The Interview: Harita Shah, Westfield Director of Brand, Creative, Media, Comms & Events
The future of shopping destinations continues to change, more drastically post-COVID, with shopping centres and similar locations desperate to develop and stay relevant to the changing demands of consumers.
In January 2020, Westfield released ‘How We Shop: The Next Decade’, which surveyed 15,000 consumers across Europe and interviewed a number of industry experts to understand the experiences they wanted to find in a retail environment and the trends they expected to see play out in the ever-evolving retail space for the decade ahead.
The global pandemic has affected every aspect of our lives – from working and socialising, to travel and home life. As a result, individuals and businesses have shifted their mindsets and values, reprioritising what’s important to them. Given the paradigm shift, Westfield revisited the trends predicted in the report to ascertain how 2020 has impacted them, with a particular focus on the UK.
Statistics show that retail spaces will need to adapt in the long term to thrive in what is set to be a new era of retail, with community set to be at its heart. 96% of retailers are considering the introduction of community initiatives over the next 18 months and 52% of shoppers set to shop more locally than they would have before the pandemic. The retail industry has shown such resilience over the last year, however now more than ever, Briton’s crave physical experiences, albeit in a new and different way.
TheIndustry.fashion speaks with Harita Shah, Westfield's Director of Brand, Creative, Media, Comms & Events, about the future of experiences in retail and what Westfield is doing to meet the demands of consumers.
Last month Westfield hosted Lady Gaga's Love For Sale album launch event across the globe. A first of its type if I'm right! How did that occur, and how does it make a help build the omni-channel experience Westfield is pivoting to?
A big part of how the event came about was COVID-19. We'd been looking at the continuous shift in how consumers had been behaving and we wanted to move with them. It was a fun way to deliver an immersive experience with an A-List artist across 21 centres. To not only utilise the space we have in the centre, but broadcast online so that we could expand the audience beyond those who were physically at the event, was an industry first for us. I don't think any other property company has done anything like that.
I don't think any other livestreams on the scale we had have created an immersive experience like we did. We worked with Lady Gaga's team to make our audience feel like they were at a concert in the centre - through the use of things like lighting reflecting exactly what was happening on screen. We'd also planned so that if there were any further COVID restrictions we were able to deliver something across 10 countries that still felt immersive.
We delivered this project in a record four months. Everybody knew that this was a super ambitious project. The power of the Westfield brand meant that we could pivot and turn things around really quickly, whilst responding to the requirements given to us from companies like Interscope and Universal Music.
What is Westfield doing to utilise its spaces, such as empty stores or large open areas?
The spaces we have at Westfield are flexible, most importantly. We have had marketing events and brand events in recent years, such as Netflix, YouTube and Amazon. The expertise Westfield has between the marketing, events and brand partnership team to work with people within our spaces to turn things around very quickly - such as turning a pop-up vintage store into a fashion network event space in 48 hours. People don't see what happens in the centres overnight.
We're all about being agile and taking advantage of opportunities. Some opportunities come to us really short-term and we pivot really quickly. Our TikTok house for example was done in eight weeks, and it ran for three weeks. It's a good example of purely online companies wanting to come into the physical space because they realise that they have to connect with consumers physically as well as online.
Online and physical retail can work together seamlessly when both are implemented successfully. Westfield has its own online platform Live.Westfield, how does the platform work and bring these two together?
The Live.Westfield was an interactive online platform that we could manipulate and utilise however we needed to in the moment during the Lady Gaga Love For Sale event. Four weeks prior to the livestream there was a waiting room where visitors could hear tracks, connect with her beauty brand Haus Labourites, connect with her charity The Born This Way Foundation and shop for merchandise. During the actual show it became much more interactive - fans could upload photos to a gallery, we had a 'clap-o-meter', fans wrote in messages of kindness that people could read. We created something that allowed people to engage with the show and have an immersive experience without being at one of our centres.
How can fashion and beauty brands utilise and link with these platforms, events, experiences and activations to maximise brand exposure?
We're still evolving what Live.Westfield will be but I think the future of it is to create a destination where brands can extend their network and have digital exposure in a curated, interactive way, as well as having a physical element or space. Looking at the UK, we're already back to over 70% in footfall vs 2019, we've had over 30 million people in our centres since April 2021 - people are still wanting that physical element but they also want digital interaction. COVID has accelerated that digital element and interaction and I think brands need to capitalise on it now and find a distinct and engaging way to connect to consumers.
A number of centres owned by Unibail-Rodamco-Westfield have recently been rebranded to display the Westfield name, how is that helping link up the overall brand image and relationship?
The brand is already really established in the US and the UK and we wanted to help build on that in Europe. The centres that have been rebranded are ones that match the criteria of what a Westfield experience should be. We have central teams that work on marketing and brand partnerships, enabling brands to have access to the whole Westfield network. An example would be when we work with Disney - it's not just in the UK, it's now across all the flagship brand assets in Europe. It makes it easier for brands to access those countries and only use one point of contact.
We've had some brands use us to launch products or enter into a new market because they've had a connect with Westfield in another country. It's not just the physical space or the Live.Westfield platform but it is also the media network (such as screens and posters), so from a brand perspective Westfield is quite attractive.
The newly opened JD Sports in Westfield Stratford launched with a series of interactive events, discounts, a live DJ-set, how do you help facilitate and work with these brands to create exciting launches at Westfield?
We work quite closely with lots of flagship retailers - they have their strategy and we'll have our own - often we will find that we are aligned and can work together to create something exciting. I'll sometimes work with our leasing team to try and push the benchmark with new signings to see innovation. We've seen immersive experiences accelerate massively over the last few years - this year for example we've worked with ByRotation and Lone Design Club to create pop-up locations that featured Instagram walls and interactive elements and masterclasses. We're seeing more and more retailers moving towards this hybrid-experience element - stepping beyond shopping and providing customers with something.
I would say that people should keep an eye on the link between fashion and gaming - we've started to see how closely aligned these two industries are becoming. Perhaps even with music too.
Christmas is only 60 days away - what kind of interactive events can we expect from Westfield or brands this year?
Christmas is a magical time - speaking specifically about Westfield London and Westfield Stratford, we'll also have our 'Meet Santa experience' because it's a staple every Christmas time. We've also got our outdoor chalet themed igloos at Westfield London to create a festive, engaging and immersive experience involving Christmas.
People have missed it! They want the joy of Christmas this year because last year it was so awful. We're all about bringing people together and reminding people that we can have some fun this year.