Grand Arcade: exclusive details of plans for Debenhams, H&M and other empty units in a crunch year for Wigan town centre

The boss of Wigan’s biggest shopping mall is looking to major and positive changes in store this year – including new occupants for its vast Debenhams unit.
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Grand Arcade centre manager Mike Matthews says that if everything goes to plan, every available space on its ground floor will be taken up in the next 12 months while there are also innovative ideas brewing for the upstairs too.

He calls 2023 a “massive year”, not just for the complex but Wigan town centre as a whole as it fights to retain custom while the Galleries25 project evolves.

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He urged those who say “there’s nothing worth visiting” to think again because there is plenty – and that locals should take a “use it or lose it” approach.

Mike Matthews says 2023 is a big year for the Grand Arcade and the town centre as a wholeMike Matthews says 2023 is a big year for the Grand Arcade and the town centre as a whole
Mike Matthews says 2023 is a big year for the Grand Arcade and the town centre as a whole

And he is also calling on town centre employers to get as many of their home-working staff back in the office and other workplaces as possible because it makes a huge difference to shops and hospitality businesses’ trade figures.

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Mr Matthews was Wigan’s high profile town centre manager from 1998 to 2016, but a year ago he came back – after helping with the regeneration of a Kirkby shopping centre – to give a new lease of life to the Grand Arcade.

It has suffered a series of blows beyond its control in recent years including the loss of Debenhams and stores in the failed Arcadia group, plus the departure of big high street names such as WHSmith and Marks and Spencer.

Lisa Cunliffe says her Little Kitchen cafe has thrived since moving to the Grand ArcadeLisa Cunliffe says her Little Kitchen cafe has thrived since moving to the Grand Arcade
Lisa Cunliffe says her Little Kitchen cafe has thrived since moving to the Grand Arcade

But among hoped-for arrivals this year are:

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Two new leisure sector tenants for the Debenhams space which is to be split into three

High hopes for a new toy store where H&M once stood

An imminent replacement for the Millie’s Cookies spot

If all goes to plan Mike Matthews hopes that every ground floor unit of the Grand Arcade will be occupied by the end of the yearIf all goes to plan Mike Matthews hopes that every ground floor unit of the Grand Arcade will be occupied by the end of the year
If all goes to plan Mike Matthews hopes that every ground floor unit of the Grand Arcade will be occupied by the end of the year

New tenants for the unit occupied by Warriors World

The arrival of Claire’s Accessories

And the possibility of dividing up the former DW Sports space on the first floor into units for several independent health, beauty and wellbeing businesses.

There is also talk circulating of interest being expressed in putting the old M&S store to new use.

The most keenly felt absence in the arcade since May 2021 has been department store giant Debenhams. It was the anchor tenant for the then new Grand Arcade when it was built in the mid-noughties and occupied a quarter of the mall’s entire retail space. Its closure also creates something of a dead end for the complex, especially as far as getting to the Millgate multi-storey car park is concerned, although there is still access via The Lanes.

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Finding something of an equal stature to fill its 100,000ft space was always going to be big ask, the way retail is going in this online age. So major moves are afoot.

Mr Matthews said: “We are looking to split the space into three units and the landlord has given us the money we need to carry this out.

"We are diversifying into leisure because of a lack of retail availability – as is the case with many centres across the country – and we have two occupiers lined up, hopefully for a big announcement in April. The third space would be a retail operator, yet to be secured.

"Our biggest challenges of this year are to fill the units vacated by Debenhams, WHSmith, M&S and H&M. One of the easier ones to fill is the former Warriors World unit which was also recently the temporary home for the post office. We are hoping to fill that within weeks.

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"Technically that would then only leave the former TK Maxx unit – another substantial one – and what was DW Sports.

"We do have an idea for the latter which would be to split that into smaller units too for, possibly, independent health, beauty and wellbeing businesses. If that took off, it might then attract someone to TK Maxx next door. It’s early days as far as that project is concerned though.”

But the Grand Arcade is already busier than it has been for years, enjoying better sales and footfall than it did in 2019 while many of its tenants enjoyed their best Christmas ever last month.

Granted, some of the new arrivals have simply decamped across from the Galleries when it was closed for demolition, such as Savers, The Works and Little Kitchen (all of which have reported a surge in trade), but Leading Labels and Blue Inc are recent newcomers to Wigan, and while Smiggle recently closed, its unit is already being fitted out for the arrival of Claire’s Accessories on January 27.

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And Mr Matthews says that the space hitherto occupied by Millie’s Cookies could be taken over by an as-yet-undisclosed business as soon as January’s end.

He adds that he is in advanced talks about a toy retailer taking over the former H&M store and he has heard that an interest has been expressed in the Marks and Spencer's building, although he does not know who is behind the inquiries nor the nature of the venture that might be proposed.

He thinks that famous old Wigan store – even though M&S owns it and now rents its food-only unit at Robin Park – was just a victim of a company-wide policy change which has seen it shutting many of its retail shops but opening more food courts.

As for WHSmith, it seemed baffling to many that a high street chain still with branches everywhere could ditch its Wigan shop when it occupied probably the prime pitch in the whole of the town centre. The building does need a lot of renovation work, though, and Mr Matthews wonders whether the sums simply did not add up at head office.

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Another high street name, however, is enjoying a big resurgence. HMV, which looked like it might wink out of existence a decade ago, returned to the Grand Arcade to occupy a small unit a few years back and recently upsized into the larger former Topshop/Topman space and reports it has been doing terrifically well, trade-wise, ever since.

And Lisa Cunliffe who, with husband Ryan, moved Little Kitchen to the arcade’s upper floor when the Galleries shut, is also delighted with the new setting.

She said: “When it was announced that the Galleries was going, we had a lot of conversations with the council and we were quite excited about the site where it was proposed we would move to.

“Then, for some reason or other, a three-month gap appeared between us having to leave the Galleries and move into the new place, so we asked the Grand Arcade if we could set up shop temporarily here in the meantime.

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"They were very friendly and accommodating, the other businesses are great and, we did a roaring trade – the best we’ve ever had – so when it came to the end of that interim period we asked if there was any chance we could stay put, and Mike said ‘yes’.

"We signed a five-year lease, we’ve held parties and large events, and we’ve haven’t looked back since. It’s the best thing that’s ever happened to us.”

Mr Matthews is confident that the Grand Arcade can do well on its own, but he says it’s in everyone’s interests to see the rest of the town centre thriving as well, especially during this limbo period while the Galleries are being razed, the replacement development involving hospitality, leisure, retail and accommodation a couple of years off at least, and people are put off by this.

He said: “There is no question that these are tough times for retail. Wigan town centre has changed a lot since I was last here, but it still has a huge amount going for it as well as a lot of potential.

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"This Galleries project is like performing open heart surgery on a conscious patient. It makes Wigan a building site destination for now. It has had to happen and there is a need to diversify because there was not enough retail to fill the spaces.

"But the people who say ‘there’s nothing left in Wigan, I’m going somewhere else’ are wrong. We have fabulous little places like Makinson Arcade and Jaxon’s Court and they need supporting.

"We have reached the point of use it or lose it.

"Big local employers can make a big differenceas well. Since the pandemic a lot of people have worked from home and so the habit, for a variety of reasons, has continued, albeit sometimes through a hybrid working system.

"Our mobile phone analytics data, for instance, shows that there are only half as many workers in Wigan town centre at any one time than they were before Covid. That’s a massive number of people who at lunchtime could be going into shops and buying lunch or snacks.

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"Their absence has a huge negative impact. If local employers want to support their town centre, they need to get as many of its workers back into these buildings as possible.”

Mr Matthews is optimistic about the major new developments in and around Wigan town centre, not least the revival of Wigan Pier as a visitor attraction – set to be completed this year – and the approval the local authority recently gave for the transformation of a large part of nearby Eckersley Mills into a food hall and offices.

He said: “Some businesses may be displaced at the mills but there shouldn’t be a problem finding them new locations.

"Bringing more hospitality into the town is good for all businesses and so too the extra accommodation that the Galleries will bring in the shape of a hotel – we’ve not had one actually in the town centre for decades – and 464 homes. Extra residents mean extra shoppers and hospitality customers on your doorstep.”

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Meanwhile Mr Matthews also has on his agenda plans to make the Grand Arcade more environmentally-friendly, not only because it’s the right thing to do but because improved green credentials can enhance the mall’s profile and sometimes attracts more businesses and funding.

Among ideas are the fitting of solar panels on its roof and the introduction of beehives too. It has had a grassed area up there from the start but another project could be to use it to harvest water that could be deployed in the mall’s toilets. Some of the projects, Mr Matthews says, are long-term and big ones as they prepare for a BREEAM in Use environmental assessment, but there are also “quick wins” like the beehives and a planned cycle park.

So plenty to look forward to in the months ahead. Mr Matthews said: “You never know what is round the corner but at the moment things are looking pretty positive for the Grand Arcade this year.”