Even before Covid-19, large parts of the retail sector were struggling. However, the last few years have seen widespread acceptance that proactivity and new ideas are needed. How is that shaping up as the UK and other countries leave lockdown?
PlaceTech gathered experts from across retail property and tech to explore these questions and more at this special briefing sponsored by Bruntwood Works and Mallcomm.
- Andrea George, director of town centre & consumer brands, Bruntwood Works
- Brad Miller, managing director, MAGO
- Michelle Buxton, founder and chief executive, Toolbox Group
Can tech save retail? Michelle Buxton said: “Tech is an enabler, because having a human there remains really important. Our platforms are about gathering data inside and outside a property to enable the relationship. And allow our customers to deliver for their customers and provide frictionless experiences.
“In retail, we see a lot of ‘technical debt’ – old legacy systems, rather than newer platforms – in the market: some people are scared to make a change that make take a few years to pay off, there’s a reluctance with some to understand that agile systems now can be up and running in weeks. The understanding of short- to long-term gains is now improving.
“The tech we’re looking for has to be future-adaptable, not bespoke. Something like 90% of executives recently surveyed believe the only way they’ll add value to their business going forward is through tech, so education and skills need to reflect that.
“Retail needs to adapt to digital omnipresence, not think about ecommerce and physical retail as separate things. Direct mail has been fundamental to Next, say, so can they transfer that knowledge they have of those customers to help next time they’re in-store? I’ve had a Boots card for years, but don’t know if they’ve gone through the lifecycle of my journey with them from having babies onwards.
“In terms of tech, what is your business strategy and how does it blend with your tech strategy, do you need more analysts, do you need more tech people? There’s a democratisation aspect: it has to be simple enough for everybody to use.
MAGO, part of Manchester Airports Group, is a business set up to change the relationship between passengers and airports through tech.
Managing director Brad Miller said: “We’ve been working really hard to emerge strongly from a bizarre time. We’re always looking to understand our customers better.
“We noticed in summer 2020 between lockdowns that people were booking parking days before departure, rather than weeks, everyone needs flexibility now, they’re worried about committing, so we need to make the refunds process clear.
“A lot of what we’re looking at is linking the physical and digital experience, in particular in areas like duty free, which is getting bigger and bigger. If you can start the process online, your average transaction value (ATV) goes up and the number of people who just walk through goes down.
“Our new Terminal Two building will see huge improvements with things like the biggest digital wall in UK airports, showing interactive content.
“There is still an issue over personalising your offer and intrusion, but there’s a lot of protection now for consumers. People are prepared to accept cookies, store card details, with the expectation they’ll get something in return – what value exchange is there?”
Bruntwood Works’ Andrea George said: “Tech has been central to our joint venture work with Trafford Council at both Stretford Mall and Stamford Quarter in Altrincham, partly because consultations were done online during Covid.
“What we’ve found is tech is integral to creating a smarter town centre: people want better connections, greener space, an ecosystem where each part supports others.
“People still want to meet, they need to eat, they need a haircut, we just need to repurpose some retail space, as we’re doing with department stores in Altrincham, to bring back workspace, civic uses, education, health, and that 20-minute neighbourhood feel.
“We’ll share footfall data and use tech to facilitate real-life experiences, from small things like a birdwatcher app so people can identify birds.”
- Karen K Burns, chief executive and co-founder, Fyma
- Ben Rosenbaum, co-founder, Dent Reality
- Natalia Maximova, associate partner, Sheppard Robson
- Dan Gildoni, chief executive and co-founder, Placense
Fyma uses Artificial Intelligence, transforming old CCTV cameras into smart sensors to help clients understand human behaviour in their spaces.
Karen Burns said: “We see two types of retailer: those very keen to advance and those very old school ones still needing to go on a big journey.”
The tech is all anonymised, heading off data issues, but allows users to essentially “draw virtual sensors anywhere in the field of view – you just draw a circle and it will tell you who looked at a mannequin for example”.
It improves efficient management, too, allowing cleansing teams to be dispatched to spillages in food courts.
Burns added: “We are engaged on projects looking to rebuild post-Covid. One big centre wants to rebuild a section of their mall, they need to know how many people use it, where are the bottlenecks, can people access stairs as well as escalators to offer more distancing options. We look at direction and trajectory of travel, not just footfall.”
Dan Gildoni said: “Goal one post-Covid is bringing back traffic, goal two is making your proposition relevant. The repurposing of retail is being accelerated, people need to ask ‘who is coming here? What are their needs?
“The skills property companies need to build are analysing data and the ability to use it, add that to the experience older professionals have built up. It’s all business intelligence. Staying close to academia is important to us.
“There are issues around privacy and tracking – we’ve just seen Dutch municipality Enschede fined €600m for wi-fi tracking. Everyone needs to be cautious.
“Open data is very important, because there is so much going on, a big problem is how to deal with the mass of data and help retailers work out what to do with it – data speaks many different languages. It’s a burning topic.
Ben Rosenbaum’s business is working with traders such as M&S with apps that help customers navigate their stores.
He said: “We need to understand who is in stores and why. Investing in an in-store experience is not just an increased focus, but a strategic differentiator for retailers, because for all that the expectation of shoppers have changed, in-store retail hasn’t changed much.”
Customers open the app in-store, and as well as organising their shopping, Augmented Reality provides overlay images to guide them round with arrows. Rosenbaum said: “Take-up has been really good, AR is an exciting visual part of it – it has been gimmicky in past, our approach is it has to solve a problem for people, and make life easier.
“It’s not for everyone, so we also offer have a bird’s eye map. It’s actually the older shoppers that have really hooked onto AR, which I didn’t expect. It’s been fascinating to watch people fall in love with it.”
Covid has pushed people into adapting, Rosenbaum said: “People are more comfortable with tech in a retail context now: supermarkets have shown striking data on how often people independently check out, that desire for completely contact-free experience has driven that.”
Almost every physical space will in time become “smart” he reckons, offering personalised journeys with filtered, relevant information. He concluded: “In 2025, we’ll still be mostly doing everything via smartphones, but by 2030 that might be by glasses: that’s where big tech is putting its money.”
Natalia Maximova of Sheppard Robson said: “Data has a huge part to play in reshaping shopping centres, which usually right now is about reducing the amount of retail space and fine-tuning how other functions operate there.”
She added that there is opportunity in Government recognising the need to revive town centres: “Local authorities are investing heavily, putting £1bn into small town shopping centres, good data could inform them on what to do with it.
“For us, it’s not all doom and gloom. Towns have unique points: listed buildings, riverbanks, installations, physical assets they can make more of: people are attracted to settings and Instagram locations as much as they are to goods on shelves.”
It’s time to put the words into action around animating spaces, she said: “Especially with new developments, owners have to be bolder. Covid has accelerated trends – we need less retail but better performing retail, more performance spaces, curated events, installations, community library exchange, pop-ups – these are actually interesting times. There’s still a need for physical retail and for towns to offer things people can’t get at home.”
The next PlaceTech Talks event will be on offices in July