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“The Reopening: Stepping Into The Mall Of The Future” with Loo Hoey Theen | Episode 10

Hailing from Malaysia, Loo Hoey Theen is the General Manager of Marketing and Business Innovation in Sunway Malls, one of the leading mall operators in Malaysia. In this episode of The Future of Retail Asia, she shares with Jun and Imran her experience in managing 7 physical malls and their recently opened 8th mall, Sunway eMall. She discusses the reopening of their malls in the country and the steps they have taken to ensure people come back to the mall, with a focus on both safety concerns and phygital experiences.

The Future of Retail Asia, now streaming on Spotify, Apple Podcasts, and Google Podcasts. View the video and full transcript below. Enjoy!

Episode 10: “The Reopening: Stepping Into The Mall Of The Future” with Loo Hoey Theen

-- Start Transcript --

IMRAN: Welcome back to another episode of The Future of Retail Asia, my name is Imran.

JUN: And I’m Jun. Joining us today from Malaysia over Zoom is Hoey Theen. She is currently the General Manager of Marketing and Business Innovation at Sunway Malls. Welcome Hoey Theen.

HT: Hi, hello. Nice to meet, e-meet everyone here.

IMRAN: Hoey Theen has many years of experience in Marketing, Public Relations and Branding, with experiences in both offline and online retail, working at online retailer Crabtree & Evelyn as well as Hartamas Shopping Mall, before entering Sunway Malls, where she has been for over 15 years now. That’s quite a while. Very happy to have you on the show with us again!

JUN: Yes! Our last guests from Malaysia were on almost weeks ago, and we kept hearing good things about the economy slowly recovering in Malaysia, and I saw a lot of my friends posting that when they want to go to Genting, the traffic is so bad! So, how Is the re-opening there?

HT: Well, I wanted to say that in the past few weeks, ever since the Government announced that the remaining economic traits will be opened up. We saw a change in the traffic. People were coming out, day by day the traffic is increasing. A lot of our businesses, we have about 7 malls under Sunway Malls. We saw attraction of going up to easily 80% of pre-covid days. So if you compare pre-covid to what we have recorded as of last week, we saw that 80% jump in terms of traffic, sales have also picked up. Anyway, I have to say that recovery has already commenced for a fair bit of retailers.

IMRAN: That’s really great to hear that the situation is improving. In Singapore, we are still going through what they call the Stabilisation Phase, so still some ways to go, but similar types of data to what you’ve seen. In the previous months, with the MCO 3.0 hitting hard on retailers and the malls, what steps did Sunway take, together with the retailers to keep the malls relevant, to keep people coming back into the malls, and to keep the industry afloat.

HT: I want to say that in Malaysia what we have experienced is slightly different from what happened in Singapore. We’ve been through the journey, both countries, about the same time. What happened in Malaysia is that we had two very long lockdowns for the shopping malls and the retail industry. So during these two lockdowns, when it first happened, of course everyone was wondering what’s happening. This is unprecedented, it never happened, once in a lifetime kind of experience. At that point in time, there was a fair bit of uncertainty, and a lot of peer going on. What we did was to look at understanding what’s happening on the ground. When you understand, it is a lot easier to deal with the situation, and that's exactly what we did. We looked at several aspects. One of them is business continuity. Our stakeholders here are really the retailers, the community surrounding us. This is where we looked at aspects on how to help them in terms of business continuity. I believe the news has gone public, we were the first to come out to say we will provide rent relief to our retailers. And we provided $150 million last year, in terms of rent relief. This year we recorded about $250 million rent relief to our retailers. Now, they are very key to us, because a shopping mall is as good as the content that we have. It is very important to make sure that these retailers survive, continue with their business. Once the economy comes back, there is no uncertainty that they won’t do well. They will do well already because the economy is back, people are spending, so it’s just going through this period of difficulty. Not only that, we introduced rent support, in terms of, through financing relief, we worked with one of the local financing institution on this. That is taking care of the business community, but we also have the general consumers, who are fearful. Suddenly, this Covid thing, you have to wear double mask, you have to wear face shield. That fears cumulates to wanting safety. Wherever they go, they want safety. So we understood that safety is key. And that’s how we looked at it, and we introduced campaigns like Your Safe Space is Our Safe Space, Safer Community Together. These are the key campaigns that we prepared and communicated with our consumers. And it did really well. We were the first to come out recently, last month, to announce that we will only accept double vaccinated doses into the mall. I know that Singapore recently introduced this, but it was done a lot earlier in Sunway malls, at least about one month earlier. So we were the first to announce this. It was not required by the Government, but we felt that it was necessary to raise the safety bar. So that people will feel more comfortable about returning to the mall. And when we went on the ground, 90% of the social media perception was on the positive side. There were a lot of people saying, Good Job! Now we feel safer to come out into the mall. So that’s what we have been doing.

IMRAN: It seems very nice on the surface right, or very nice and public relation headline, so to speak. But we know for sure, behind the scenes, you and your team must have really overclocked that thing. It does seem that people in the industry feel that the landlords can and should be doing more, but clearly for example, with your team, you guys have really been working round the clock to look at every aspect.

HT: Yes we did. It’s not just a campaign for consumer reason or PR reason, but it's very true to our own beliefs. We want to also work, this is coming from an employee perspective as well as a retailer. You would want to work in an environment where it is safe. So it's not just PR talk, but it comes down to the operational aspect. We put in a lot more safety measures. Back then the expected cleaning, many announced that every 4 hours we would clean the mall, we would sanitise the mall. We went on the level that every 45 minutes. We even looked at nano smart coating for a lot of high contact surfaces, and these last for one year. In other words, it’s constantly cleaned and sanitised.

IMRAN: Right.

HT: Yeah, yeah. We believed in that. And we were just sharing that previously, when you were in the hotel industry, you look at the aspect of smell, all the five senses. You want people to see good things, you want people to feel good things. When the touch is clean. All these were very important in the aspect of communicating safety. We were just joking for once, we wanted the mall to smell sanitised, and to smell sterile. So we thought, why not put the anti-septic smell in, so people would feel that smell of Dettol. And you would feel that it is a lot cleaner. Reality is that people do welcome this. Previously, our cleaners would always be cleaning back of house, you don’t see them. But during this Covid period, in the past 18 to 19 months, our cleaners are at the forefront, constantly cleaning. And people loved seeing the sights that after I walk, this person is cleaning the floor. In the old, pre-covid days, this would have been considered very rude, why are you cleaning after me? This is so rude, am I so dirty? But today, please clean after me, please clean before me, even better! So yeah, things changed. Operationally, there were a lot of changes. We knew that there was a lot of uncertainty among our retailers. They didn't know what to do. So what the mall did was, we developed a guideline for all our retailers. Looking into the operational aspects, guiding them that you know, these are the minimum you need to do. You can do above and beyond, but minimally you need to do these when we open the mall. After the first lockdown, a lot of our retailers were able to open, and we were able to maintain a certain level of safety across all, because everyone had the same guidance.

JUN: Very interesting, just now you mentioned that when people smell something, you will feel safe. Before that, would be like, hey you damn rude, especially for offline, the entire shopping mall is now changing from transaction to becoming more about the experience. We talk about needing to show, or not need to show, but provide a safe environment for people to shop. What kind of other efforts is Sunway doing to get people back to shop inside the shopping mall?

HT: While we work on the safety campaign, that is always on. We don’t stop that, because as long as Covid is present, safety will always need to be the key communication. And I think it is a very powerful marketing strategy, and it’s not just a strategy, it’s a promise that we are putting on the ground. Safety came first. But we also realised that people want to come back. And when they come back, you spend 18-19 months in fear, in lockdown, staying at home cooped up. Not being able to go to work, socially disengaged, reason being you are only communicating via vc or via the phone. People are wanting to come out. So what we saw in the past recent weeks is that, there is this sudden influx of people coming out, looking, seeking experiences, seeking escapism from what was work from home syndrome. And when people came out, we looked at the creation of experiences. So for example, we had recently worked with Netflix to bring the Squid Game experience on the ground. So one of the malls, Sunway Pyramid, has that doll, the iconic doll. The pink soldiers, officers. I am not sure how you call them because everything is in Korean. So they were here, they are here from the beginning of October until the end of October, and it caused such an uproar. It went viral among the Malaysian community. We have people travelling as far as out of state, coming into Klang Valley just to take photos with that iconic doll and the pink officers. Yeah, we saw an uplift of approximately 30% in terms of traffic for that.

IMRAN: Right.

HT: What people are looking for today is really, experiences. They want to experience it safely, they want something different, and also at the same time, having spent so much time at home, there is also a lot of pent up demand, in terms of spending. We were very pleasantly surprised to see that many people were spending! And people were just buying, just eating out, and engaging with their families that they have not seen for so long, with their close friends. This is where the shopping mall creates that opportunity for people to engage and interact. So that’s where it is very important that moving forward, malls have to look at themselves in a different way. We have to move towards being more experiential, and being able to do this in a safe way.

IMRAN: We have covered so much ground there right. It’s quite a nice melting pot. You've covered the crisis measures, and now you are looking at creating experience, installations, and working with other partners like Netflix. We do have some people coming on and sharing about reimagining the whole experience, the retail experience using digital technology, using omnichannel methods, using for example, how click and collect would play in this environment. How would epayment play in the environment. We have noticed, for example, Sunway are looking at a lot of omni-channel strategies, your customer engagement hub, your Sunway eMall, which by the way, congratulations for that announcement. How are you guys looking at reimagining the whole customer experience using digitalisation?

HT: Right now, if we look at what consumers are doing today, everyone must live with our handphones. We can forget our wallet, leave it behind at home, no problem! We won’t go back to pick it up. But if you talk about your handphone, if you leave it behind, that’s it, end of the world, we need to go back and take the handphone. If you lose your handphone, it’s an even bigger deal. Everyone’s mobile. Everyone is literally interconnected via social media, or constantly consuming digital information via the internet. With that in mind, that has also a major change in terms of how consumers behave. And that needs to be taken into consideration when we continue the sustainability of a mall. Business sustainability not only operates in the physical sphere. We consider that the shopping mall has to evolve, and evolution here involves the creation of putting in the online experience. What you can see with the eMall, the eMall is an extension, what we proudly call the 8th mall, of Sunway Malls. It supports all the shopping malls. You can literally buy anything that is on eMall, and have a consolidated delivery to your home, with a single delivery charge. Right now it’s free delivery for all. That is what we looked at, we see it as a supporting experience to create the next step, which is the offline to online, and online to offline. Your O2O is the future of what we see at Sunway Malls. We don’t believe that people shop physically exclusively, or shop online exclusively. People shop both ways. And why not take this into consideration and create it into a complete customer experience. From whether you are buying online, you can easily switch to offline, and both ways. So that’s important to us.

JUN: Very interesting, because when we talked about offline to online, omnichannel, especially when offline the entire retail space needs to be more on the experience, not just the transaction. I think we keep repeating this. For online one, because previously the guests will share online difficulty, it is actually a very competitive market, but the easier way at the online space you are able to get all the data, but offline space is very hard for a shopping mall to collect all the data from every single merchant due to the fragmented POS of the markets. What is your view, if you can imagine, if a shopping mall is able to get the entire offline transaction data, what kind of data would help the shopping mall? And especially for Sunway Mall, are you facing any difficulties in getting the offline data?

HT: That is a very good question. I would give you the slight different perspective. There are plenty of data points if you look around, and if you search. You can find data just about anywhere. And putting the data together is very important. We have what we call here, we have so much data that we don't even know what to do with it. That goes with offline also. Online, fantastic information, when we look at all the online data, it is really fantastic, like what you have mentioned. But offline, there are a lot of data points. For example, we have smart parking, which is very much your physical car going in, but we are able to trace the license plate and recognise it, and you can pay online easily. This is the O2O experience that we were looking at. Nobody wants to queue up in front of an auto pay machine, because it's just, number 1, long queues, number 2, there is contact with a physical device. So many people are trying to go contactless because of Covid. Now this was a good creation in a sense that it goes both ways. The data that we collect from there is really good, cause now we know that 80%-90% of the consumers in the mall comes from car parks. That is where your data comes in. Then we have the loyalty programme, which again, is also part of the data collection points. And if you look at contactless payments, or going digital, you have the unified payment terminals inside our malls. And we are also able to collect quite a fair bit of data from there. So putting all these together gives you a lot of insights into how our consumers behave. Being in a traditional, physical mall, the brick and mortar mall, malls will need to put into place data collection points, so that they can also be able to look at their own situation more accurately. But if you can combine that with online, that is even more powerful.

IMRAN: Yeah, I think we’ve had some of the experts come on and say we should be looking at the cars that come in, looking at the license plate that comes in, knowing what they buy from the loyalty programme, and giving them what they need there and then. This whole idea of complete personalisation probably sounds like the pot at the end of the rainbow for most of the marketers. But going back to today, there are a lot of constraints and realities around us, what are you most excited about? Because you are not just in charge of marketing, but actually business innovation. What are you working on, if you can share with us anything, or what technology or innovation are you looking at in terms of customer experience that you would say you are excited about right now.

HT: I would have to say that you know, it’s all about the customer. We are all in business because of our customers. So the first thing that we want to do is understand our customers and that is where recently we shared that we have something called the Customer Experience Engagement hub. That is where we collect a lot of information about ourselves from the consumers, and what people say about us. And we have been engaging these customers, these are not even directly inside the mall, but they are tweeting or putting up a posting that they mentioned something about the mall. And we can intercept and engage the customer at that point. That in a way for us, the customer experience begins, from the moment they think about shopping, they think about coming to the mall. That is the key point of engagement, and from there, we work on all the touch points that we have with the customers. So if they come into the mall, the carpark experience must be fantastic, and that is where we thought about smart parking. It was actually very interesting feedback, a lot of them shared with us that, hey, if you can, work with all the banks, work with all the e-wallets and we can pay with any of the e-wallets. And that got us thinking, and it was because of the customers’ feedback, and we made that happen. So there was quite a fair bit of research. So from today, you can use any wallet, you can use any bank to pay for that parking, we don’t mind. It’s as fast and easy as 1 2 3. So that’s what happened. And then you enter the mall, you don’t want to be spammed by so much things. So what we did was to look at what you had rightly pointed out, personalisation. With the millions of customers that walk through the malls each month, we want to ensure that their experience is good. So that is where we look at personalisation. We only serve you information that is relevant to you. We curate the experience based on that. So one of the mobile apps, not one of our mobile apps, all of the mobile apps have something called real time navigation. You can literally navigate inside the mall, like a miniways, without getting lost, just follow the phone, you’ll be fine, cause you are so used to looking at the phone anyway. It’s insights into customer behaviour. We love our ways, we love our Google Maps, so why not build that miniways, mini Google maps into the mall. And people use that to find their way round. And to make that even easier, we are all talking about express, we are talking about convenience. Everyone of us is short of time, we want to do three things at the same time if possible. So we designed the experience to match this kind of demand, which is convenient and to shorten your shopping time. So we have a route planner, built into your mobile app, in which you can choose your location, and it will tell you the shortest way to get through all the locations. So customer experience is very much understanding the customers and using and developing tools to help the customer improve their experience, is something we all should look at, and that’s how business sustainability can continue.

IMRAN: Well put.

JUN: Interesting. We touched on the customer experience and very curious, all the way when we talked to guests, a lot of our audience will say, hey, shopper is very important, customer is very important, malls are very important. Are you facing any challenges in convincing the retailers in going digital? Because at the end of the day, the mall needs to be successful when retailers need to come in, landlords need to come in, and everyone together can create the successful shopping experience. But always have a challenge when working with retailers. What is your take on this?

HT: Well, it’s all about the business proposition and the readiness also. I would have to say that what Covid did, it’s the best DIO. In a sense that everybody is going digital. Every aunty, uncle, grandma, grandfather, all know how to use QR code.

JUN: Exactly!

HT: I would have to say that it is fantastic how everybody’s mindset changed! And that goes the same for businesses. Every business now is trying to go digital, whether it is via ecommerce or whether is it via however. Everyone is trying to go digital. With that, the market situation is that the readiness is there. So these people, these retailers are very happy to actually look at new concepts. And that is where we are very excited, because in this period of lockdown, we had a lot of conversations with our business partners and the retailers. And many of them have brought to the table new concepts, and new concepts, that is a hybrid of digital and physical experience. And that is very exciting! One of our retailers, Adidas, if you go into their store inside Sunway Pyramid, which is their flagship, they have digital experiences built in. And that’s fantastic, because this is exactly what shoppers are looking for. Experiential, being able to carry your O2O, and being able to build that hybrid experience for them.

IMRAN: I think this is what I will say. I think what I have really taken away from this, specifically with what your team has done, is about how to really look at the customer being the center of the business, and then secondly using real business win-win use cases to pull everyone together. And I have to say this, because it’s not always that we find this to be the case. In many other cases, we do see that the relationship can be tenuous at best. So I think that’s something that really struck me so far in our conversation. We are towards the end of the episode, what I will ask is, we do have a couple of standard questions we ask. Let’s say we have a fellow mall manager in front of you today, which likely will be the case with the people watching today. What would be your one advice to them?

HT: Listen to the customer. Listen to the customer, and we are not talking about just the public consumers, but also another group of customers, which is the retailers. The tenants themselves. They are a very important stakeholder. Working together with them will take you further than trying to do this on your own. So it’s about, I would have to say, the shopping mall, treat it like a gig economy. In which your retailers are part of your gig, and they are the ones who is going to make things happen together with you.

IMRAN: Wise words again. And for the retailers then? A retailer coming to you, they are looking at what’s next, how do I evolve now, what is your one piece of info?

HT: Always think about the longer term. What’s going to happen in a year’s time? What’s going to happen in three year’s time? It’s about business sustainability. So be flexible to change, but yet being able to remain focused on the end goal.

JUN: And our final question, do you think that physical retail can still remain king?

HT: Yes, because people are still looking for experiences. I love the idea of virtual reality. I have to say that I love the internet very much, and I love digitisation. But it still cannot replace the physical experiences. But what’s going to change, in terms of physical experiences, it’s going to be a hybrid, it’s going to be an interactive experience, where the offline and online converge. You will have more of phygital kind of experience in creating of shopping mall spaces. I would have to say that the shopping experience will have to change, but it’s going to change for the better. So yeah.

IMRAN: You know, with that we have sadly come to the end of the episode. Again, Hoey Theen, thank you so much for being here today. And congratulations again for all the wins and announcements that Sunway malls have been doing. We really can’t wait to see what else you guys have in store.

HT: We have to keep a lookout. We are incubating quite a fair bit of things. Once it is ready, we will announce. But normally, that privilege to announce goes to my CEO.

IMRAN: Naturally, naturally. For any of the listeners today who have any questions or comments, please feel free to comment, write in to us. If there is any question for Hoey Theen, we will forward it to her. Again, thanks for being on the show, Hoey Theen. And for the listeners, we will catch you on the next episode of the Future of Retail Asia. Bye!

HT: Bye!

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