Susan Hagerty Bonsak is the new CEO of Placewise and, in this role, one of the recent members of the ACROSS Advisory Board. She strongly believes in footfall and the future of physical malls. In her first interview with ACROSS, she shares her view on the European shopping center industry, the importance of data connected with technology, and why a collaborative focus of all stakeholders is so important.
ACROSS: Congratulations on your new position. We look forward to learning from your experience. As an American living in Norway, how do you see the shopping center industry in terms of digital opportunities? Is it a developed industry?
Susan Hagerty Bonsak: There are some definite differences between the two continents, but I think on both sides of the pond the industry is still in the beginning stages. Both European and North American shopping centers need to start thinking strategically about their digital reach and technology doesn’t stand still, so the opportunities will just continue to appear! Suggest all centers to really start to understand the possibilities and how technology and data fits in with their operations. This is not only about marketing – data-driven plans impact so many other areas such as leasing and operations.
ACROSS: How do you assess the digital reach of shopping centers?
Bonsak: The digital reach of the center in its local market is the most important general KPI. That is somewhat unique to shopping centers. What proportion of the unique customers (UAV – unique annual visitors) do they have in their customer database, which can be activated through communication and incentives provided in digital channels? We know that Placewise is leading in this area, and many of our customers who have embraced the many possibilities of our platform today reach over 70% of the unique customers from their “local market.” On average, our customers reach 30% of their customer mass after three years of using our technology, which is a solid result in this sector.
ACROSS: What asset types does Placewise work with?
Bonsak: We work with all types of property that have a retail component, from traditional shopping centers with several hundred tenants to smaller retail parks/strip malls and mix-use locations. It is evident that a strip mall has different needs and opportunities than a traditional shopping center, and by creating a modular platform, we can deliver solutions that create maximum value within the framework for each property.
ACROSS: Please briefly describe Placewise’s role within the industry and the challenges and solutions your company meets.
Bonsak: Placewise offers a unique technology with a solution offering many possibilities for shopping centers. Despite all doomsayers, all research shows that shopping centers and retail are resilient, and many are performing very well. Physical retail has made a strong comeback after Covid. Footfall is increasing due to centers redefining their concepts. Reports confirm that online shopping cannot easily replace the physical shopping experience. Also, property owners continuing to revitalize their centers will lead to future growth – the leaders will realize that in order to stay relevant, centers will always need to reflect the needs of shoppers, especially the need for personalization and engagement. Placewise has a SaaS solution, which effectively addresses these things. Whether you are looking for a DMP, a predictive loyalty program, CMS, tenant management, campaign tools, websites or mobile game. And we have your back as engaging our client services can be helpful in a resource crunch. The common understanding of Placewise and our clients is the value being in both the physical and digital worlds brings.
ACROSS: Your business is all about data and creating the best possible relationship between the stakeholders of a shopping destination. How have you seen data become an instrumental tool in tenant engagement strategies in the mall management industry?
Bonsak: Not as much as it should be as data and digital tools can really make managing and collaborating tenants quite easy! But the focus should be on technology combined with data, not just data alone. You need to be able to process and activate the data to create value for the stakeholders.
ACROSS: Can you share specific examples from your company of how leveraging data has proactively enhanced the relationships between mall operators and tenants, leading to more profitable collaborations? What challenges have you observed in implementing data-driven strategies for better cooperation between mall operators and tenants, and how have they been overcome?
Bonsak: Some of our most advanced clients have implemented strategies where they work from two angles, using data to add value to client-tenant partnerships. On the leasing side of the business, digital insights and opportunities, such as the number of digital profiles, shopper demographics, loyalty programs, and more, are brought into the conversations in a structured way to allow the tenant to make decisions not only on the physical attributes of the location but also the value from digital and data they can expect when opening a new store. On the marketing side of the business, they work proactively towards the marketing departments for the key retailers to create joint initiatives based on the shopping center’s data that support them in achieving their shared ambition to increase visitation and spending. The challenges that need to be overcome (for extracting more value from the available data) are often due to a lack of structured processes that support collaboration and knowledge sharing – both within the retail real estate companies and between them and the retailers.
ACROSS: How has technology emerged as a critical driver in data-driven decision-making for mall operators?
Bonsak: The amount of data gathered and knowing what to do with data can be overwhelming. Software tools/technology are needed to sort through and understand the data. The result should be impactful business and marketing decisions. The shopping center clients that use Placewise tools optimally have saved time and resources and have significantly boosted revenues, footfall, shopper reach, and engagement. Such tools should be game changers!
ACROSS: How are technology providers using data to drive sales for mall operators and improve customer retention?
Bonsak: Simply put, happy customers are loyal customers. They can see that they are valued. Centers are often an essential part of a community, and the smart use of technology can strengthen this relationship.
ACROSS: How does data tailor experiences in the evolving landscape of mall management?
Bonsak: Based on data gathered from their unique shopper base, center management can, for example, create events, help decide tenant mix, and, if part of a portfolio of centers, comparisons can be made across the centers to help shape best practices. These are just some of the benefits that structured use of data can provide.
ACROSS: Looking ahead, how do you envision data continuing to shape the future of mall experiences for both tenants and customers?
Bonsak: It’s not only about data but also about the technology that enables data to be used to its fullest. The push towards a more personalized experience must be balanced so as not to overwhelm customers, and here, data will be crucial in fine-tuning efforts. So we are on a course that is difficult to reverse, but it is the future, so it needs to be embraced! Regarding tenants, shopping center administrations still have a way to go. This is just as meaningful a relationship as with the end user – how tenants can be engaged and feel that this (a leasing contract) is a 2-way “relationship” will be crucial in the future. Marketing efforts, up-to-date communication and tech tools, data-driven decisions, and the like will be decisive when choosing a new location. Centers and tenants with this joint and collaborative focus on the end user will be the winners!