Opinion

Focus on the customers – all of them

Customer focus is at the very heart of what we do as a shopping center operator. That sentence is correct, but ostensibly nothing new.

BY ALEXANDER OTTO

Hasn’t it always been that way? Don’t we always try to explore exactly what our center’s customers want and then act on it? To a certain extent, of course we do. But in today’s fiercely competitive international market, it is crucial to serve all three shopping center stakeholder groups – tenants, investors, and customers – equally in a professional and customer-focused manner. It is not enough to provide tenants with a suitable sales space and then wait and see how they get on. It is not enough to send investors the sales figures and transfer rent payments once a year. It is not enough simply to say to customers that the center is here and they ought to come and shop in it.

Tenants rightly expect a cooperative dialog on equal terms and they are interested in a deep analysis of the changing retail world together with the landlord. It is not sufficient only to visit them in their stores if they are not complying with the rules of the center. At the headquarters, customer focus means that the leasing managers are no longer focused simply on centers or regions, but rather that a “one face to the customer” approach is adopted for key account tenants, meaning they deal with one main contact person for all properties. It also helps investors if key figures are reported automatically and they, too, have just one main contact person for their center portfolio. We must work proactively to enhance the value of the properties in the long term, thereby helping our investors to achieve their specific investment targets.

And now a word about the online business: E-commerce should not be perceived as a threat – the digital revolution is also an opportunity for the bricks-and-mortar trade. The question is: What can operators, investors, and tenants do together to integrate the two worlds in the most effective way? Above all, center operators must demonstrate their ability to innovate in order to highlight the need for investment.

Shopping center customers have become much more sophisticated. They have access to better facts and figures, which leads to a high level of market transparency. They can compare offers and pick which they want; the next bargain is just around the corner. There is still no magic formula for success in retail – apart from always listening closely to customers, carrying out surveys, striving to attract the best tenants, and enhancing the quality of the visitor experience. A center operator needs to surprise customers with new ideas and services and be better than the competition. It is not always about having the best marketing strategies, but about things that represent real added value for customers. These could include the latest services, such as center apps and Click&Collect, but also the more traditional services – for example, an ECE survey reveals that the most important service of all for center visitors is a staffed customer information desk in the mall. There is no point having the best innovation if core aspects such as the center layout, parking, sanitary facilities, and the visitor experience are not to the satisfaction of customers.

Keeping all stakeholder groups informed and supporting them intensively and professionally involves a lot of effort on the part of center operators. Customers, like tenants, only go to the best center. That calls for the best management, the best tenant support, and the best understanding of the needs of investors. And it all costs money, thus investors must be prepared to invest to create or remain a destination. Our task is to keep convincing our investors and tenants of this logic.

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