Surrey Place is serious about image

Surrey is the fastest growing community in b.c., yet its image has been tainted repeatedly by extensive news coverage about ethnic gang warfare, random violence and increased crime.Anything that goes wrong in the Vancouver suburb one day is the butt of...

Surrey is the fastest growing community in b.c., yet its image has been tainted repeatedly by extensive news coverage about ethnic gang warfare, random violence and increased crime.

Anything that goes wrong in the Vancouver suburb one day is the butt of jokes in the Vancouver media the next day.


As part of the new growth the past few years, Surrey’s new city centre, formerly known as Whalley, has undergone a near-total transformation in an explosion of new townhouses and upscale commercial development.

A Sky Train light commuter rail link to Vancouver has brought Surrey closer to the heart of Vancouver’s business community.

Moving to Surrey

In the process, many former Vancouverites, tired of the city’s out-of-reach housing prices, are moving to more affordable homes in Surrey, bringing with them upscale disposable incomes.

In spite of the transformation in the city centre, retailers at Surrey Place shopping mall were not feeling the effects of the new growth.

Surrey Place, a 600,000-square-foot mall, traditionally had been known as a community mall serving the Whalley area, known for its low-income housing and low-income residents.

Despite a $40-million makeover in 1991, Surrey Place shopping centre could not overcome its wrong-side-of-the-tracks image.

Right side of the tracks

Just 12 blocks away from Surrey Place is Guildford Town Centre, an 800,000-square foot mall considered by many to be on the right side of the tracks.

Guildford maintained a strong clientele among the region’s best customers, and it had attracted a number of national retailers to anchor its shopping centre.

At the depths of the recession, Surrey Place saw its hopes of taking its place as a regional shopping centre slipping away to Guildford.

Sales suffered

Despite the best attempts of retailers to attract shoppers, sales continued to suffer.

Anchored by The Bay, Zellers, Sears and Extra Foods, along with 150 other strong regional and independent retailers, new management felt Surrey Place could effectively compete with Guildford on product selection.

What was needed at Surrey Place was aggressive marketing to build a new image.

New management brought in Alison Love, the new marketing director for Surrey Place.

Love was given a mandate to build awareness and a quality image.

Her first step was an aggressive campaign to provide the cleanest mall in the Lower Mainland.

The mall had become known as a favorite meeting place for teenage loiterers.

Management redecorated the mall with new flower boxes, and created traffic patterns and an atmosphere that impeded the loiterers.

The second step was to attract people who had previously avoided Surrey Place.

Love kept hearing people say how impressed they were by Surrey Place once they actually decided to visit the mall.

`Get them inside’

‘We knew that once we got people inside to visit the mall, we could sell them on Surrey Place,’she says.

‘In casual conversations, we kept telling potential customers we might just surprise them. But, for the first time in a long time, we really meant it.’

About a year ago, she launched the initial campaign, ‘We Might Just Surprise You,’ on the opening day of Surrey’s light rail link to Vancouver.

The Surrey city centre station is located across the mall from Surrey Place.

Hosting events

A second step was to become involved in Surrey’s future by hosting regional events at its large Centre Court, including spring and fall fashion events, a cake-decorating competition and musical acts.

‘We had to give our customers more than a pony in the parking lot,’ Love says.

At the same time, management attracted new national retailers, including Aldo Shoes, Northern Reflections and Boston Pizza.

Despite the fact there were vacancies, Surrey Place became even more selective in its choice of stores it added to the mall.

Consistent with attracting top-flight retailers, Love launched an aggressive eye-popping advertising program to present somewhat of a highbrow image, very unlike what had been presented before by Surrey Place.

Expect the unexpected

‘We wanted our customers to come expecting the unexpected,’ she says.

Love turned to Suburbia Studios, a Victoria-based design firm.

Known for its crisp, tony graphics, Suburbia presented the kind of first-class image sophisticated shoppers would be attracted to, promising them Surrey Place would deliver more than they expected.

‘We chose Suburbia because they felt the way we did about Surrey,’ Love says.

‘We wanted to work with a firm that had no preconceived notion of Surrey,’ she says.

Outdoor and print

Featuring ‘Surprise You’ images on buses, and Sky Train shelter signage, on-board signage and platform posters, the theme was carried through in print advertising.

At the same time, Love began using first-class mall promotions and direct mail to increase Surrey Place’s image within the community.

The mall launched several programs, including gift bags to new Surrey residents.

Recently, Surrey’s budget was cut back, eliminating the city’s traditional tree-lighting ceremony.

Love jumped in with a proposal to stage the ceremony, along with fireworks and a laser show at the mall, thereby saving the annual Christmas event.

Love also eliminated many of the weekly events at the mall, preferring to sponsor fewer events, but host only those that stressed quality.

Last month, the mall tabulated the results of the marketing campaign.

‘October was phenomenal,’ Love says. ‘The parking lots were full. We had traffic jams.’

Since January, Surrey Place has reversed a three-year downward trend in sales.

Expecting to break even by December, managers were surprised to learn that by October the mall had increased its dollars per square-foot ratio by 8%, with the two best months of the season yet to go.

High-profile events aside, the biggest bonus, Love reports, is the new attitude among the mall retailers, who now take pride in what they are doing.

‘They aren’t just taking pride in their business, but they are creating a new image for their community,’ she says.