We visited intu Watford!
The last time I went to Watford I had my work ripped down in front of me. It wasn’t the warmest of welcomes.
It was however the first day of my advertising & copywriting course at West Herts College, Watford. And one of many life lessons was not to take it personally but to embrace constructive criticism and ensure that marketing communicates on brief, on brand and on target.
Fast forward some 30 years on and after 16+ years heading up the marketing function at various retailers, I return to Watford. Excited to be on the front line again!
This time round my Watford welcome is warm, friendly and “orange” via Vicki (General Manager of intu Watford) and her team. If only they’d been around when I nervously started my course, hungry for knowledge and when the Harlequin was the Harlequin.
I’m here at Mark’s invitation (intu’s PR guy) to see their new extension and in true intu style, his organisation is also warm, thorough and helpful with salient instructions to find the management office buried in the heart of intu Watford. Thank God I had them – it’s a big place.
It’s taken 3 and a half years to build including demolition plus c£180m.
Not exactly petty cash. And not including another wad of cash (£13m) to refurb the existing centre (including up to 30 charging places by 2020 for electric cars) – all part of future proofing. If you like facts, how about this? 22 double decker buses’ worth of steel were used. Not in the build but in the demolition; I gather to make sure the whole centre didn’t disappear down the hill! Good thinking Batman (I muse). 400,000 extra square feet later and the total centre space has increased to 1.4m sq. ft. With a focus on upping the ante in terms of experience, occupier offering and lavatories. Or toilets. Depending on which term you’d prefer. More on that later.
Debenhams crowns the extension. Vast. Glittering. “Harvey Nicks ‘esque.” Thoughtfully laid out with a beauty floor to beat the best in class. Massive choice. Enticing. Exciting. With something for every person in Watford (and indeed surrounding towns) to beautify, pamper and enhance their wellbeing with.
It made me re-appraise Debenhams (in all honesty, I hadn’t been a fan). It correlated the financial analyst’s feedback from their visit. It bodes hope for the future of good old fashion bricks and mortar retailing. It’s truly a massive investment in putting your best foot forward. Good on Debenhams and good on intu for their respective belief and commitment.
It’s worth visiting Watford for that alone. Plus, Loaf & Bloom (chic little café nestling by the beauty bars) and the Pinkster Pop-Up Gin Bar (should one require a little pick me up or goss with the... lads). This comment however and unfairly eschews all the other improvements and additional occupiers that intu have brought in to the mix.
The line-up includes amongst others Hugo Boss, Jack Wills, New Look, H&M, SuperDry, MOD Pizza and Yo Sushi as part of the phased opening.
Plus, a 9-screen Cineworld, the sixth in the UK to boast new ScreenX technology, whatever that means! I would have found out but it opens in mid-December and I didn’t want to hang around. If balls are your thing there’s also a ten lane Hollywood Bowling to boot – all about enhancing the experience.
As part of the re-development there’s a sensitive handling of a retained grade 2 listed building which will house Byron and upstairs The Florist (not flowers, but spirits) with an outside area which all adds to the mix: roughly 1/3rd F&B, 1/3rd leisure and 1/3rd retail perfectly balanced for an enlightened customer experience.
Of course it’s not just about the occupiers. It’s about the environment. In this respect, Ben’s been busy. Ben Perman is intu’s in-house interior designer. Funky metal palm type trees grace the island open areas with planting and Corian (it’s very hardwearing) benches in warm hues and tones. Importantly, it’s not trying too hard and adds to the warmth of welcome. Selfie walls abound including the chance to be centre stage of the popular Watford football team. Good if clashing red, yellow and black are your thing.
Floors are glittering and challenging. Since opening, machines have had to be fitted with new and tougher brushes to ensure the place remains shiny and fresh. Designers eh?
40 friendly cleaners take personal pride in ensuring its spick and span proudly wearing intu’s new uniforms – the orange has gone down well. Apparently.
Now on to bogs. Well it’s a different term for lavatories – I always like to offer choice to you as a reader! Here intu have excelled. Having spoken to existing customers, they have found out what they want and acted accordingly. The accessible changing places are breath taking. Can’t believe I said that, but seriously it’s like BBC’s Click programme on speed. State of the art hoists and fold-down tables, carefully designed hand basin and shower (with free towels and toiletries). Plus, space to calm and sooth are all part of the mix. Open, accessible and if the customer feedback (including beaming children) is anything to go by – bang on.
They haven’t stopped there though. A baby changing area complete with white wicker gate (well, you’ve got to keep the rascals in) opens to a microwave, bottle warmer and of course a comfortable breast feeding area with a deep cushioned chair and privacy curtain. The attention to detail is incredible.
We move on to the regular lavatories and Vicki encourages me to view both men’s and women’s areas. Again design is top-notch and there’s an army of 12 technicians to sort out the plumbing should it go wrong. Such is the design that an interconnecting door allows them to access both sides for speed of repair and increased productivity.
Don’t judge me but I love talking to retail operating staff. Vicki is no exception. Honest, open, passionate and above all driven by her customers.
Vicki’s been General Manager for two years and is also Vice-Chair of the Watford BID. Vicki is very much part of the community and actively contributes and supports the retail offering. Now in to their 3rd year of a 5 year contract, the Watford BID is making great progress with active independents adding to the output.
Time rushes by. We’re outside of the centre looking in. Having discussed the virtual pedestrian zone which used to be a busy road (now only buses are allowed) – again to make it easy for customers to visit and navigate the High Street. Simple stuff but everything is focussed on the customer and their experience.
A British Bobby bounces up unexpectedly and kisses Vicki affectionately on both cheeks. Well, she’s known him since he was a boy. He’s just checking in and to thank Vicki for hosting the police in the centre – all part of the police helping and supporting the Watford community.
Just like Vicki and her team. Empowered to give customers free tokens for drinks and free parking and to ensure they are always felt welcomed. Apparently a week after Debenhams opened they saw a footfall spike of +26% YOY. Encouraging to say the least. And a lot of people to welcome.
It’s time for me to take the train back to the big smoke. My goodbye from Vicki and Mark is as warm as my welcome.
Visit intu Watford for... you guessed it: a warm welcome. Amongst other things.
Thank you to Mark, Vicki and the team at intu Watford for an enlightening and energising visit.
Head of Customer & Creative, Revo