As the retail industry adjusts to the aftershocks of the abrupt acceleration towards e-commerce that characterised the Covid pandemic, retailers and landlords alike are facing a future where data — and our ability to draw decisions from it at scale and pace — could be more valuable than the real estate in which their operations are located. We can already see this trend playing out in the latest round of retail acquisitions globally. British e-commerce giant ASOS bought Topshop and its
its associated brands in a deal worth nearly £300 million (AU$413 million), that saw ASOS acquire the data, brand and inventory of the high-street labels, though not the physical stores. This mirrors the earlier smaller deal in the UK that saw Boohoo acquire beleaguered department store Debenhams for £55 million (AUD$75 million), again acquiring brands and data but no property. In Australia, property is an even greater part of the total cost of ownership for retailer operators, with high rents and labour costs unavoidable in our market. It’s important to note here that there are significant differences between the UK and Australian markets — the most apparent being distance — however, there are lessons that local retail players can learn. The picture is more complex than simply “everything is shifting online” both globally and locally. If I had to identify two major areas of focus for landlords and retail tenants alike, it would be data and experience. Retailers operating in a competitive environment often have an incomplete picture of their customers. They might know how customers behave in their stores, or in their business division if they are part of a larger conglomerate. They will have access to third-party data from payments providers, but it is often a challenge to integrate this in real-time to build a dynamic picture of changing consumer behaviours and preferences. Landlord data could supplement this picture extremely well. Shopping centres, alongside airports and casinos, are among the richest sources of real-time behavioural data of people moving in commercial spaces. Landlords possess rich data sets that measure consumer behaviour throughout their entire footprint. By working with retailers to generate shared insights from these rich datasets, they could chart a course for transformation and mutual profitability by creating a more holistic picture of why consumers are visiting physical locations, what they’re doing when they get there, and what kinds of experiences are captivating them. The value in this is not just the ability to richly create the experiences that has consumers linger longer, but also identify relevant new services for incremental growth. This brings us to the other area where commercial real estate operators can excel in the post-Covid world. Increasingly bricks-and-mortar touchpoints for retail brands are sites for experience rather than strictly commercial interaction. The declining market share of bricks-and-mortar and the ongoing high costs of real estate mean that the overhead represented by a network of physical locations is unsustainable unless you are doing something truly remarkable with the space. Using first-, second- and third-party data to build a picture of consumer behaviours and desires, retailers and shopping centre owners can reimagine their physical spaces as baskets rather than boxes. This means providing snackable experiences that draw people to your location with an active desire for an experience unavailable through online channels, that leads to a mixture of convenience purchasing and enriched experiences. This consideration is equally important though differently realised, depending on whether you’re a Kmart in a suburban hub or a boutique outlet in an inner-city location. There are already centre owners pursuing this aggressively in Australia: Chadstone in Melbourne and Westfield Bondi Junction are good examples. It is clearly in the interest of shopping centre owners to collaborate here, beyond the shared goal of profitability with retail tenants, there is the growing trend internationally of retailers opening “off mall” locations where curated experiences outstrip range as the drawcard. Foot Locker in the US has accelerated a pre-existing drive towards hyper-local “power stores”, and brands globally from Ikea to Nike are rethinking how to connect with consumers in physical spaces. As the retail landscape in Australia continues to transform, data-driven collaborations between property owners and retail brands will become crucial for harnessing real-time insights on consumer behaviours. It’s time to literally think “outside of the box” about how brand experiences will create the next wave of Australian retail.