and necklaces sitting like little silver snakes in jewellery boxes.
I spent two hours walking around in despair before I ended up in the M&S food hall buying cheese.
Arriving home, I announced the Trafford Centre had had its day. I vowed to never go back. To me, it was a tangible representation of everything that was wrong with the world. So much newness, so little soul.
The marble theme, grand water features and neo-classical pillars that had looked opulent and classy through the eyes of a child in the late 1990s looked tired and outdated now. The shops were full of stuff no one really needed; the lights were too bright; the gaudy decor was just too much.
But despite my personal gripes with faux glamour and rampant consumerism, the threat of mass redundancies is no joke. Retail workers whose livelihoods rely on the Trafford Centre’s success are no doubt waiting by the phone to hear what its fate will be, and in the current climate one job loss is one too many.
The high street is struggling, but there must be a way for the Trafford Centre to thrive in the new world. After all, so much infrastructure has been built around it, including a new tram line, new roads and cycle paths, with a £250 million water park in the works. A building of that magnitude can’t just be left to rot.
Remember all our reflections at the beginning of lockdown, our realisation that experiences, not things, were the key to a happy life? We’d make do and mend, we’d support local business, we’d eat together, we’d tick items off the bucket list – maybe the Trafford Centre can play a part in that.
Instead of the glitzy shops and tired chain restaurants, perhaps the Trafford Centre’s future lies in hosting smaller, independent businesses, and as a home for community assets such as educational and social spaces. You might even catch me paying it a visit.
Saskia Murphy is a Manchester-based freelance journalist. Follow her on Twitter @SaskiaMurphy