• Transform magazine
  • March 26, 2017

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Brand profile: intu

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Shopping centre brand intu has put digital experience at the heart of its adaptation strategy. Brittany Golob explores the changing nature of physical shopping centres and the Christmas installation setting the tone for intu's future forays into VR

Online shopping can take place on a bus or a plane or in a shopper's kitchen. It can take place in a park or a cafe or a ski chalet. Physical shopping centres have no such advantage. For years, that has meant these hulking mammoths were failing to adapt and at risk of extinction. But, savvy retail owners are beginning to rethink the shopping experience to bring digital into the physical space.

One such brand, intu, a British-owned group with shopping centres across the UK, is transforming itself into a digitally-agile company with an integrated shopping experience.

For intu, like Westfield or other major retailers around the world, this may be the only way forward. The Retail Think Tank – a joint effort by KPMG and Ipsos Retail Performane – says shopping centres should become a destination. But in terms of digital, they should also adapt to integrate the digital experience into the physical centre. One suggestion is to allow click-and-collect options or to use customer data to change the business model from a real estate focus to a service focus.

Hollywood Monster, a Birmingham-based signage firm with a specialty in retail held a conference last autumn to analyse the challenges facing major retailers today. Tony Davis, former MD of bmibaby, offered advice from the perspective of a challenger airline. He said, “It’s very easy to become insular and look at what works for you. You have to look at what works for the consumer.” Heady words for a sector that is not swift to change.

The conference also examined the shift in shopping from being a necessity to being a leisure activity, thus changing the way individual retailers, and massive retail groups, have to approach their brand management and experience.

“We need to create a sense of place,” UK & Europe CMO of Westfield Myf Ryan says. Speakers point to brands that are disrupting the traditional shopping centre experience, like Eataly and rail station-based centres as succeeding in the destination model.

For former MD of John Lewis Andy Street, the new world of retail is about marrying a brand’s physical environment, service, advertising and brand touchpoints – even the less sexy ones, like home delivery employees.

The challenge for a company like intu is to embrace this shift and deploy it across a portfolio of 18 properties serving 400m customers a year.

MD of intu’s digital innovation team, Karen Harris, says, “Today’s shopper wants more from their trip to a shopping centre than purely shopping, they’re looking for a day out, with new experiences peppered throughout.”
Thus, the team is charged with bringing digital experiences to life. This December, Christmas in Nottingham proved the ideal opportunity to both create a unique festive shopping experience and to test the efficacy of virtual reality installations in a shopping centre.

“What our trial focused on was how emerging technology can help to deliver unique moments of delight for our shoppers that add to the experience, thus attracting shoppers from further, and encouraging them to stay with us for longer,” Harris says.

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Working with Apache, a British brand experience firm focusing on virtual and augmented reality, intu opened a snowy log cabin in the midst of the Victoria Centre in Nottingham, a city in Britain’s East Midlands. The pilot allowed shoppers to use HTC Vive’s 360 degree virtual reality technology to spend two minutes decorating a digital Christmas tree and share that through their social feeds. The pop up, open from 8-21 December, saw 9,893 engagements, 1,870 hours of dwell time and 1,497 photos taken, according to Apache.

But the thousand or so Christmas trees decorated were not the only output of this project. The objective, for intu, was to test drive VR technology before potentially rolling it out to 15 centres in 2017. Harris says, “Virtual reality and augmented reality and their uses within the modern world have attracted a huge amount of public interest and this project was launched as part of intu’s digital strategy to test VR’s benefits within a real shopping environment and learn from our findings.”

Global business law firm Addleshaw Goddard’s ‘Retail’s digital future’ report discusses the impact this kind of technology may have on shopping in the near future. The report says retailers are now taking a broader approach
to brand engagement; moving beyond the physical- store first model. The creation of unique experiences and transformation of shopping from a necessity to a leisure activity will be helped along by digital.

Trevor Perira, commercial and digital director for intu, wrote in the report that intu’s 2013 corporate rebrand and renaming from Capital Shopping Centres was intended to clarify what the brand stood for. “One of our key attributes is digital connectivity, so we created a digital team...This team is also our incubator looking at a number of other technologies and how we can support retailers in their own deployment of them.”

In practice, the large-scale shift within shopping centres toward a digital-physical integration and the introduction of more VR experiences like the one at the Victoria Centre, poses some challenges. First, is customer perception. Though data from numerous sources, and qualitative evidence from the leading lights in retail, point to the fact that shoppers want digitally-equipped shopping centres, the actual development of those smart shopping experiences is a disruption of the traditional model. Harris says guests were apprehensive of the Vive technology at first. However, the survey following the experience showed that 98% of participants rated it seven out of seven. She says 99% “expressed enthusiasm for taking part in more VR experiences at our centres.”

Harris adds, “This demonstrates the need to run more pilot projects this year as we continue to test the boundaries of the technology and its value to our guests.”

The Christmas experience wasn’t run in isolation though. The digital team at intu has also worked with the company’s charity partners to use digital for a social good. Working with the National Autistic Society, all of intu’s centres are now autism friendly. Intu employees are trained to better serve shoppers with autism and their families while resources like an ‘autism friendly hour’ help those affected by autism make the best choices about their shopping centre visits.

Through VR, intu also changed perspectives about autism by using a VR experience across the country to give people a better idea of the perspective of an autistic child. “This was one of the first times virtual reality has been used to explore a condition like autism,” says Harris. “The success of this and our Christmas experience demonstrates the ways in which VR can be used; something we will continue to explore this year as we continue to test the boundaries of the technology.”

The digital strategy is already achieving results. Internet Retailing reported that Next increased the size of its stores at intu centres by 33% and online retailers are beginning to open physical stores in intu sites. Intu’s web traffic is also up since its rebrand as the company draws its centres closer to its digital offering with offers, information and online shopping.

Addleshaw Goddard’s report says those that adapt to embrace a more integrated experience across digital and physical touchpoints will be the ones who survive. It says, “The gulf between online and physical retail stores is becoming less acceptable. Both real estate and retail need to bring in technology considerations right at the start to be effective and relevant.” Thus, with a clear strategy in place, creative initiatives and the objective of changing the shopping experience for the better, shopping centre owners can make a digitally-capable brand a virtual reality.