But more stores are extending their hours in the run-up to Christmas, following the lead set by Primark and other major retailers, and visitors have been urged to take advantage and shop at quieter times.
Meadowhall’s capacity has been limited to 11,000 at any one time – around half of what numbers can reach at the busiest times in normal circumstances – to ensure people can keep a safe distance inside, where a one-way system is operating as part of wide-ranging coronavirus safety measures.
Centre director Darren Pearce revealed that on Wednesday, as non-essential stores reopened following the national lockdown, the number inside never exceeded 6,000 – around 55 per cent of the limit agreed with Sheffield Council.
But he said that 11,000 threshold is likely to be reached this Saturday between 11am and 3pm, meaning some shoppers will be asked to queue outside until it is safe for them to enter.
Mr Pearce said the opening day had gone well despite reports of shoppers queuing for up to two hours to get into Primark, which decided to open for more than 24 hours, from 7am on Wednesday until midnight tonight, Thursday, December 3.
He said more traders – especially the bigger names – were announcing extended hours, with around 70 out of the centre’s 286 retailers operating beyond its core hours of 10am - 9pm Monday to Saturday, and 10:30am - 5:30pm on Sundays.
He expects that number to increase, with some opening till midnight or even 2am, while others introduce 8am starts, though he thinks Primark’s 24-hour opening will be a ‘one-off’.
And he wants shoppers to take advantage by visiting in the evenings, when it is typically quieter and they can enjoy a ‘more comfortable’ experience.
“We were really pleased with Wednesday. It was a nice steady start, despite all the media talk of shops being inundated due to pent-up demand,” said Mr Pearce.
"What we wanted was a safe and confident return to non-essential retail, which is what we got.
"Around a quarter of our retailers are now operating beyond our core hours, enabling shoppers to enjoy a more comfortable experience by shopping earlier in the morning or later in the evening, when it’s likely to be quieter.”
There were huge queues for Primark on Wednesday night, with some shoppers reportedly waiting for two hours to get inside.
Mr Pearce said the demand had ‘taken us all a bit by surprise’ but, despite some reports to the contrary, people had largely stuck to the social distancing guidelines and queued in an orderly fashion.
"The queue for Primark stretched right round the centre and was managed by our team and the store’s team to make sure we socially distanced people as much as we could and that people were wearing face masks unless they were exempt from doing so,” he said.
"I’ve just had the manager on the phone saying how delighted he was with how it worked last night.
"I’m expecting more stores to extend their opening hours. Primark are discussing that with their head office to say last night took us by surprise. Maybe we should be doing this more, perhaps opening until midnight or 2am.
"Whatever the customers want and we can safely manage that’s what we’re trying to do to assist our retailers in making back what’s been lost during the lockdown.”
Mr Pearce said shoppers had generally been good at complying with social distancing guidance and wearing mask but that police were ‘actively handing out fines’ to those without exemptions who refused to wear masks.
Despite the queues for Primark, he said total visitor numbers on Wednesday remained below what would be expected at this time of year, with around 49,000 shoppers turning up throughout the day, compared to 60,000-70,000 on a typical peak shopping day.
But he expects it to get much busier this weekend.
"I think some shoppers will be asked to queue outside this weekend. I’m expecting to be at the doors on Saturday between 11am and 3pm, and that’s why I would encourage people to shop a little later if possible,” he said.
Primark is staying open till 11.59pm tonight, Thursday, December 3, and until 11pm on Friday and Saturday.
Other stores at Meadowhall opening later in the run-up to Christmas include Boots, Next, Topshop and JD Sports, all of which are staying open until 10pm on certain days, with JD Sports having opened through the night on Wednesday like Primark.
The Tier 3 restrictions in South Yorkshire mean that while non-essential stores have been allowed welcome customers back, cafes and restaurants must remain closed for now, though some are offering a takeaway or delivery service.
Arcadia Group’s collapse into administration this week, which prompted administrators for Debenhams to announce the chain would be ‘wound down’, means four stores at Meadowhall – Debenhams, Topshop and Topman, Dorothy Perkins and Burton, and Miss Selfridge – could go.
They would be the latest high profile victims of the Covid-19 pandemic, which has exacerbated the high street’s existing struggles.
Mr Pearce insisted the centre was doing everything it could to help prevent its stores from going under.
“We’ve all been going through an incredibly challenging time with the economy and the retail sector’s been hit,” he said.
"We’re working really strongly in partnership with all our occupiers to agree a way forward, looking at occupation costs, services charges and rents, and making sure we all trade profitably out of this to move out the other side.”
To check the latest opening hours for stores at Meadowhall, visit: meadowhall.co.uk/eatdrinkshop/now-open.