intu, a FTSE 100 company which runs 21 shopping centres across the UK and in Spain, is at the forefront of transforming UK shopping centres. It is pioneering not only the merger of digital and “bricks and mortar” shopping, but also in creating a full leisure offering where customer experience is the focus.
“It’s about making the connection between the online and offline worlds as seamless as possible,” says intu’s digital and commercial director Trevor Pereira. “Consumers have a lot of choice about how and where they do their shopping, how they pay for goods and how items end up in their homes. We see our job as helping these decisions in the best possible way, ensuring our retailers flourish whether online or off.”
For intu, blending online with real-world shopping is key to this goal. Two years ago the business kicked off a programme to retro-fit its centres with powerful wi-fi connectivity and 4G networks, ensuring that smartphone users can browse uninterrupted anywhere within the malls.
Shopping should be enjoyable and we are investing a great deal of time and money in creating a genuine leisure experience
The business incorporated a stress test into the build: could a customer watch high-quality video without buffering while walking from one end of the centre to the other? This might sound excessive, but there is logic in the method.
Having a strong internet connection means customers can access retailers’ websites, book click-and-collect pick-ups and price-compare without having to leave the mall. But there are other less obvious uses as well; for example, it takes the strain off couples when one partner wants to shop and the other wants to watch a sporting event on the TV – now they can do both.
The point of all this is to develop the ultimate shopping experience that optimises dwell time and revenue to retailers within the complexes. The internet plays a huge role in this, according to intu, as does catering for the need to have fun.
“People have a choice of how they spend their spare time,” says Mr Pereira. “We want them to weigh up a visit to one of our shopping centres against going to a museum or other tourist attraction. At an intu centre, we combine all this into one location. Shopping should be enjoyable and we are investing a great deal of time and money in creating a genuine leisure experience.”
intu offers IMAX cinemas, climbing walls, indoor skiing slopes, aquariums, LEGOLAND Discovery Centre, food courts and waiter-service restaurants, all geared towards creating the ultimate family day-out.
“Our focus is making those leisure and dining elements as great as they can be. We have an extensive development pipeline over the next ten years to continue to upgrade our centres. We see ourselves as among the most compelling destinations in the UK, but we are certainly not resting on our laurels.”
It’s a strategy that is endorsed by the industry. John Coyne, chief executive of the British Council of Shopping Centres, says these environments must be more than simply a collection of shops and must offer an alternative experience to pure online shopping.
“In an era of multichannel retailing, the role of the physical shop is about creating theatre, offering an environment for brands to showcase product and providing an experience for shoppers that extends beyond just a purchase,” he says.
The effect of this is more visits to retail outlets and people staying longer, turning a couple of hours’ shopping into a full day of entertainment.
To underpin the evolution, intu has spearheaded the development of a highly successful affiliate content site, intu.co.uk. With nearly 300 retailers signed up, the site received more than 18 million visitors in its first year.
intu has also created an in-house digital innovation team with web developers, digital marketing specialists and content teams driving messages to customers. There is also what Mr Pereira describes as “a lab” where new ideas are tested before the successful ones are rolled out across the portfolio.
This is a unique approach in the sector, but intu says it is necessary to realise the full benefits of the evolving retail market. The business is committed to staying at the cutting edge, continuing to surprise and delight customers however they choose to shop.