From the youngest store manager at Laura Ashley to general manager at Frenchgate Shopping Centre Doncaster, Karen Staniforth tells Jill Theobald how the retail industry and the Centre itself were redefining themselves long before COVID-19 – and why the ‘determination’ of Doncastrians is a ‘triumph’ for South Yorkshire

“Things are happening that are different in Doncaster and that’s what I like – we’re not afraid of trying new things.”

Karen Staniforth, who was promoted to general manager at Frenchgate Shopping Centre earlier this year, makes this comment during our Zoom interview about the town she has proudly worked in, on and off, for more than two decades.

But she could just as easily be talking about the shopping centre itself and its forward-thinking and proactive approach.

Because the team at Frenchgate have always set out to ensure the customer experience is enhanced and engaging – that the venue is about ‘more than just shopping’.

And it’s a concept that ensured Frenchgate was on a firm footing, and a step ahead of its competitors, when it came to re-opening its doors – beyond the essential stores which remained open throughout all three lockdowns – when COVID-19 restrictions eased last month.

But let’s start at the beginning for Karen, as she shares her personal and professional story leading up to how “everything I’ve done in my career has culminated in this role – and I absolutely love it!”

“I fully intended on going to art college and becoming an art teacher – that’s my main passion and I still joke: ‘When I grow up, I’m going to become an art teacher!’ I think that was born out of having inspirational art teachers at school. But life got in the way and in the end, I didn’t go to university and was I working in Laura Ashley as a Saturday girl and did really well – they were giving me more and more hours and responsibility.

“I was also studying retail too at the time, but before I knew it, I was full-time and then on a management programme with them. So, at 19 I was the youngest store manager! At Pinstone Street in Sheffield I was assistant manager then I was promoted to store manager in Lincoln. At such a young age, having a staff of 30 who were all a lot older than me was a bit daunting but really good for cutting my teeth in the industry.

“I went on to manage Laura Ashley at Meadowhall, which was the region’s flagship store at the time, and it allowed me to express myself because I really love managing and working with people but also that creative element of interior design, so I went to night school and studied art and design.”

That flair for creativity caught the eye of housebuilder Haslam Homes (now Keepmoat) who Karen was looking after the show-homes for on behalf of Laura Ashley and who offered her a job after noting “there was a marked difference with who was doing the interiors in this region”.

“So, I left retail at 25 and went into construction and stayed with this for 13 years, eventually becoming the national sales and marketing director,” she says. “Retail gives you a really good grounding in the commercial sector. I had some amazing people around me who were inspirational, and I learned so much. I studied for a post-grad Business Management Diploma at Nottingham University and  while there I also went to the highly acclaimed Ashridge Business School and developed some really strong skills.”

Despite the financial crash in 2008, Karen then took the brave decision to set up her own interior design business – “I opened my shop the day the Lehman Brothers Bank went to the wall. The timing was really, really bad.”

Entrepreneur Karen fought on for 18 months in very difficult trading conditions, before closing the shop. After a period of consultancy and freelance work, she started working for Magnan Trust ending up as head officer. She was then headhunted by a very different sector – the music industry with Liz Hobbs Group, including overseeing the marketing for touring bands including British ska legends Madness, before joining Frenchgate in 2015.

“It’s all the same thinking and approach, though,” says Karen. “You’re applying the same knowledge to a different product. It almost feels like it was meant to be – I’ve got experience from sales, retail, interior design, construction, leisure and entertainment and all those elements are combined in working for (Frenchgate owners and their management agent) Lambert Smith Hampton and a shopping centre.

“It is the bricks and mortar of the building, the sales and commercial liaison, the facilities management and, ultimately, it’s a place of leisure. It’s not just about retail anymore – the climate has changed, and you can’t stand still. We’ve got to keep moving forward to make sure customers have a really engaging experience.

“I started as marketing manager, was promoted to assistant general manager in 2017 and am now general manager. It’s an interesting and dynamic role and it changes daily. One thing I am really passionate about is the arts – Doncaster has a really lovely emerging scene and there’s loads of talented people in this borough.”

Indeed, one of Karen’s first projects was the installation of a public art exhibition in 2016. A year later ‘The Art Space at Frenchgate’ – the thoroughfare connecting the centre to the train station – opened as a cultural hotspot, showcasing selected work by local artists and poets.

“We do punch above our weight,” says Karen, “but we still want to up the ante as a shopping centre with the experiences we offer. We’ve got The Arts Space which has won loads of awards and we’re about to launch a new literature exhibition to mark The Booker Prize. I’m trying to deal with the big community issues for people to engage with in a shopping centre – why not? Why not push boundaries and provide those cultural experiences?

“We were proud to host ‘The Way We Were’ exhibition last year to commemorate Black History Month in October. The project served as a reminder of what life was like for the Second Generation all those years ago, with a focus on their experiences and the important contributions they’ve made to Doncaster.”

But the retail sector is, of course, changing, too.

“We still want to attract the big names,” says Karen, “but it will be interesting to see how people use us in the future, how our leisure offering develops. We’ve got (restaurants) Wowburger and Elephant and Castle, two really high-profile brands that have chosen to invest in Doncaster and launched here at Frenchgate which is massive kudos for us.

“Also, Poundland upsized into a larger unit in the centre and one good thing COVID enabled us to do is use the old unit as an artisan emporium. They previously held a regular craft fair, but, with social distancing, we could no longer host them on the Mall. The new unit has helped us think creatively about how we can help start-up and new businesses.

“Big businesses are, of course, hugely important and we fight tooth and nail to get – and keep – those names within Doncaster, but it’s also important we’re giving smaller businesses a leg-up.”

And as for the future of retail – nationally and at Frenchgate – Karen paints an optimistic outlook.

“It’s not all doom and gloom,” she states. “It’s easy to think retail is ruined but it’s not – far from it. We’ve all been forced into shopping online, but I’ve personally had enough of it, and I think a lot of the public have, too.

“You think ‘actually I want to try this outfit on’ or ‘I want that personal experience’ – we’re social animals at the end of the day and people really need that connection. Shopping online removes a lot of that human element – plus you can’t judge the quality of a product!

“It is just not the same as meeting and enjoying a coffee with your best mate and that need is not going to go away. We want to get that element right, so people visit, stay, and enjoy their time here.

“We’ve also got to remember we’re responsible for people’s memories. We see lots of children growing up who are adults now that remember meeting at the statue at Frenchgate or at the bottom of the escalators.

“Shopping centres do foster that sense of community – they are a hub for memories. I remember with great fondness looking forward to Saturday shopping with my mum and going to British Home Stores for tea and cake afterwards.

People want to create new memories because kids still want that connection as much as adults – that family connection. It’s a legacy and part of our social history, as well as the functional and everyday services, that people need.”

#DoncasterIsGreat… or so the hashtag goes! And Karen agrees – here she shares why…

“Doncaster people have got real determination and grit. It’s a really accepting town and a true northern community that can face and tackle most things. We’re at the heart of things and it ls important we never forget that.

“That’s a triumph – it’s something we really should be championing, because it’s unique – that carrying of the banner for Doncaster. The one thing that remains true and never seems to shift is that loyalty.

“At Frenchgate, we have got a really strong footfall which has remained constant – except for the dip, of course, due to lockdown – but we have such loyal customers and that hasn’t changed.

“Running Frenchgate is like running a mini town in itself. Everything a town has a shopping centre has!
Just a different scale.

“But mainly it’s that over-riding strong sense of community – doing right by everyone that visits and ensuring our customers are front and centre of everything we do.”