Interview: How Hammerson is digitising the shopping centre

Despite the hype, beacons are not gaining the traction on the high street that many in the retail industry had hoped would be the case, in terms of fostering customer engagement and loyalty by providing personalised shopping experiences.

There are some isolated examples of success in this field, including beacon-enabled mannequins that offer a novelty factor in certain upmarket fashion retailers, but typically speaking the wider industry is still figuring out the best way to deploy this smart technology without bombarding their customers with mobile messaging. It's clearly a fine balance to strike.

While the high street grapples with this dilemma, arguably needing to place its main focus on more critical back-end transformative change before rolling out widespread customer-facing systems, European shopping centre owner Hammerson is different. The business has recognised it has a significant opportunity to gain traction with this technology and use it in a way that truly benefits its tenants and consumers alike.

Sophie Ross, former eCommerce boss at DIY retailer Homebase and now head of multichannel at Hammerson, says there is a "massive difference" between her business and the wider retail sector in this regard.

"The business I came from had massive issues around legacy systems, which it's gone a huge way to address," she explained to Essential Retail.

"If you look at the likes of John Lewis and Argos they are spending an enormous amount of money just fixing the back-end systems because they have legacy point of sale and everything has been pulled together over however many years. We at Hammerson don't have that – it's where we can use beacon technology in a more interesting way much more quickly because we don't have these legacy system issues."

How is Hammerson using beacons?

Ross claims that Hammerson has the widest instalment of beacons in the industry, with over 6,000 situated throughout its shopping centres in the UK and France. Visitors who download its shopping centre specific Plus mobile apps, which have been established for each of the company's retail centres including The Bullring in Birmingham, London's Brent Cross and Glasgow's Silverburn, can then switch on Bluetooth to optimise the location-based services provided by the platform.

As customers arrive in a Hammerson shopping centre, they can use blue dot mapping on their smartphones to find their location and direct themselves around the site.

"We can use that technology to send them personalised offers in specific locations in the centre and also to understand how our customers are moving around the centres," Ross noted.

The full roll-out of the app throughout the UK and its French centres occurred this summer and there are now 80,000 people who have downloaded the app, with sign-ups often driven by events hosted by the Hammerson properties. For example, Brent Cross developed a beach concept this summer to entertain families during the holiday period, and free entry to the area was offered to customers who downloaded the app, resulting in some 5,000 people reaching for the Android and Apple stores.

Although more than 50% of users are registering on the app, which gives Hammerson individual customer behaviour information that can in turn be used to attract shoppers back or provide them with personalised vouchers that are perhaps more likely to be redeemed than generic marketing materials, it is recognised that the digital journey at Hammerson is only really just getting under way.

Ross said: "We're working on version two of the app with lots of improvements and changes, a lot around how content is delivered into the app and making it as easy as possible for our customers to use. It's great to get people using it but we have to keep them using it."

At present, Ross says there's a lot of usage of the mapping and find-a-store functions, but it is clear that the true success of the beacon deployment will be measured by the return on investment, which would be illustrated by the service influencing sales and directing consumers to shops they may not otherwise have visited.

"We're not trying to compete with our retailers and we're not trying to sell anything they sell," she added.

"We're trying to provide good information about those retailers to our customers and over time that will continue to evolve. We're very much looking at how we feature product in the app and on the website."

Retailers in Hammerson's shopping centres can share exclusive Plus app offers and, in turn, the property company can share with them how those offers were received and how customers redeemed their vouchers.

"It's a tool for retailers to use to attract customers who aren't already going to their stores."

Digital touchpoints

The global digital signage market is an area of expansion in the retail technology space, with figures from research group IHS showing that revenue from this sector is expected to jump by 10% year-on-year in 2015 and a further 7% in 2016.

Shopping centres around the world are embracing this technology, using it to sell advertising or to promote their own events, with the total cost of the technology reportedly continuing to decrease annually. Hammerson, too, is working on project of this nature, with more details set to be unveiled in the coming months.

"We're definitely looking at how we use digital signage going forward," explained Ross. "But how do you use it in a way that is really engaging and enlivening, but at the same time it does the job it needs to do without spending a fortune?"

An initiative of this type fits into Ross's role looking after product innovation at Hammerson's sites across Europe. While shaping a digital strategy in the traditionally non-digital business of commercial property is Ross's central job, she is also tasked with bringing new concepts to market aimed at improving the shopping centre customer experience.

This has included initiatives such as installing mobile phone charging hubs on site, the provision of Amazon lockers for online deliveries and the gradual roll-out of click & collect facilities in partnership with CollectPlus.

It all marks a recognition that the way people shop is continually changing, and the Amazon lockers now appear in all of Hammerson's UK sites and they will soon appear in its French properties. In terms of click & collect, these facilities only appear at Brent Cross for now with around 40 people per day are taking advantage of the parcel collection and drop-off points.

"Hammerson is now rolling out new customer service desks to our centres and we're integrating click & collect facilities into those desks," Ross stated.

"At Brent Cross we've had such positive customer feedback helped by the fact there's a shortage of postage facilities around that centre. Employees absolutely use it but customers are coming in specifically, or they know they are going to be there anyway so it's a useful service for them."

It is now nearly two years since Ross stepped into the role at Hammerson, having previously spent five years as eCommerce and business development manager at Homebase. Prior to that  she worked for the wider Home Retail Group and US DIY chain Home Depot.

The focus on digital development in each of those roles has differed considerably, but her current role fits neatly into retail's current trend for blurring the boundaries between the on- and offline worlds.

"I've done the trading-type platform, through the mid-noughties, which was about cannabalising in-store sales or how you don't cannibalise those sales, as well as the challenges about getting colleagues on board," she said.

"Hammerson is about how we use digital to support our customers when they are in our stores or in our centres, and to increase footfall into our sites. It's a very different challenge and definitely very interesting."

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This article has been amended slightly (2 March) from the original published in October to reflect Ross' involvement in the RBTE conference. Ross will be speaking on 9 March at 10:50 in Theatre A, talking about digitising shopping centres.

To attend RBTE 9-10 March for free, click here.