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Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 20 October 2018

To save retail, entrepreneurs need to do this

Customer engagement is the name of the game for mall operators and stores

Malls need to be more engaging if they want to keep attracting the crowds. Bloomberg
Malls need to be more engaging if they want to keep attracting the crowds. Bloomberg

When was the last time you went to a mall or visited a retail store and thought to yourself: “Wow those designers and retailers really get it”?

Or that they have thought well of the community as they constructed this space? When was the last time you felt that a salesman was extremely knowledgeable about his topic and also passionate about it?

Not long ago, going to the mall was something magical, at least for me. When I was growing up there wasn’t an abundance of them in the UAE, as there is now. I was drawn to explore the mall’s ins and outs, different offerings and enjoy a meal at the food outlets. A trip to the mall, was something I cherished and looked forward to, even if I did not end up purchasing anything.

Unfortunately, I don’t feel the same way about them now. In fact, I dread going to the mall. To me they are all identical, with the same stores and barely any real customer experience. Although most of my friends feel the same way, millions of people around the world still go to the mall.

E-shopping and the convenience of having my purchases delivered to my doorstep are reasons for that change of heart and many writers and business experts blame that as a reason for bricks-and-mortar retail declines. But I believe it has more to do with customer service engagement and how we as customers relate to retail outlets and the whole shopping experience, whether we feel connected to the space or not.

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United Nude, a Dutch architectural footwear designer, is one of my favourite brands and one reason is because it got it right in terms of store experience and customer engagement.

As you walk into the branch in Covent Garden, London, you will be transported into a different retail experience. It feels more like a gallery than a shoe boutique, from the lights to the ways shoes are presented, to the choice of sofas. It’s actually a bit dark and not washed out by bright fluorescent lighting, while different lighting is strategically placed to illuminate the shoes.

Each shoe is presented as a piece of art – and they are, for they are designed by renowned architects. The late Zaha Hadid was among the shoe designers on the list. So the store itself is an experience on its own, but it doesn’t stop at that. The salespeople are extremely knowledgeable in their field. On one occasion after picking up a pair that I liked to try, the young saleswoman walked me through every step of designing that piece of art, from the hours put in to the inspiration, and also threw in some interesting facts.

I anticipated staying 10 minutes at the most as I had other errands to run, but I ended up staying more than an hour. I was so intrigued by the way the saleswoman spoke passionately about the brand that I found myself suddenly more interested in the history of shoes. Did I end up buying the shoes? I got three pairs. Although United Nude sells its products through its online stores, I’d rather wait until I visit one of its London stores, and I find myself longing for that shopping experience.

Emirati Cafe District 10 in Abu Dhabi is also a great example. It’s a book club, a cultural hub and a speciality cafe house where literary nights are held in the presence of poets, writers and authors. It’s more like a modern-day French salon with an arabesque flair.

The point is that with the increase of online shopping, the only way to attract customers is to provide them with an experience they would not otherwise have if they were shopping from the comfort of their sofa. You want them to want to go to the mall, to visit your store, to make time for it.

More thought on the customer experience has to be injected into retail spaces. A mall can offer more than retail. It could have a public library, a co-working space, a community gallery, shops rented to start-ups at nominal fees to support the community, perhaps a community majlis, and a space for outdoor community events and gigs at low to no fees.

Perhaps then more of us would be excited to go to the mall again.

Manar Al Hinai is an award-winning Emirati entrepreneur, who manages her creative consultancy in Abu Dhabi.