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Retail’s box seat


group sessionEach year the 2013 Westfield World Retail Study Tour presents a whole new set of opportunities to retailers.

Travelling with 38 likeminded adults for 16 days, it is difficult to return to Australia without having shaken up your idea of what is possible in your own retail environment.

Inspiration lies everywhere. From presentations by top international retailers, to the first hand experience of touring some of the world’s greatest retail precincts from the point of view of shoppers themselves, there would be none who walked away without at the very minimum, the “three big ideas,” tour host, Jack Hanrahan, of Westfield promotes.

Westfield is in the business of providing the best retail concepts in both Australia and the world, so learning from the master and seeing where it sources its inspiration is a rare opportunity.

In addition to the learning and educational aspects, there are of course 16 days of priceless networking. The conversations which take place on the bus between shopping centres, or over team dinners are many times the beginning of new innovations, and future business relationships.
The sharing of ideas and perspectives from those who work across all aspects of the retail business is invaluable.

And so, this writer completed her second Westfield World Retail Study Tour, covering a new scope of cities – this year Shanghai, Los Angeles, New York, London, and Istanbul.

The Cities
Shanghai, China

The first stop on this year’s Westfield World Retail Study Tour, the group experienced some mild culture shock, blown away by the sheer size and capacity of China.

Visiting several of Shanghai’s main shopping centres, it was particularly evident to the group that despite the hype surrounding the country in regards to its ‘big spending’ approach to retail, there were very few shopping bags to be seen, andmuch less shoppers in some of the centres.

The centres in Shanghai are sparse in comparison to Australia, with no pause points, kiosk retail, or food retailers along main thoroughfares.

Shopping strips, however, presented a more bustling and vibrant atmosphere, with plenty of international brands being patronised.

There may still be a way to go before the bulk of the Chinese market catches on to westernised retail centres, but there is plenty of future potential and scope.

China, market, wet market

Los Angeles, US

On the tour’s first US stop, one of the first things that occurred to me was the great number of retail chains to be found in both the strips and centres.

LA is the capital of organic and glamour in the US, and the retailers we visited at locations such as Westfield Century City and Topanga, The Grove, Santa Monica’s Third St Promenade, and the iconic strips of Rodeo Dr, Robertson Blvd, and Melrose Ave fit the bill.

Outdoor lifestyle is key to this city, evident in the open air malls that abound.

New York, US

If you’re looking for first rate customer service – New York is the place (Australian retailers take note!). New York is the capital of retail innovation, with department store such as Bloomingdales and Barney’s leading the charge.

There aren’t too many shopping centres to be found in New York, with strips ruling – namely Madison Ave, Fifth Avenue, and Broadway.

London, England

In 2013, London is still dealing with much of the fallout from the depressed economy and the damp retail conditions of the past two years.

A stroll down Oxford and Regent Street doesn’t always give a good indication of how the market is faring, because let’s face it, those flagships are always bustling, revealing little about the real fortunes of stores outside this lucrative precinct.

Having said this, the high street precinct in general has been hit hard. In Carnaby St in mid-may, as the city geared up for summer, I counted more than five empty tenancies.

Not only is this a gauge of the current struggles of retail in London, but a sure atmosphere dampener.

Shopping centres, particularly the two Westfield flagships we visted at London and Stratford, appear to be doing a little better. Despite a string of collapses by big UK retail brands in the 12 months since the Westfield orld Retail Study Tour last visited the centres, unsurprisingly for any Westfield centre, there were few vacancies.

Istanbul, Turkey

Istanbul has a completely different flavour to anywhere else in the world. A retail market that to the western world still appears to be finding its place, a closer look at this evolving market indicates not just oodles of growth potential, but a strong and traditional grounding in the old, and often forgotten, art of selling.

The Westfield World Retail Study Tour departed the city just as the much-publicised protests were beginning, which may well change the market again, both from the perspective of lower confidence in the general population, political struggles, and a strengthened reluctance from locals towards the growing influence of shopping centres over more traditional forms of retail.

grand bazaar, istanbul, turkey

Key Themes
The back to basics – everything old is new again

At one end of the spectrum is technology, and at the other, is the simplicity of the days of yore – exceptional customer service, personalisation, and local offers.

Curation remains a buzzword worldwide in retail, and in many cases, it is the simplest of ideas winning out.

Good old fashioned service and politeness is becoming increasingly favoured over the automated, hands off approach that was witnessed a few years back with the introduction of new technologies that removed staff from store floors.

The premise of a wholesome, solid offer provided with honesty and genuine passion is, funnily enough, now a trend – 100 years ago, this ‘trend’ was simply just the way all retailers went about their business.

Prime examples of this can be found in London at the Columbia Flower Markets and Borough Markets fresh food precinct – both buzzing with customers and atmosphere when we visited.

Columbia flower market, london

Specialise, specialise, specialise

Find your niche and stick with it. Finding what you are good at, as opposed to trying to be a jack of all trades is a common thread linking the world’s most successful retailers.

Uniqlo specialises in affordable mass market basics and doesn’t pretend to be anything more. Rapha stakes its claim on being an expert in cycling, and New York’s Eataly has perfected the art of all things edible and Italian.

It’s all retail

Of all the retailers and suppliers who spoke to us, the message was clear – there is no online and offline, both most work together to create a balance that works for the customer.

Burberry provides this balance well. When it became aware that some people do still prefer to be served at a static register rather than a mobile checkout, it installed both.

In many of the international examples we saw, online is no longer just a small add on, but is promoted with the same ferocity as bricks and mortar. True omni-channel retailers no longer have a use for the term, as it is just another aspect of the business for them.

A seamless blending of technology to the point where customers no longer realise where they are buying from, but instead who they are buying from is something to aspire to, and will be a crucial differentiator between those who continue to grow, and those who become superseded.

Services (as opposed to service)

With competition rife in retail, providing a service that no one else has, or can recreate, can be just the added incentive consumers need to buy.
Rapha’s cycle club, holds casual group cycles from its stores, Lululemon runs instore yoga classes, Nike and Converse offer footwear customisation services instore, and Story in New York ensures a level of learning and interaction not available at other retail stores.

Not only do these services give shoppers a reason to re-enter your stores on a more regular basis, they also give them a reason to engage with your team and your brand.

Rapha London

VM still rules

In this age of Instagram, Facebook, and Pinterest, never before have looks counted more.

Clever visual merchandising can make or break a store, and the Westfield World Retail Study Tour saw plenty of both of these sides.

Creativity rules, as does colour. Mannequins are passé, and originality and the unexpected are winning the day.

The North Face in Los Angeles is the perfect example of this, using old Thai furniture to display its products instead of regular stainless steel fixtures. Cusp at Westfield Century City, and Mast Brothers in Brooklyn all provided authentic examples of simple and cost effective displays.

If you can bring something not generally seen in a store to your shopfloor, tie it back to your product, and make it interesting, then you are headed in the right direction.

Converse’s American flag made of its canvas shoes is a prime example of this, as are All Saint’s iconic Singer sewing machines, and Restoration Hardware’s recreation of a living space.

Converse window

Re-emergence of CSR

Doing good for the community and environment isn’t anything new, though in the last 12 months corporate social responsibility and environmental sensitivity has had a resurgence.

The difference this time is authenticity and transparency. It’s no longer good enough to simply donate some money, consumers need to see that you truly believe in the cause.

Many retailers are beginning to work these aspects into their branding, and DNA, giving the business an added aspect for consumers to engage and become involved with stores.

American apparel CSR, sweat shop

Pricing vs sales – down with discounts

It’s no secret that discounting within Australian retail is rife, but of all the countries we visited, nowhere was this as prominent.

If discounts or reduced stock was to be had, it was not blazoned all over windows, nor were discounts positioned as the key asset of product or retailer.

Successful retailers on international high street provided few discounts, and those that did were almost ashamed in doing so, hiding these racks towards the back with little signage.

In fact in H&M, the discount rack isn’t even discernable until the price tags themselves are viewed.

The more relevant retailers provided shoppers with more engaging reasons to shop as opposed to a percentage off.

This story originally appeared in Inside Retail Magazine’s August/September 2013 edition as part of our exclusive coverage on the 2013 Westfield World Retail Study Tour.

Inside Retail Magazine’s October/November issue, featuring Inside Retail Magazine’s annual 50 Most Powerful Retailers List is available now. For more information, click here.

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