Experts of today predict that the industry’s job titles of the future could include curator of emerging retail, localization strategist, AI psychologist and trainer, modular construction manager, parking czar and drone operations coordinator.
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Predictability used to be the hallmark of lifestyle center tenant mixes. Thanks to a profusion of internet-based brands into physical properties, the calculus is a lot more complex today. “It feels like we’re learning of about 10 or 15 new brands a month,” said Steiner senior vice president of leasing Spencer Jordan. “There can be 10 concepts that you like in just one category, and you can’t sign leases with them all. We think it’s a trend that is only going to increase.”
“Let’s say you’re evaluating anywhere from 10 to 50 different operators. Since you’re not just dealing with the usual suspects, discerning between them will require different criteria and skill sets. You want to be able to pick the winners.”
Steiner already operates labs for catalyzing small-shop tenants’ transitions to higher-profile locations like Easton in Columbus, Ohio. A logical next step, Jordan said, could be to “start hiring people whose core job is to just stay on top of new retail.” This specialist could meet with online brands before they’ve decided to open physical outlets, getting a jump on the competition by establishing relationships with them early, she said. The new curator of emerging retail also could dive into the business models of rapidly emerging digital brands, said Steiner executive vice president of asset performance Beau Arnason. “Let’s say you’re evaluating anywhere from 10 to 50 different operators. Since you’re not just dealing with the usual suspects, discerning between them will require different criteria and skill sets. You want to be able to pick the winners.”
National retailers could better connect with customers by localizing their messaging and in-store experiences, said Arnason. “Retailers do a lot of engagement on Instagram, Facebook and TikTok, but it’s often reporting on that brand just at the national level,” he explained. “You can understand why: It’s tough to go local when you have 500 stores.” But property owners and retailers could work together to close that gap, he said. One approach would be to hire localization specialists to set up livestream events at local stores or create videos that tie national promos to local people, happenings and merchandise.
ALSO FROM C+CT: Localization Versus Cookie-Cutter Stores: Is There a Payoff?
Arnason offered the example of a Columbus resident who goes to a retailer’s national Instagram account and sees a picture of local property Easton’s recognizable, gigantic flat-screen as opposed to a promo created in a New York studio. “It would take a lot of tenant engagement,” Arnason said. “Retailers might need to empower their local or even regional managers to do more, and [the landlord] could have a person on-site to help retailers navigate and manage things.”
“Retailers might need to empower their local or even regional managers to do more, and [the landlord] could have a person on-site to help retailers navigate and manage things.”
Lululemon and Barnes & Noble already are empowering store managers to do more locally, Jordan said, but localization specialists could help retailers take this to the next level. “I could see a new person dedicated to local reach, not just hosting events but also helping to determine what products work best for that store,” she said. “It would be a major shift for retailers, and it would help centers differentiate themselves, too.”
AIs are notorious for providing inaccurate “hallucinations” and for interacting with people in awkward, inappropriate or offensive ways. Consider the online user who asked an AI chatbot for a certain company’s Norway office. The chatbot replied right away with Norway’s country code followed by an eight-digit phone number. Great customer service. Only, the company has never had a Norway office. Fabio Caversan, vice president of digital business at global technology group Stefanini, recounted that AI foul-up and offered another: While training a large language model chatbot on behalf of a manufacturing client, he asked for the temperature of a piece of equipment. It replied a little too quickly. “I said: ‘Hey, did you actually read that temperature before you gave it to me?’ The bot came back with: ‘No, I didn’t. Sorry.’”
“You can train your own specialized bot just by talking to it like any other trainee or junior employee: ‘When clients do this, you say that and then you search for this information over here.’”
Retailers and landlords should consider hiring AI psychologists to make sure their bots get human interactions right, Caversan said. These people would use psychological principles and techniques to maximize the customer experience but would not need to be expert coders, he predicted. “OpenAI just launched what is basically a build-your-own form of ChatGPT,” he said. “You can train your own specialized bot just by talking to it like any other trainee or junior employee: ‘When clients do this, you say that and then you search for this information over here.’”
AI psychologist-optimized interactions could take place in customer touchpoints like websites, apps, drive-thru windows, in-store kiosks or augmented reality/virtual reality goggles. AI psychologists also could train any AI assistants that in-store customer service personnel use, Caversan said. “The answers that a bot will give to a customer relationship person will need to be different from those supplied to a defined, end-user. I love this AI psychologist position. I think we’re going to need a lot of them in the future.”
Imagine retail or restaurant spaces that could expand or contract as if made out of Lego bricks. Such a future could be possible if modular construction techniques and materials keep evolving, said Nadel Architects design director and principal Anthony Sanchez.
Many mall anchors’ 50-year-old leases are expiring, along with their outsize control over what happens on the property, and that means experiments like modular construction are more doable for landlords, he said. “It is not hard to imagine a situation in which widespread use of modular construction makes it possible to have a much more dynamic leasing strategy,” Sanchez said. “Data and analytics could inform the size of different tenant spaces in real time, based on the strength of demand.” Struggling retailers could downsize faster, lowering their costs rapidly, while operators with stellar sales could expand quickly to capitalize on growing demand and boost sales.
“It is not hard to imagine a situation in which widespread use of modular construction makes it possible to have a much more dynamic leasing strategy.”
Today’s modular methods have a ways to go before such a vision could become a reality, Sanchez said. For example, the sizes of these prefabricated structures are determined in part by whether they fit on a flatbed truck, he explained. But one day, breakthroughs could translate into a greater ability to ship, assemble and disassemble attractive, modular spaces. “It would imply a completely flexible infrastructure architecturally,” Sanchez said.
From C+CT in 2021: Testing a Modular, Mobile Showroom for Pop-Ups
To maximize results, owners could hire a modular construction manager, he noted. They would have strong incentives to go modular if construction costs keep going up. “If tenants could build out their spaces off-site and quickly install and resize them as needed, the savings in time and money would be substantial.”
The world of parking is changing fast. Mobile apps give drivers the ability to see parking availability, locations and costs at different properties around town. New wayfinding systems steer visitors to the closest open spaces at parking lots and decks. And according to some technologists, self-parking cars could sit just an inch apart in designated lots, dramatically reducing properties’ space needs. Should fully autonomous cars proliferate, taxis could whisk shoppers to properties without occupying parking spaces at all.
“Parking takes up a huge percentage of overall space. Replace that with more [gross leasable area], and it would be a big win for the developer.”
As Poline Search Partners president and CEO David Poline sees it, larger developers could task a full-time parking expert with “optimizing space-management using new parking technology and related data and analytics.” This parking czar could track tech trends, monitor traffic flows and safety and chase new ways of boosting revenue — for example, using reclaimed square footage for a cell tower or retail building. “The role of space that was traditionally ancillary could become more important,” Poline said. Open-air community centers, in particular, could add density through carefully coordinated parking management, Beale added. “Parking takes up a huge percentage of overall space. Replace that with more [gross leasable area], and it would be a big win for the developer.”
3RD EDITION RELEASED by ICSC IN 2020: Shared Parking by Mary S. Smith
The faint buzz of a quadcopter somewhere overhead has become a familiar sound at retail and mixed-use properties. “You’re seeing companies use drones not just for marketing campaign photography and video but also for things like inspecting the overall condition of the project, conducting site surveys and tracking how the site design matches the as-built condition on the ground,” Beale noted. Meanwhile, some retailers continue to pursue fast-and-easy drone delivery. Amazon, for one, has said its MK30 drone will zip goods to consumers in a few Italian, British and American cities by the end of 2024. Chick-fil-A, too, is running drone tests.
Drones, however, carry safety and liability concerns, and Federal Aviation Administration penalties for airspace violations could be stiff. Especially if the technology continues to take off, it could make sense to put someone in charge of all things drone related, Beale and Poline said. “Companies that use drones effectively could have huge competitive advantages versus those that don’t,” Beale said.
“You’re seeing companies use drones not just for marketing campaign photography and video but also for things like inspecting the overall condition of the project, conducting site surveys and tracking how the site design matches the as-built condition on the ground.”
By Joel Groover
Contributor, Commerce + Communities Today