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From this month, Birmingham will be the only location outside London boasting a John Lewis, a Selfridges and a Harvey Nichols department store.
The city of a thousand trades, long known for manufacturing and metal bashing, can now justifiably claim to be a retail centre too.
Indeed the city has three main shopping centres. The latest to open, Grand Central, on top of the new station, links the Bullring on the city’s east side and the Mailbox in the canal quarter just behind Broad Street, the nightclub district.
“It seems like it’s Birmingham’s time,” says Lisa Williams, manager of the newly opened £35m John Lewis in Grand Central.
The party to open Grand Central formally last week was probably the most eagerly awaited retail event of the year. Earlier that week, Network Rail unveiled its £600m redevelopment of New Street station, a landmark regeneration for the south side of the city with the station now able to handle 300,000 passengers a day.
“We’re a full-service department store sitting on top of the busiest station outside London,” says Ms Williams.
With one of the country’s youngest city populations — many of whom are employed in its growing services and technology economy — it is estimated that Birmingham has attracted close to £1bn of investment in retail and associated transport projects in the past year.
With the advent in 2026 of HS2, the high-speed rail link with London, Birmingham’s status as a retail hub will be further enhanced.
“If the product’s right, then there is no real price sensitivity in Birmingham,” says Richard Vickery, general manager of Harvey Nichols in Birmingham.
“That would surprise a lot of people. But there is a lot of wealth in the region, a lot of people appreciate quality, and there are a lot of people who actually enjoy spending their money.”
Brockton Capital, a specialist property company, has spent £50m improving the Mailbox, the former Royal Mail sorting office building, which will soon house not just Harvey Nichols, but Armani, Hugo Boss, Gieves & Hawkes and Jaeger.
East of the city centre in the Bullring, Selfridges has invested £20m modernising its store which, when built in 2003, became Birmingham’s most photographed building with its distinctive curved exterior mounted with 15,000 anodised aluminium discs.
Analysts today trace Birmingham’s retail revival back to Hammerson’s 2003 decision to redevelop the Bullring, a soulless 1960s shopping centre of vacant and temporary shops bisected by a major road.
Birmingham City Council played its part, buying the Pallasades above New Street station, which has been reborn as the Grand Central scheme, a development on the market again with a guide price “in excess of £300m”, according to property insiders.
The ambition is for Birmingham to overtake Leeds and Glasgow as the leading shopping destination outside London. The city’s visitor economy has grown by 11 per cent over the past six years, with 33.8m visitors a year contributing more than £5bn a year to the local economy.
The council believes that the city could attract an additional 10m-15m visitors, pointing to the success of the Bullring shopping centre which has attracted 90 retailers and an estimated 400m visitors since it reopened 11 years ago.
Ms Williams says: “We worked very closely with [Birmingham City Council] on our development. They were very keen to get John Lewis to anchor the development, to see the south side of Birmingham city centre being regenerated. Before this, the retail offer was thought to be quite split.”
Grand Central was conceived as the retail link between the more mass market Bullring centre and the high-end Mailbox, where Harvey Nichols is pioneering a concept design store deploying the latest digital technology to enhance the customer experience.
One innovation has been to install radio frequency identification tagging, which many companies use for inventory management but is being deployed by Harvey Nichols to help prevent store theft.
“Because of that level of security, the presence of staff on the floor, and the layout, it makes us less of a target, particularly important with the price points of the products we sell,” says Mr Vickery, standing beside a shoe display with a pair of Buscemi trainers selling for a touch more than £800.
John Lewis, meanwhile, will be testing its “click and commute” shopping model, where rail travellers will be able to pick up products they have earlier selected and paid for using their mobile phones while on the train.
“An escalator will take you from the concourse straight into the centre of the shop, so we couldn’t be making it easier for a customer who comes by train,” says Ms Williams.
Omar Allibhoy, the founder of the Tapas Revolution Spanish food chain, who has a tapas bar restaurant in Grand Central, believes that train commuters could account for 20 per cent of his customers.
“I just felt Birmingham ticked all the boxes for us. There was footfall, disposable income and people are very knowledgeable about food.
There are more than 1,000 Chinese restaurants in the city, and perhaps the same number of Indian restaurants, and yet there are only 16 Spanish restaurants. This is definitely the place to be.”