To Affinity and beyond. Why a Fylde coast shopping outlet changed its name and how that switch is already paying dividends
When the Fylde coast's shopping outlet village changed its name from Freeport Fleetwood to Affinity in May, quite a few people were left scratching their heads.
What on earth does that mean? How forgettable a word is that?
But centre manager Amanda Daniels, who has worked at the dockside site since bonfire night 2001, said it was a change that had to be made and one which has begun to pay dividends.
This week, the centre which provides jobs for around 400, is virtually fully let, and by Christmas Amanda said there will be only one or possibly two empty units.
This is in stark contracts to some of our Lancashire high streets which have seen shops shutting and empty units making them an unwelcoming place for visitors.
“We are having a tough time in retail,” she said. “I heard someone the other week in a speech and they said it was the toughest time for the high street since the days of the Luftwaffe.”
She said the years of austerity were now playing out and the challenge of the internet was taking trade from many businesses.
The Fleetwood site itself has not been immune to the struggles of even some big names. M&S pulled out in May as it tried to resolve its trading strategy.
Amanda said: “My philosophy on the day they closed was that there was nothing we could do about that. But it gives us an opportunity. We started to get interest in the site within weeks from big retailers.”
The large unit was split up and shoe firm Clarks is taking part of it and is due to open before Christmas.
“We have been chasing Clarks to come here ever since I started working here, so it is great for us and the reception locally has been good.”
The other part of M&S’ unit will be taken up by fashion specialists Leading Labels. Amanda said that for a high street to work these days, it had to work in harmony with the town it is in, and the town had to work in harmony with it.
“There are some successes on the Fylde coast. Highfield Road, near where I live in South Shore, is a great place to shop. Locals use the shops and cafes, there’s a strong mix of day and night time businesses.
“It is all about how people engage with a shopping area and how you attract them and keep them there. It has to look welcoming and at the same time people need to use it or it will die.”
She said you can never stand still and Affinity Lancashire was now considering plans to turn its face towards the marina.
When it was built and opened on July 11, 1995, by entrepreneur Sean Collidge and who had seen shopping outlets in the USA, it was as a regeneration project at the moribund docks and turned its back on the waterside which was not thenseen as an asset. Now Affinity is looking to make a feature of the water with shops and cafes enjoying the vista.
When it was built, strict restrictions of which types of shop were placed on it, no white goods shops, no hairdressers, no convenience stores, as the community feared the effect it might have on Fleetwood’s high street. But Amanda said they have always tried to work with the town and have taken their community role seriously.
She said they have never been too strict on letting visitors park on their site and when Alfie Boe played at Fleetwood Town, they sold tickets at Affinity and let people park for the concert.
“We were a key member of the chamber of trade when it was going and we work closely with the rotary club and the police in shopwatch. It is important to be involved.”
She said it was also important to put on free entertainment for the visitors to the outlet village and plans are under way for their Christmas extravaganza. But she said no decorations would go up before yesterday’s Remembrance Sunday.
t is not respectful and people do get a bit fed up of Christmas too early.”
Amanda started at the then Freeport in marketing in 2001, having previously worked in hospitality.
Her parents ran a hotel in Blackpool having moved down from Glasgow and she studied hospitality at Blackpool and The Fylde College before working in local hotels including her favourite, The Imperial with its rich history.
But when Sean Collidge sold Freeport to Hermes in 2004, her job disappeared and she took a deputy manager role. January last year was a big one for Amanda. She married and stepped up to centre manager, a great role she says for a self confessed shopaholic.
Now she is looking forward to 2019 and believes the centre has a bright future under its new owners which have two other outlet sites, in Staffordshire and Bideford.
“Despite all that has been said about the economy, I believe next year is going to be our most exciting yet.”
And the rebrand?
“The change of name was not really for our shopping customers, it was for our retailers.
“Freeport is still a company and so obviously we could not continue to use that name, it would be confusing and make it difficult to talk to the big high street names.”
She said teams from each of the three outlets got together with bosses and a marketing consultant in a brainstorming session.
e all thought about what was important, our ethos our approach.” She said from a long list of words a shortlist was found and everyone agreed separately on Affinity.
“It’s about family, community and we decided to add the county name to each of the three centres to put them firmly on the map.
“How do you change people’s view on something that has been called Freeport for so long? Well to be honest, people locally will always call it Freeport. It is a bit like me. I got married and changed my name from Elliot to Daniels. But some people will still think of me as Elliot. It doesn’t really matter.
“We did get some comments about it being unimaginative but we have to move on. You cannot stand still in retail and in any case some younger people will always think of Freeport as, ‘oh that place where my gran used to shop’.
"We have to move on and look to the future and that goes for the shops offering too. The new branding has already helped us to bring in new stores.”