The technology opportunity for UK shopping centres

While retailers are setting the innovation barrier high, how are shopping centres using technology to improve their customer offerings?

There is no doubt retail stores are suffering with the rise of online shopping – proof, were such needed, in the boarded-up retail premises on the UK high street.

Stores like Phones 4u, La Senza, Internaçionale and Paul Simon are taking the hit.

In response, retailers have tried to survive by investing in technology to make the customer’s shopping journey more enjoyable, quick and convenient. Such has been the sector's response that many consider retail an industry at the forefront of experimentation with IT and technology.

Department store John Lewis recently invested £100,000 in micro-location technology startup Localz, which guides customers around the department store while sending specialised offers directly to their smartphone.

But while retailers have been drawing attention with their innovative use of technology, what about the shopping centres which house many retailers under one roof? What can they do to capitalise on technology to make the customer journey easier and more enjoyable?

Technology opportunity for shopping centres

Stephen Millard, managing director of the retail technology accelerator Eccomplished, says shopping centres could prove excellent testing grounds for the multitude of retail technologies entering the market.

“The fundamental thing is that shopping centres are typically a huge physical asset, owned by a fund, managed by an agent, with multiple retailers. That’s an interesting symbiotic relationship that people don’t necessarily think about,” he says.

Millard says shopping centres have increasingly focused on helping their retail clients improve turnover, as more introduce performance-based rent for retail premises. It is now more important than ever for shopping centres to guide customers around their sizeable estates and spend more money in the shops.

Kevin McKenzie has served as the chief digital officer at Westfield Labs – Westfield shopping centre's innovation centre – since 2012. Speaking recently about the role of the lab, he said: "At Westfield Labs, we want to define what the future of retail will look like through social, mobile and digital innovations."

The lab aims to convert ideas and technologies into viable businesses and  supports open-source software – not just as a user, but also as a contributor. It has various projects on the go in the github open-source repository and has published a coding guideline on github to enable any developer in the open-source community to contribute code for Westfield Labs.

In September 2014, Westfield hosted a 24-hour fashion-tech hackathon event, where over 20,000 members of the public interacted and watched 60 company pitches. Queuing technology "SkipQ" took the top prize.

Wi-Fi at Camden

Camden Market has rolled out Wi-Fi to improve customer experience. At the same time, it has used Wi-Fi to learn from the data captured. Users can access the free Wi-Fi service 24 hours a day, which in return provides the business with user data from the network. CamdenMarket.com can see users' locations, with real-time movements and additional information such as gender and age.

The data analytics allows the business to understand the popular areas in London’s famous 25,000m2 market, and encourage shoppers to visit areas they might not otherwise have found.

“We want to talk to people who come and visit the market, and we’re using technology to do that. And we want to see how many visitors we’ve got on any particular day, and we want more local visitors, not just international visitors. It’s about finding out how to talk to them and we can see what we’re doing right, events, what brings more people to the market,” Jac Timms, IT manager, Camden Market told Computer Weekly.

“There’s a lot of tech going in everywhere,” he says. “But the main challenge is the connectivity.”

“We’re taking the market online to help traders in the market to sell online. So having the internet is important, as is providing enterprise resource planning (ERP) for them.”

Retail Wi-Fi

Free Wi-Fi is clearly good news for the consumer. Retailers who offer it have the opportunity to collect not only customers’ email addresses, but any other data the retailer gathers as part of the login process.

Purple WiFi provides Wi-Fi to Kingsgate Shopping Centre, Orchards Shopping Centre and Alhambra Shopping Centre in the UK. Purple WiFi CEO Gavin Wheeldon, CEO says shoppers now expect free Wi-Fi, but they also want a vastly improved service. “Shoppers are continually frustrated by lengthy login processes and poor connections.”

But the benefits of shopping centre Wi-Fi goes beyond the consumer and retailer.

Paul Hellings, director of Wi-Fi at Arqiva, said: “Connectivity is vital to other functions, such as enabling the shopping centre to conduct footfall analytics and keeping the security team connected over radio."

Beacons

Beacons provide a simple, low-powered, Bluetooth-based wireless network that can be used to track customers through an app on their mobile phone.

Shane Closser, vice-president and worldwide head of customer experience management (CEM) practice Virtusa, said: “Mobile apps on shoppers’ phones can pick up beacon signals from up to 50 metres away.” A retailer can interact with this mobile app to engage with customers as they wander around the area mapped out by the beacons.

The 3,000m2 Swan Centre in Eastleigh has been experimenting with beacon technology. It has deployed 18 SmartFocus beacons to span its floor space. Customers who download the Smart Rewards app and enable Bluetooth on their smartphones receive a welcome message via the beacon system – but this is just the start.

Daniel Kitchen, centre manager at the Swan Centre says smartphones are a culture change. “If we don’t embrace it, we’re not going to bring people to the centre.”

Since the beacons were installed in April 2014, they now have 2,750 loyal users on the system. “We wanted to get ahead of the game and be the first to use beacon technology,” he says.

Kitchen says the Swan Centre is looking into gamification during customers' shopping centre visits using a beacons-enabled treasure hunt app. Clues could be sent to customers’ smartphones as they make their way to different areas of the shopping centre.

Another possible way beacons could be used, according to Kitchen, is to run a competition – such as using the beacon to identify the first 100 people to stand on a hotspot.

The 92,900m2 Trinity shopping centre in Leeds (pictured) also plans to roll out beacon technology following a three-month trial with Land Securities. The technology will be able to send location-based offers to more than 16,000 people who use the Trinity Leeds mobile app.

Other technologies

Trinity has rolled out iZettle, an iPad mini point of sale system in the Trinity Kitchen, a street food market in the shopping centre where the food outlets change on a monthly basis. The shopping centre provides these temporary tenants with an iPad mini with the iZettle app, the iZettle Bluetooth-enabled credit and debit card reader and Bluetooth receipt printer. This allows Trinity to track sales, while the traders can accept major credit and debit cards.

In 1976 Brent Cross opened as the UK’s first out-of-town shopping centre, providing customers with easy parking and all their shops under one roof. Today, in the internet age, the use of social, mobile and analytics is driving the retail agenda on the high street and in the modern shopping centre.

Some experts believe a lack of skills may act as a bottleneck to innovation in shopping centres. But as Westfield Labs has shown, software innovation can and does occur – and it can even be given away as open source.

This was first published in December 2014

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