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Will Odwarka, Founder and CEO of Heartatwork Hospitality Consulting. /// credit: Heartatwork Hospitality Consulting
Will Odwarka, Founder and CEO of Heartatwork Hospitality Consulting. /// credit: Heartatwork Hospitality Consulting

The Inconvenient Truth of Customer Satisfaction and Memorable Experiences in Retail Spaces

It is a complex task to ensure project profitability. There is a struggle between doing what is right and what is reasonable. “However, in an ever-growing and competitive landscape, it is crucial to establish distinguishing factors that are recognizable and to embrace them wholeheartedly,” states Will Odwarka, Founder and CEO of Dubai-based firm Heartatwork Hospitality Consulting.

After a few years in which one whirlwind after another hit our industry, 2024 is set to be a year in which we do “normal” business, despite all the challenges. Therefore, it is absolutely the right time to reflect on the fundamental flaw in our perception of customer satisfaction and the creation of unforgettable experiences at our shopping destinations. As we have made resolutions for this year, pondering what we should do less, more, or better, we now have the perfect opportunity to address this issue.

From my vantage point, the industry focuses primarily on the superficial aspects of wrapping the gift, rather than the actual gift itself. We prioritize architectural splendor, boasting features of glass, granite, marble, and sleek designs, satisfying the boardroom and investors. Naturally, sustainability and minimal environmental impact are considered. We create masterpieces of design and architecture. What, however, does all of this mean for the individuals who must come and pay for these endeavors? What about the customer and his or her experience?

I understand the complexity of ensuring project profitability and the struggle between doing what is right and what is reasonable. However, in an ever-growing and competitive landscape, it is crucial to establish distinguishing factors that are recognizable and to embrace them wholeheartedly. We must strive for the consistency that is expected from globally renowned brands like Disney and Universal Pictures.

Capitivating senses

For a moment, let us consider our experiences at the movies, the theater, or the opera. Have you ever left one of these venues and exclaimed, “The lighting was extraordinary!” or wondered how they discovered such remarkable locations? I highly doubt it. Instead, it is the plot, the actors, and how the story is conveyed to us that truly captivates our senses. What if we could deliver the same level of immersion and engagement in our retail spaces? This is not to diminish the importance of other elements but to emphasize that they should not overshadow the main protagonist – the connection and experience that allows us to lose ourselves in a multiverse of emotional touchpoints, making us feel deeply valued and reluctant to depart.

Throughout my extensive international travels over the past three decades, visiting various shopping malls in search of locations for businesses, I have rarely witnessed a focused effort on what I believe is, and will remain, the most crucial aspect of it all – the consumer. Regrettably, it seems we often fail to prioritize the visitor or shopper, instead constructing dazzling monuments catering to investor satisfaction, rather than becoming beacons of comfort, excitement, and happiness for all individuals. It is time for a shift in approach.

I recall a visit to an outlet mall a few years ago where the lady behind the information desk was so keen to help (Value Retail, valet village) she not only verbally directed me to the bathrooms but took the time to physically show me their location. Similarly, during a visit to a center in Bangkok (Icon Siam), a doorman not only opened the door but also warmly wished each person a truly fantastic experience with the brightest smile. Imagine better parking garages, such as at Europark in Salzburg decades ago – remarkable guidance, announcements that bring a smile to your face, rather than merely informing you about misplaced luggage. Offering employees warm greetings while wearing Santa hats will not make up for their evident disinterest and discomfort; in fact, it achieves the opposite effect. Genuine cheer, fun, and excitement cannot be ordered, they must come naturally. This comes from fostering employee identification, engagement, favorable working conditions, and fair compensation packages that truly make sense.

We invest great fortunes in selecting floor tiles and handrails yet devote minimal attention to the interactions involving those who contribute significantly to our success – the shoppers, visitors, and, most importantly, our own staff. I understand that this may not be the most popular opinion, and perhaps even inconvenient for some, but I urge you to take a moment and observe the interactions between your teams and random individuals. You might be surprised at how superficial, uninspiring, or disappointing these encounters can be. We have provided them with attractive uniforms for identification purposes, but we have failed to nurture their minds and souls to effectively deliver the story we wish to convey. We have essentially invested in lifeless matter alone.

Curating Stories

Now, allow me to pose another question. If all offerings are relatively similar, and our efforts are almost indistinguishable, what ultimately drives an individual’s preference for one place over another, aside from convenience? In the realm of restaurants, we would instinctively attribute this choice to the atmosphere. It is not solely about the food or the design; instead, it revolves around the story that has been curated and brought to life, as well as the environment of excitement and well-being. This intangible quality cannot be precisely pinpointed, but I assure you that it is directly linked to the people present in that space.

If we were to analyze the hierarchy in our master plans, we might find that people are categorized under miscellaneous. We often prioritize lighting and location over plot and actors, to stick with my previous metaphor. It’s time to step-change our approach, and if you don’t know how to do that, please reach out to people who do. Start putting more effort into your story and the way it’s told than into the cover.

Will Odwarka

Will Odwarka is the Founder and CEO of Dubai-based firm Heartatwork Hospitality Consulting and is a Member of the ACROSS Advisory Board.


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