At the heart of every mall and shopping center are the people that work there. It is the greeters and sales associates and cashiers and stockers and managers that make the difference between an errand and an experience. It is the security guards, janitors, maintenance staff, and property management that make a center nice enough to change buying into shopping. In the battle for our discretionary income between online and in-person shopping, it is the people that are brick and mortar’s biggest competitive advantage.
The community created around retail properties lives and dies with the employees, so they should be connected and empowered whenever possible. As more shopping centers adopt digital tools, it opens up a lot of ways to empower the workers. “The best way for retail properties to create a community is by leveraging the people that are there every day,” said Jake Roberts, President of Sales at Mallcomm, a tenant engagement platform. There are a lot of benefits to having this digitally-powered community. If there are problems, they get reported and addressed much faster when everyone is connected and engaged. “To improve a property, a feedback loop needs to be created,” Roberts said. “That loop becomes much tighter once every employee has a direct line to the individual retailers and the property manager.”
A more connected community is just the beginning of what adding a digital layer to a retail center can do. Only once important metrics like sales, promotions, and foot traffic get properly tracked can they then be analyzed against other data points. “With local mobility data from mobile phones, we can see where people come from, and where they go before and after they come to our centers,” said Meredith Darnall, Senior Vice President for the Business Intelligence and Strategy division of Brookfield Properties, one of the world’s biggest retail owners. “We have also started using WiFi location data to understand where people move once they are in our centers,” she added.
Darnall says that Brookfield is able to leverage its size to create a more sophisticated understanding of shopper profiles. “Before it was all about local demographics, but now we realize it is more about retail behavior,” she said. “We have created our own shopper profile segmentation where we look at each one’s retail affinities and try to understand what the perfect mix of offerings from each retail category is.” She also explained that you have to treat every mall as its own brand and try to find the best mix stores to help strengthen it. “Our leasing team shares all of this analysis with our clients so they can see that there is a true sales strategy behind site selection,” she said.
Understanding the impact of changes or promotions to a mall’s performance isn’t a perfect science, though. The first problem is that sales are usually only tracked on a monthly basis, if at all. This does not provide the granularity needed to make correlations. The lack of data points can be overcome with a collaborative approach. “Even though you can’t require retailers to provide more data, you can incentivize them to do so,” said Randall McKillop, Executive Vice President of the Americas at Mallcomm. “We’ve seen managers have success by asking tenants to track sales for a certain event, like Black Friday, and then providing them with a breakdown of how they did in comparison to others in their category. It is a give and a take.”
The collaborative approach to sales analytics between landlord and retailer doesn’t end at the property line, either. Alex Zikakas is the CEO of Capstone Advisors, a real estate investment and development firm that runs a number of shopping centers in multiple US markets. His team helps promote their retailers not just on-site but online as well. “We use a combination of Google My Business and Facebook data to track foot traffic and online engagement,” he said. They hire a third-party company to monitor and report on all of the tenants’ search data. “We’ve started using Google Ads at targeted geographic locations and, using anonymized mobile data, are able to track the conversion of potential customers who saw the ad and then actually visited the retailer.”
The pandemic has driven people to online shopping but it has also taught many of us that there are certain things we would rather buy in a store. Physical retail is not dead, but it is changing. And for it to reach its full potential we will need to find ways to better activate shopping centers. It is up to property managers to create a way for retailers to make the most of their storefronts and that can only be done by embracing digital management technology, applying sophisticated analytical techniques, and taking a collaborative approach with retailers.