A SHOPPING centre owner has saluted its decision to veer away from department stores after bypassing operators’ travails during the festive period.

New River Retail says shoppers’ cravings for its malls, allied to a focus on convenience and discount shops, provided the basis for a solid third quarter.

The business, which oversees Darlington’s Cornmill Shopping Centre, yesterday revealed national unit occupancy stood at a record 97 per cent in the period, with customer footfall 1.9 per cent better off in December than a year ago.

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The progress jars against that of department stores, with operators such as House of Fraser, Next and Debenhams all admitting to difficulties over Christmas as shoppers tightened their belts.

However, Paul Roy, New River Retail chairman, said the group had manoeuvred itself into a strong position by looking at other players in the retail sector.

He said: “The grocers, convenience store operators and discount and value retailers, which are at the core of our portfolio, had a good quarter, underpinned by positive likefor- like sales over Christmas.

“In fact, the discount sector is forecast to grow by 36 per cent over the next five years, driven by a shift in consumer behaviour towards value for money.

“Importantly, we recognised the challenge faced by department stores some time ago, and have almost no rental exposure to that part of the market.

“We remain confident of delivering growing and sustainable cash returns to shareholders from our convenience- led portfolio.”

Paul Wright, a director at New River Retail, previously told The Northern Echo it had big plans for the Cornmill following a move for the Neptune Portfolio, which also included Wakefield’s Ridings Shopping Centre and Cardiff ’s Capitol Shopping Centre.

He said: “There is no point in us coming in and sitting still. We don’t work like that, we don’t like mediocrity.

“We want people to sit up and think ‘that looks different’.”

New River Retail’s operations also include Middlesbrough’s Hillstreet Shopping Centre and Gateshead’s Allison Court Retail Park.