Can Collaboration Shore Up Brick-and-Mortar Retail?

Mall developer Westfield and others push for data sharing

Author: Andria Cheng

November 14, 2017

Brick-and-mortar retailers often gripe that they are at a competitive disadvantage against online retailers because of their relative inability to map a more complete view of who their customers are and their traffic, browsing and purchasing behavior.

As malls, department stores and other retailers struggle to drive traffic, some players are considering sharing data.

Mall developer Westfield, the owner of 35 shopping centers, is seeking to persuade retailers, brands and even competing malls to share data such as what consumers have just bought to allow partners/rivals to better target potential customers for related sales.

“In order for us to be successful we have to collaborate across different partners and partner with competitors too,” said Lindsey Thomas, who heads marketing at Westfield's newly rebranded OneMarket unit, formerly known as Westfield Retail Solutions. “Seamless integration is what we are preaching. If you want to get a well-rounded view of consumers, you need to know the ins and outs about the consumer.”

Data sharing isn’t the only mission of this OneMarket network. The idea is also to get the participants to invest in tech initiatives from natural language to AI, with the goal of becoming more competitive with digital leaders and keeping up with consumer expectations.

Retailers are struggling to innovate at a pace that allows them to keep up with consumers' shifting expectations, Thomas said.

The goals of better targeting and personalization certainly maps to what retailers have said they want to do. A Boston Retail Partners survey found that retailers' top customer engagement priority this year involved customer identification and personalization. 

However, while the goal of the collaboration makes sense theoretically, Thomas admitted it’s not an “easy task” to win cooperation among rivals.

“You are asking retailers to share data, which they’ve never done before,” she said in an interview. “There are a lot of sensitivities.”

Some industry veterans are skeptical. “Though well intentioned, the data collection is going to be fragmented and limited--and the data analysis, therefore, is going to be essentially meaningless,” Mark Cohen, a Columbia Business School Professor and a former retail industry top executive, told eMarketer Retail. “I remain highly cynical.”

But OneMarket, which has met with more than 60 potential global partners in just the past six weeks alone, said it has found widespread interest in the concept. “There’s not one that’s not interested,” Thomas said. “Trying to do this five years ago would have been quite impossible.  Physical retail is fragmented. Retail is about going from slow to fast, not about going from big to bigger anymore.”

She said OneMarket is testing sharing of “live” digital receipts to “enable a conversation within the network” about post purchase interactions to “incorporate more seamless experience” for consumers. 

Another "key offering" of the network is a Shopper Exchange digital ad marketplace that will give brands "unprecedented access" to retailers' shopper data so brands have the ability to "engage with the exact consumers at the right stores where their products are sold," Thomas said, adding that's generated "significant incremental sales like never before." 

She declined to give details about the network's participants but said about 20 department store chains in the US and UK have expressed “commitments” to join the network, and said conversations have begun with other shopping malls.

Westfield isn’t the only one pushing for data sharing. Criteo, a marketing tech firm, this year  introduced a “commerce marketing ecosystem” to help “level the playing field” for retailers and brands in their battle against the likes of Amazon and Alibaba “in a world where shoppers are extremely demanding and volatile” and where retailers and brands are required to offer “seamless” and “relevant” shopping experiences across “all devices and channels and at all stages of the journey.”