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“Ushering In An Omnichannel Retail Future" with Helen Lam | Episode 14

In this episode of The Future Of Retail Asia Podcast, we are joined by Helen Lam, Global Lead of Urbanisation Practice & Head of Innovation (Asia) at Lendlease, bringing her unique perspective from her wealth of experience managing retail developments in both Singapore and Australia. This episode with Helen goes deep into the discussions of how the retail future will look like, marrying the physical and digital space to create the most delightful customer experience for shoppers, and how retailers can leverage on the technologies available to enable this.

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

“Ushering In An Omnichannel Retail Future” with Helen Lam

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

JUN: And I am Jun. Joining us today on the show, we have Helen Lam from Lendlease. Welcome Helen.

HELEN: Thank you, thank you for having me.

IMRAN: Thanks Helen. Helen has over 20 years of experience working in both Asia and Australia in the property and development industry. And before joining Lendlease, she had honed her craft in Australian companies such as The George Group and AMP Capital, managing a diverse portfolio of properties ranging from commercial, retail and industrial properties. Currently with Lendlease, Helen has been with them for more than a decade, and is now the Global Lead of Urbanisation Practice & Head of Innovation in Asia, quite a handful.

HELEN: Giving away my age!

IMRAN: Where she oversees the Development Operations and Innovation Teams for Lendlease. Welcome again!

JUN: So I want to start by asking, as you have been working in Australia for a long time before moving into Asia. How different is the retail industry between these two regions?

HELEN: Firstly, I think Asia on it’s own is very diverse. There is no one Asia. But the differences coming from Australia to Asia was, I was just so surprised around the dynamics of retail in Asia. In Australia, operating hours are 9-5, people go home at 5pm, and extended hours are not very long, so it’s still focused around a lot of necessities. And obviously that has evolved over the last few years. In Asia, particularly Singapore where we are at, people love shopping malls, people love shopping. Shopping is not just a necessity, but it’s hanging out, it’s where you meet people.

IMRAN: A way of life.

HELEN: It’s where you bring your kids for dinner! It’s a way of life. It has air conditioning, and in Singapore it’s very humid.

IMRAN: Very important!

HELEN: There is a lot of value proposition in retail and at the end of the day, it’s a very people centric experience. So for retail, it fundamentally changed the dynamics of the role of retail in Asia. The reality is that we live in smaller homes, we don’t have many backyards. So when it comes to retail, it becomes our extended living rooms, our extended places. I think there is a great opportunity in Asia, and that differences creates a lot of needs to be met. It’s a different energy.

JUN: That’s very cool. When we talk about the malls being a whole lifestyle destination, I think a big part of it is who are the merchants, the tenants inside. I think one thing that is consistent in the last 10 episodes that we’ve run is that this mention of this dynamic, this tension between the mall landlord and the retailers. Especially with Covid, with issues such as rental, subsidies, operating costs, closures, what’s your experience, or what’s your take on this landlord-tenant relationship.

HELEN: I have to say through Covid, a lot of businesses and economies of the world, it’s a lot of pressure, tightening belts, businesses have unfortunately have to shut down. When it comes down to landlord relationships, or malls, businesses are shutting down. There is labour pressure, there is an increase in costs. When it comes to the evolution of the relationships between landlords and retailers, it has to change. Traditionally, the calibration also needs to evolve as well. Traditionally, generally, you are having discussions around rents or rental renewals or contract negotiations. I think the dynamics around alleviating the pressure is also understanding what are the opportunities from a landlord perspective to support, but also the retailer to support. Because we all have costs, we all want to achieve, to create a better community experience for our customers. The reality is that there is a lot of pressure in working together, understanding where the pain points are, where are the opportunities, what do our customers need, and how do we elevate it. Is where it needs to evolve to. I would say, a relationship where it’s more fluid, we understand, we share information, we share data, we share risks. We work through agility and what it means to be resilient, and also being flexible with spaces and how we look at attracting people to our places that we are creating, as a partnership model, is the way forward.

IMRAN: Certainly there is a win-win-win there yeah?

HELEN: Of course, there needs to be win-win. It’s not you win, I lose or I win, you lose model, because at the end of the day, if businesses shut down, nobody wins.

JUN: Yes. You bring an interesting point, when we talk to a lot of different players in the region, they will always bring this up, that in the near future, a lot of people believe in that when a retailer comes into the mall, they are not just renting a space. They are looking more about the value added services, like what kind of things that the mall can provide, what kind of data analytics they can provide to the retailer. Just now you were sharing about the data sharing to create a win-win, when the retailer shares the data with the mall, and what kind of data the mall can share back with the retailer. What is your thought or thinking about this?

HELEN: There is a few things there. Right now, the roles are very clearly defined, the borders are there. You’ve got, our owners, as landlords or operators, is that we have to attract the foot traffic to the mall. However, the challenge for us is, we can influence them to come through the mall, but we are not in charge of conversion. What they spend, what they decide to spend, the merchandising, how the store operates, the service of the store. The products offered in the store. All that relies on the retailers, and the border is very delineated. The walls are, here’s a shopfront, we bring the people here but when it comes to the door, the line of the shopfront, that gets handed over to the retailer. So when it comes to conversion and revenue and the ability for the retailers to make money, right now we can’t influence that. We can support through marketing, we can support through giving promotions and tenant collaboration platforms. But when it comes to conversion, it stops at the shopfront. I see these barriers slowly breaking down, because how the rental right now is based on per square feet. But when it comes to experience going into a mall, we want an immersive experience. You might want to go in and buy something for your child. But you might stop by a nice jacket store. It doesn’t have to be one need, and then you go in and out for one need. The walls and the barriers are going to be merging. When it comes to accountability of what’s your role in this, in terms of creating an experience. The reality is that if you create better experiences, better spaces, people spend more time, and they will also spend more money. I just think that that would be evolving over the next few years, and we as retailers and operators need to kind of work proactively to work through what that means.

IMRAN: You touched on a very interesting point, that this idea that if I am the property manager, my role is to bring in a good ecosystem, to bring traffic into the ecosystem, and I can bring traffic to your door. I don’t know whether you see this as a vulnerability, but it does seem the case that there is a lot of pressure of increasing variability in the rent. You might even have some of the very ambitious malls, that we have seen maybe in China, that say we are doing away with base rent. Let’s go full on profit sharing. That kind of like knocking on that door, we bring people to your store, but now there is this idea, like you said, the delineation is not so clear anymore.

HELEN: Yeah!

IMRAN: What do you see in this?

HELEN: There are challenges. Some of the foot traffic in Asia is so high, but if the retailer won’t be able to sell the product, or the visual merchandiser, or the experience, or the service is not able to convert. Then we are doing our role, so they have to do their role too. This whole partnership model, and sharing. The ability and opportunity is 100% there, but working through those roles. We also need to be accountable of what those roles and responsibilities are, in ensuring that we are in partnership, in a genuine and authentic partnership that we are supporting each other. I don’t think we have all the answers yet. But it is changing, it needs to change. Because we want to make malls and places that we create still relevant. The reality is with the digital offerings these days. Physical will become, will need to become, or stay relevant and become better. It has got to evolve.

JUN: Shopper experience, we always mention the experience. The point I feel very interested in is e-commerce, we talk to a lot of e-commerce players. They always look at, they track every single number, from people going into the website, where they go. And then what is the conversion rate of the checkout. Just now you said, the mall is able to bring people to the mall, but the retailer cannot convert. How can we make this entire thing seamless.

HELEN: That is a challenge because when you talk about revenue, traditionally how you define that success is the performance within the store. But these days, the whole omni-channel experience kinds of blurs the line. The malls have attracted a brand, the brand has given awareness to the consumer. The consumer goes on the website and purchases something. But that benefit is not gone back to the mall. And the inventory of the purchase online was in the mall, and then someone picked it up in the mall, but the purchase is online, where does the delineation comes? I think it is a whole portfolio approach when it comes to this. The portfolio is, when it comes to digital and physical, businesses need to look at it as a portfolio. So it is not just what I make in the store, what I make online, but it is the merging of the strategy of how I leverage and actually combine the omni-channel to the best of me. The brand presence of the store, making sure the right experience and the customer experience is there, the hospitality there. I always believe retail and a five star hotel should merge. Because retail hospitality should be what attracts your customer to keep going back, spend more money. Having a nice smile, having an easy transaction, exploring, increasing the ticket pricing. And when it comes to online channels, making it easy if you don’t want to carry it home, or if you don’t want to wait. Or having the right inventory online so that it is seamless. Having the checkout process, whether it is online or physical, whatever the customer wants and desires is seamless. I think that portfolio approach needs to be really really on the A game of a lot of businesses. And then how do we support them to do that, is also important.

IMRAN: This whole portfolio approach that you talk about, is essentially looking at how do we innovate the whole business model. In order for that to happen, there is certain things that has to happen on data, technology, what’s being shared, what’s being agreed upon. Maybe, in your state as the head of innovation, is there anything that you are particularly looking at that might be changing the game, without maybe giving any secret sauces away?

HELEN: The critical thing is always, when it comes to any business, is how do you understand your customer’s needs. If you go to my analogy of the five star hotel, how people get a five star hotel rating is almost like, you can anticipate your needs. Are you hungry, do you need a cocktail, do you need towels, do you need a cot, do you need anything. Your needs. So when it comes to retail, if you can understand your consumer, and you can anticipate their needs, and you can fly that five star level of service in your products, and your experience, in your people, and also your services. I think that’s the secret sauce. When it comes to what we are looking at, how do we understand our customers more, and anticipate their needs. So if we understand our customers, who are the customers coming in to the malls. We know the demographic profiles who is living around the mall, but are those the people we are servicing? Are we missing the gaps? And when it comes to profile, it is not just profiling what your dynamics is, but how you are using our spaces. So you would probably go to a mall to bring your kids. You would probably go to a mall to meet your friends. I am generalising. But I would go to the mall to bring my kids to have an hour or two somewhere, like on the playground, while I buy some necessities. So when it comes to understanding our needs, that data is what we are looking at. But at the same time, we are missing that data, a connection with what is the actual spend, when it comes to, at what hour you buy, what am I buying. And when you meet your friends for drinks, what are you buying, and when and how are you using it. And the relationship between how you are using the space, where you are meeting your friends, where you are sitting, where you are spending your money. Things you are spending on. What are your needs around that, what are our needs around that. And really working together to optimise that. Optimisation, when it comes to data and how you use it, I think is still a learning journey for our industry in retail. Not many people are maximising the ability to make decisions and be agile to respond to consumer needs based on data yet.

JUN: The other thing would be, when we talk to a lot of players in the market, they always mention that they can get IoT sensor data, they can get weather, traffic information around the shopping mall. But they call this is the last mile transaction data, is the biggest challenge for them. What is the biggest challenge, why is it so hard for malls to get the last mile data?

HELEN: The challenge, in general, with technology is this segregation of data. So it is not integrated. If I enter the mall, and I have a profile, and I enter in the mall and there is a data set. I go through a POS transaction and other data sets. The environment I am in, with the space, how hot is it, how cold is it. I am actually going to the mall for different data sets. The systems are not integrated to make sense. And when there is so much data, and you don’t know what to do with the data, or you can’t read it because they are all segregated. It is very hard to make a really meaningful decision around what that data means to me. And that’s a huge opportunity for retail right now.

IMRAN: I think that kind of marries this whole idea of, right now what e-commerce can track is every single customer buying exactly what, from which brands in their marketplace, for example. I think if you can marry that, together with the spacial, 3D advantage that the mall has, and then really, like you said, there is this huge opportunity to look at how do we evolve data science within this practice. To kind of understand what is happening, and then how do we optimise that. Maybe I can ask you, what do you think is the ideal data scenario to you moving forward.

HELEN: Ideal data. It always start from way beyond the destination. When you are at home, you wake up in the morning. You already have needs. And your needs are pretty much, a lot of them you can work out on your phone. What you have been googling, what you have been searching. Your photos. It is a bit scary. There is a huge conversation around data privacy. There is still a bit of a mess with data privacy. How do we use the data to personalise the data, versus balancing privacy rights. That is something we are looking at very seriously. Now when it comes to the ideal scenario, there is an anticipation before you get to the mall, or you get to the retail place. You already worked out what and where and how. Because it is easy, the omni-channel you go to the website. That sizing and colouring is in stock. Or you might say there is variety in what you are looking for. Or can pop up some suggestions or personalisation of some things you might need, based on your profile and your searches. And when it comes to wayfinding and digital and all the basic fundamentals of retail, it should be seamless. You shouldn’t get lost, you should know where you are going. The experience is not frustrating, it is convenient. You are providing a delightful experience, we say with constant place making. And when you get to the mall, that whole experience, that journey, from the start of the mall to the actual retail store, to the whole exploratory stage. The whole inventory selection stage. It is almost a fusion of physical and digital. You go into a store and you can explore. There might not be the right colour, but the store can already suggest that it is available on the website, and you can buy it in the same transaction that you are buying physically and digitally. It can say you can pick up in the store tomorrow, or you can actually pick it up in the store tomorrow. Or you can say you want to buy the orange shirt in store now, and a white one to, and the white one will be delivered to you tomorrow. So that digital, physical, you don’t have to have stock of every inventory in the store. But that experience gives you the option for ability, and it addresses your need, and the convenience of it. And when it comes to the inventory all the way to the checkout, the options for you to be able to Apple Pay, or pay on your phone, or Tap it, or PayNow or a QR code, or don’t even go to a checkout store, but you just pay online.

IMRAN: Just walk out.

HELEN: Just walk out. If you don’t want to talk to one, if there are people there that can anticipate and help you if you need. It is about customisation, personalisation. And that seamless experience bringing physical and digital. This is what the opportunity is for retail to involve in. The technology is available.

IMRAN: Yes, yes.

JUN: Yes.

HELEN: You got visualisation, you got AI. It is how you use it and integrate these platforms to create that ideal scenario for you. So you can take your two kids and spend more money somewhere else.

IMRAN: So what I hear is, predictive personalisation at scale, with a delightful place making.

HELEN: WIth a very flexible, agile experience that optimises your needs.

IMRAN: What I hear as well is that, just to add on, is this idea that the technology is there. What really needs to be done is the meeting of the minds and hearts it seems.

JUN: Recently, Fairprice did a very good job. I always use the Fairprice app just to collect the points. The payment is I need to link my credit card. I was at the counter already, and if you are using the app to make payment, you need to link your credit card. I tried yesterday, they enabled Apple Pay, so then I just linked my Apple Pay, and straightaway I was using the Fairprice app to make payment. And guess what, they sent the e-receipt to my app, then they showed what I bought inside the store, every single SKU. In this case, they realised something, I would only buy drinks online, because I don’t want to carry with me from the retail store. So next time if they have any drinks, they would prompt me to buy now, this item you buy online and we send it.

HELEN: Or you bought this last month, do you want to restock now? Yes? Click. You can have the transaction easily, and still enjoy your time, wherever else without carrying ten bottles of beers.

JUN: Exactly.

HELEN: The irony of all these is that, really having the customer focused lens in all this. Your pain point of pointing credit card for transaction and linking the points. That is not pleasant. When you remove the pain point and focus on the customer, it’s really just, the opportunity of spending more is there. It is a revenue opportunity when you actually focus on the customer experience.

IMRAN: I think this is a good segue to essentially the end of the interview. This is the part where you give advice. Imagine you have a mall manager in front of you, a fellow mall manager. The other one is if you have a retailer in front of you. So two different parties, both asking what’s going to happen moving forward. What would be your one piece of advice to each of them?

HELEN: The mall manager, advice is that all the thoughts or gossip around brick and mortar would die, that’s a lie. The reality is digital would never replace physical, because when we go out together, we can’t digitally go out together. Can we? If I am looking for a nice dress to go to an engagement party, and I am going to bring a friend a long. That exhilaration of trying on the dress, is a memorable moment. That can’t be made by clicking on online platform. So my advice would be, the actual experience and the opportunity for a mall manager or someone in a space where you can actually influence the experience, the customer journey. Create delight when it comes to that experience, and memorable, genuine places, when it comes to what we are able to offer. That is the opportunity to do that. And focus on that, the real partnership approach with the retailers to do that. It is all about a holistic, integrated customer experience. From the beginning of getting into the mall, to spending money, to enjoying the spaces, to leaving the mall. That is a seamless experience, it needs to be focused around the customer journey.

IMRAN: Well said, and if you had a merchant or a retail manager in front of you, what would be your advice?

HELEN: One piece of advice is, what I mentioned earlier, optimising the digital and physical experience. You can call it omni-channel, or you can call it phygital, or physical, digital. But the reality is, if you make that experience seamless, you can optimise the customer experience a lot. So when it comes to that portfolio approach, don’t look at your business as, this is how many people are going into my shop. But look at it as the opportunity of what my platforms are, and really really kill it, when it comes to the digital platform, and physical platform. And the physical store is your brand, right. And you never ever ever replace people touching and smelling and experiencing and tasting and trying online. But you can optimise that physical experience by using all the digital opportunities that is available. That is my advice to really do that, and to kill on both sides, because that’s the opportunity to create places for us.

JUN: I see, I think you answered this question, but I still want to ask. Do you think physical retail can still remain king?

HELEN: Of course, but it can’t be king without the beautiful digital queen. Right next to it. I did answer it. Brick and mortar and physical will be more relevant now than ever. Why? Because people are desiring and craving interaction and social experience and memories and genuine moments. And you cannot have that digitally. The reality is you can’t. But you can’t also ignore this incredible power of social media and digital experience and convenience that enables the physical to be enhanced. So that needs to be a beautiful marriage, between the digital and physical king and queen.

IMRAN: King and Queen, I love that. That is the first time someone has said that. I really love that. With that, we have sadly come to the end of the episode. Thanks again Helen for coming on to our podcast and sharing your insights. If you guys have any questions for Helen, please let us know in our socials, have a comment on YouTube or LinkedIn, we would be sure to forward it to Helen and we are sure she would be happy to engage or answer your questions.

HELEN: Thank you guys, it has been fun.

IMRAN: Once again, thanks for tuning in. I will see you next episode.

JUN: Thank you, thank you Helen.

HELEN: Thank you.

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