City centres increasingly more popular, out-of-town stores losing ground.

This and a lot more besides is the result of a large scale survey into the shopping behaviour of Belgian consumers. The research was carried out in February 2012 by professor Gino Van Ossel of Vlerick Business School, in cooperation with InSites Consulting.

Shopping remains a hobby for the majority of the women – the ageing of the population is a threat

Some 43% of Belgians like to go shopping for pleasure. Not entirely surprisingly, a lot more women (56%) like going shopping than men (only 30%). The desire to go shopping also falls with age: 51% of respondents aged 18 to 34 years like shopping, compared with only 45% in the group of 35-50 year olds. Among the over 50s this falls to 36%.

"I like to go shopping for pleasure” % (fully) agree

"In the long term this means that the ageing of the population is a threat for the retail sector. Even though older people have more time, they clearly choose other activities over shopping," explains professor Van Ossel.

We prefer to go shopping for pleasure with our partner (44%) rather than alone (35%) or with friends (30%) (more than one answer possible!).

If the chance arises, 46% go shopping for pleasure on holiday. For a city trip one in three Belgians (31%) choose a destination where you can also enjoy shopping. Gino Van Ossel: "The fact that many people go shopping on holiday does indeed prove that for many people shopping really is a hobby."

Fun shopping and out-of-town stores do not go together. 59% think that you mainly go to an out-of-town store when you need something specific. 47% stress that you do not go to such an out-of-town store for pleasure.

Cities have the winning hand, but not in Wallonia

In addition to shopping for pleasure, we sometimes specifically go shopping because we need something particular. As many as 70% of Belgians state they do this 'often to very often', almost as many men as women.

If a Belgian needs something, he mainly (very) often goes to the centre of the city where he lives (47%) or works (35%). Also shopping centres outside or on the edge of the city are (very) often visited for this purpose (28%). Buying online is continuing its advance (13%) and competing with out-of-town stores (8%).

"How often do you specifically go shopping in each of these locations? By specific shopping we mean shopping because you have planned to buy something durable (a pair of shoes, a DVD, a coat, a present...)." % (very) often

"But note: this does not mean a proportion of sales, but the frequency with which the consumer himself states he goes there to buy something 'often or very often'," emphasises professor Van Ossel. "You should also not read this as if e-commerce already has a bigger market share than out-of-town stores. That is certainly not the case. But the results do indicate a clear trend."

But concealed behind these averages are strikingly big regional differences. In Flanders (53%) and Brussels (57%) over half of the population (very) often goes shopping in the centre of the city where they live, compared with only 35% in Wallonia. There, shopping centres on the edge of or outside the city are most popular (41%). Furthermore the future of city centres looks very good: as many as 18% of respondents state they will go there more often in the future, compared with only 7% less often.

"On the one hand Flemish city centres are rewarded here for their efforts to make city centres more attractive. Investments in infrastructure, city marketing and centre management are paying off. On the other hand Wallonia is much less densely populated and there are therefore fewer large cities. This is why Walloons mainly go to French style 'centres commerciales'. Results there are also coloured by the success of the shopping centres Mediacité in Liege and Les Grands Prés in Mons," the professor adds.

For out-of-town stores a considerable decline threatens: as many as 34% expect to go there less in the future, compared with barely 4% more often. "But be careful," explains the professor: "Consumers are always more extreme in their statements than in their behaviour. This is why I expect rather a gradual fall in the market share of out-of-town stores. But loss of market share seems to be unavoidable.”

E-commerce gives a mixed picture: 20% think they will shop online more often, but 25% maintain they will do it less. Van Ossel: "It is as if some people are disillusioned in their experiences with shopping on the Internet. But it is the most dynamic shopping channel: ultimately almost half of respondents say they want to change their behaviour."

Brussels remains the most important shopping city, but increasingly less for Dutch speakers. Cross-border shopping is popular

The city where you go shopping most often accounts for most spending. It is a good measure of the market share of a city in the total retail turnover.

Visited most often

total

NL

FR

Brussels

16%

7%

28%

Antwerp

11%

19%

0%

Maastricht

7%

7%

6%

Ghent

6%

9%

0%

Leuven

6%

9%

1%

Louvain-la-Neuve

6%

0%

15%

Bruges

5%

8%

0%

Namur

5%

1%

11%

Hasselt

4%

7%

0%

Lille

4%

2%

7%

With 16% Brussels remains the city where most Belgians say they go shopping most often. But it is striking that Brussels falls to fifth place for Dutch speakers, after Antwerp (19%), Ghent (9%), Leuven (9%) and Bruges (8%). It also has to share that fifth place with Hasselt and Maastricht.

Visited most often

total

NL

FR

Antwerp

11%

19%

0%

Ghent

6%

9%

0%

Leuven

6%

9%

1%

Bruges

5%

8%

0%

Brussels

16%

7%

28%

Hasselt

4%

7%

0%

Maastricht

7%

7%

6%

The top 5 shopping cities most visited by French speakers ("city centre ") is as follows:

Visited most often

total

NL

FR

Brussels

16%

7%

28%

Louvain-la-Neuve

6%

0%

15%

Namur

5%

1%

11%

Charleroi

3%

0%

8%

Liege

3%

0%

8%

"It is also striking that with Maastricht and Lille two foreign cities are in the top 10 cities visited most often to go shopping," comments Gino Van Ossel. "In total foreign cities are preferred by 15% of respondents. Our economy is seeing a lot of money flowing abroad here."

People are prepared to travel further to cities which have more to offer than just shops

Belgians also sometimes go shopping in cities located further away from their home or work. In those cases they clearly make an outing out of it. The main reasons for travelling further to these cities are:

  • you can experience more there than just shopping (41%)
  • there is always something to experience (34%)
  • the city has sufficient nice, more specialised shops (33%)
  • the city is enjoyable and pleasant (30%)

The top 5 cities where most Belgians say they have gone shopping at least once in the past 12 months are:

visited <12

total

NL

FR

Brussels

35%

24%

52%

Antwerp

29%

45%

6%

Maastricht

19%

23%

14%

Ostend

16%

20%

10%

Liege

15%

6%

28%

The top 3 are similar to the figures for the cities visited most often, but there are differences. Brussels (35%) clearly attracts more occasional than frequent Dutch-speaking shoppers. Antwerp with 29% clearly follows closely. At least once a year half of all French speakers go shopping in Brussels, while half of Dutch speakers go to Antwerp each year.

As a bathing resort Ostend takes an impressive fourth place. Knokke together with Paris just falls outside the top 10.

"The most popular shopping cities push out the others. Maastricht for example is an important competitor for Liege and Hasselt," according to Van Ossel. "The success of our coastal cities confirms that cities must offer more than just shops,and that people go shopping for pleasure when on holiday. That is why cities such Paris and London are mentioned here by respondents."

Belgians think shopping centres are particularly practical - the bigger ones attract customers from far and wide

43% of Belgians visit a shopping centre at least once a year. Aspects on which these people evaluate shopping centres as significantly better than city centres are:

  • Accessibility: 74% think shopping centres are easily accessible (vs. 68% in the city centre)
  • The weather: 72% think that you are less subject to the weather (vs. 33% in the city centre)
  • Safety: 69% feel safe (vs. 59% in the city centre in general, and only 50% in the Brussels region)
  • Parking: 68% think there is sufficient parking (vs. 37% in the city centre)

Professor Van Ossel: "While Belgians mainly choose the city centre because of the range of shops and because there is more to enjoy than just shopping, for practical reasons they choose shopping centres on the edge of or outside the city. Our research also confirms that (perceived) safety is an important issue for our cities. Especially Brussels has a problem here: barely half of the inhabitants of the Brussels Region feel safe in the city centre."

It is striking that a few shopping centres clearly dominate the market.

At least once < 12 months

total

NL

FR

Wijnegem Shopping Centre (Wijnegem)

20%

32%

3%

Maasmechelen Village (Maasmechelen)

15%

18%

10%

Woluwe Shopping Centre (Woluwe)

14%

6%

25%

Médiacité (Liege)

11%

2%

24%

Waasland Shopping Centre (Sint-Niklaas)

11%

17%

1%

Base: people who visit shopping centres (43% of Belgians)

For all visitors to shopping centres a fifth go at least once a year to the Wijnegem Shopping Centre. For Dutch-speaking visitors to shopping centres this rises to as much as 32%. The Waasland Shopping Centre is visited by 17% of Dutch-speaking shopping centre visitors at least once a year.

"The number of visitors confirms this," comments professor Van Ossel. "With 10 million visitors per year Wijnegem shows that big shopping centres in our country are still alive and kicking. The comparison with the American market, where a number of shopping malls have closed and are languishing, clearly does not hold up. You just cannot compare the American and the Belgian markets with one another."

Woluwe Shopping Centre and Médiacité in Liege each attract about a quarter of French-speaking shopping centre visitors.

Maasmechelen Village is able to attract both Dutch-speaking and French-speaking visitors.

Uplace: unknown, unloved. But it does have support among consumers

The research also sounded out the knowledge and perception of the Uplace project that has regularly been in the news in recent weeks and seems to be growing into a symbol of a new generation of shopping centres.

The average Belgian is not (yet?) really familiar with Uplace: 51% state they have never heard of it.

But language seems to play a big part here too: only 28% of Dutch speakers do not know the project, compared with 85% of French speakers. In the Walloon Region this rises to as many as 91%!

This even applies within Flemish-Brabant. Of the Dutch-speaking respondents from Flemish -Brabant (n = 128) only 14% have never heard of Uplace; for French speakers (n = 54) this proportion rises to as many as 50%.

Professor Van Ossel states that these results reflect the differences in involvement: "those who live nearby know more about it. And because Uplace is in the Flemish Region, the Flemish media pay more attention to Uplace than the French-speaking media. For the average Walloon Uplace is clearly no concern of theirs."

"Can you indicate to what extent you find the Uplace project in Machelen appealing?"

Unfamiliarity also leads to a relatively great indifference in the average Belgian (41%). In Flemish-Brabant the number who are indifferent is much smaller (25%).

But nevertheless there are a lot more people who are positive than negative about Uplace. Certainly in Flemish-Brabant Uplace appeals to over one and a half times more people (49%) than not (29%).

"Because stakeholders and some local administrations list mainly the disadvantages, the impression may be given that public opinion is against Uplace. But these results prove the opposite," Van Ossel remarks. "Because many people go shopping often, they welcome a new and innovative shopping centre. Certainly the closer to it they live, and even if Uplace unavoidably still remains something relatively abstract, because it only exists on paper so far."

Nevertheless Uplace arouses curiosity. As many as 43% of all respondents (from the whole of Belgium) intend to visit Uplace at least once to see it with their very own eyes. Within Flemish-Brabant this percentage rises to 60% and in the Brussels region as much as 66%.

Proximity plays a very big part in this:

  • 57% of all respondents think Uplace is too far away to visit regularly.
  • of the 30% who do not want to visit Uplace even once, 72% think it is too far away
  • among the inhabitants of Flemish-Brabant only 29% think that it is too far away.

Finally only 17% of respondents think that the government should ban an initiative such as Uplace. 38% or over twice as many are against such a ban. The biggest group (45%) has no opinion on this.

Background & methodology

This research was carried out by professor Gino Van Ossel of the Vlerick Leuven Gent Management School in cooperation with InSites Consulting. The full and detailed results will be presented during the Vlerick Retail Platform 2012, a series of 4 study half-days that help retailers keep up-to-date with the latest developments in the retail world.

The figures are the result of an online survey of 756 respondents in February 2012. Firstly this involves a sample of 654 people representative of the Belgian population. The results for the total Belgian population (where applicable broken down by language group, age or sex) relate to the answers of these 654 respondents.

Secondly an additional 102 respondents from the province of Flemish-Brabant were surveyed. The results for the inhabitants of Flemish-Brabant relate to 182 respondents, in particular these 102 extra respondents and the 80 inhabitants from Flemish-Brabant from the national sample of 654 people.

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