Omnichannel and Digital Transformation Part 1: Strategy

Insights from industry experts


We partnered with the International Council of Shopping Centers (ICSC) to host a panel conversation for their members to discuss digital transformation in retail and shopping centers, changing trends, critical components for omnichannel strategy, the importance of data, and emerging digital innovations. Bernardine Wu, CEO of FitForCommerce, led a lively conversation with Ghadi Hobeika, EVP of Media Sales, Marketing & Digital at Unibail-Rodamco-Westfield (URW) and Chris Hardisty, SVP of Ecommerce at Clarks. Below is a quick recap of the conversation!

Key Quotes & Notes

1. The Pace of Change is Accelerating: Market Trends

  • Q – What is your take on the market in terms of increasing change and COVID? How are you and your team having to evolve or pivot?
    • I’ve never seen more announcements [about] digital transformation before these last 6 months. Everybody is looking for a solution. Everybody is trying to be creative. From curbside pickup, to launching marketplaces, to new loyalty programs being implemented. Most mall operators that [had] a digital agenda have accelerated it. Those that didn’t started taking it super seriously. In February and March, everyone for the first time was in the exact same situation, facing the exact same challenges – inability to operate, less physical visitation in the stores and malls. We had to sit together and start looking for solutions to make things better.” – Ghadi Hobeika, URW
    • “The retail landscape has been changing for a while. Those who invested in digital and took it seriously over the past few years have really benefited and those that did not have really taken a major hit. You can’t just ramp up in 3-6 months. You have to be ready for it – [you have to] have put forth the preparation, the teams, and the ability to maneuver. We’ve had to shift our business as the trends have shifted to more at-home and casual wear than formal wear. That’s been a big adjustment for us. We’ve been able to handle it pretty well [with] our creative merchandising and assortments. There’s still a challenge, when you order well in advance, to adapt to that. We’ve been able to maneuver to meet the demand because it’s shifted pretty dramatically from where we thought it would be 6 to 9 months ago.” – Chris Hardisty, Clarks

2. Placemaking: Reinvention for the Community

  • “You can’t just copy and paste a development into an area. The changing customer need is supported by or driven by new technologies.” – Bernardine Wu, FitForCommerce
  • Q – What does placemaking mean to you?
    • “It’s at the core of what we do. We build places for people to enjoy, spend time, and come with their family and friends. It’s the main part of our mission statement – ‘Reinventing Together’. We think about what each asset’s purpose is in its catchment area. Some places have history. Communities are different. Peoples’ needs are different. The market is structured differently in areas. We are a multi-local business. We selectively take markets and make sure we bring the best product to those areas.” – Ghadi Hobeika, URW
  • Q – Placemaking digital architecture sets the stage for how malls and stores can enhance customer journeys. How do you prioritize? Do you think about things beyond your store (Chris) and mall (Ghadi)?
    • “I don’t believe the retail store is going away. I think online has its role, but I do think that there’s a fundamental person-to-person element. I think retail gives you that in a way digital still has not yet achieved. We have to find the right locations where customers still want to go. URW, for example, has invested in making destination places, which is really important. There are a lot of malls that are quite old and not places people are drawn to with today’s technologies. It’s really important to know who you’re going to go with and where you’re going to place yourself.” – Chris Hardisty, Clarks
    • As mall owners, we’ve done our best to bring the best and most pleasant products to market – the ones that would draw people, and have them come back. We, as an industry, have put some effort, but not enough, towards making the shopping experience not only pleasant but convenient – simple and easy. This is something that we have to double down on as mall operators and digital technology is going to be very useful.” – Ghadi Hobeika, URW

3. Customer Data: How Do You Know How to Serve Her?

  • Q – How do you collect and leverage her [the customer’s] data? Do you think landlords and tenants have shared goals? Are there data elements that can [and should be] shared with the caveat of protecting competitive intel?
    • “There’s more that can be shared. The mall and retailer both have a vested interest in the success of the retailer. It’s important that we work together. Traffic is the biggest thing – how do we bring people to the centers? Before, people would just show up. Today, it’s a little more challenging. As much [data] as you can share in a non-personal way is important for both the center and the retailer.” – Chris Hardisty, Clarks
    • “Take a lease. Look at the digital / data section and how it’s marked up and amended by lawyers from both sides. It’s a difficult conversation to have. It’s a necessary conversation. I think we’re going to see a lot more collaboration. It started with COVID, accelerated with COVID, and it’s a trend that’s going to last.” – Ghadi Hobeika, URW

4. Digital Twin: Anywhere, Anyhow, Anytime Access

  • Q – What does “Digital Twin” mean to you? How do you see the industry shifting?
    • It’s a big challenge. I get an email every two weeks from people in the company asking why URW hasn’t started a marketplace. What has made us most successful is that we’ve built an audience over the years. Traffic is a key metric. You can make business without anyone stepping into your store, but traffic and the audience are still important drivers. Building a marketplace as an approach to digital twin comes with a huge challenge of generating sufficient audience and traffic to make it interesting for tenants and retailers to partner with you. The digital twin is any digital or tech-powered service that will generate more sales for our tenants or a better and easier customer journey for our customers.” – Ghadi Hobeika, URW
  • Q – From an ecommerce perspective, what work do we have to do to improve the digital experience and the physical store experience?
    • “Quite a bit. From a digital perspective, we’re still missing some of the personal elements. [In-store], you have a really good associate giving you excellent service and that just hasn’t been replicated online. Amazon does a great job with getting you what you want if you type it in search, but if you want to go deeper or you have questions, [you need] a great sales associate who knows their product and what to recommend for your situation. It hasn’t been replicated yet. But there’s a lot of opportunity for that. – Chris Hardisty, Clarks

5. Innovation: What’s Important and What’s Coming?

  • Q – What are some of the innovations that are more important? Can you share what you might be considering or have implemented?
    • “We’ve done a lot. Right now, my team’s obsession is finding ways to support retailers in a COVID context. A significant chunk of customers aren’t willing to come back and shop the way they did before (taking their time, dwelling, etc.) because they’re still concerned for health and safety reasons. We’re focusing 90% of our energy on one thing – how do we facilitate any form of omnichannel commerce to help our tenants do more and how do we make those operations easier on them? URW had concierge teams and decided to put them in motion and ask them to help tenants with their very last mile. [They’ve done so] by adding a surprise & delight moment, promoting upcoming mall events, etc. [This] has helped smaller tenants that don’t have enough capacity to run curbside efficiently, customers to have quicker service, and us (URW) to have an additional touchpoint with our guests.” – Ghadi Hobeika, URW

6. People: What’s Changed?

  • Q – How has your approach to org changed?
    • “With less operations (because of malls closures) and day-to-day work, they’ve delivered twice as much, if not three times more than any given time before. The number of projects we’ve been able to deliver over the past 6 months is mind blowing.” – Ghadi Hobeika, URW
    • “People can be effective at home. Because the team isn’t getting 1:1 interaction, however, people are struggling. They’re unable to get out of the home and interact with others. That has taken an emotional toll on people. Being mindful of that and acknowledging that is important. The lines between home and work have been blended together and people are struggling [as we are] trying to do more things with less resources. It’s important for them to be refreshed, otherwise they’re going to burn out.” – Chris Hardisty, Clarks

To learn about how FitForCommerce can help retailers and mall operators with digital transformation, contact us.

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