Do we need to throw out the rulebook this Christmas? What to expect at shopping destinations
As much of Australia looks forward to emerging from long lockdowns in the coming weeks, there is huge pent-up demand for retail therapy. Scentre Group, which operates 42 Westfield shopping centres across ANZ, has polled thousands of customers on their Christmas plans. The results should give brands and retailers some pre-festive cheer.
If it feels like Christmas is the only non-cancellable event we can look forward to, you’d be right; and while consumers are excited to spend time with friends and family, brands are looking optimistically towards Christmas as a way to boost income lost during the pandemic.
Given the current situation, it’s hard to imagine and predict what will happen by Christmas. But Christmas always goes ahead somehow, no matter the circumstances.
The reason? We can’t wait to celebrate and have fun with friends and family – whatever that looks like. Needless to say, there is huge pent-up demand as much of the east coast hopes to emerge from lockdowns in the coming weeks.
Collective effervescence and the 80 per cent factor
The positive power of Christmas is so strong that sociologists call it ‘collective effervescence’ – the joy and positive feelings that we experience when we get together.
And with six weeks to the start of the Christmas retail period, it’s a force of nature helping drive what is predicted to be a bumper season for physical shopping destinations, providing proof that even during unpredictable events like the pandemic, positivity and the desire for real connections is stronger than ever.
And this is evident in the June Westfield IQ Christmas 2021 sentiment survey which shows that while nearly a third of customers think that who they celebrate with will be different this year, how and where they shop is likely to be closer to a typical Christmas for 80 per cent of people. Whilst this survey was taken pre-lockdown it has interesting findings on what will happen when restrictions ease.
Encouragingly, 67 per cent indicate their spend will be the same or bigger than a typical Christmas.
We spoke with Phil McAveety, Chief Customer & Business Development Officer at Scentre Group. Scentre Group owns and operates 42 Westfield Living Centres across Australia and New Zealand, encompassing 12,000 outlets.
Phil has led brand management and customer experience for some of the world’s best-known brands, including Nike and Starwood Hotels and Resorts Worldwide.
How have physical shopping destinations fared and what are your thoughts for 2021?
All of our Westfield Living Centres have remained open and operating throughout the entirety of 2020/21, despite lockdown restrictions experienced across our markets.
When restrictions have eased, we’ve seen a consistent and rapid return of customers to our Living Centres. This is because our Living Centres are essential to communities and provide the retail experiences that are integral to their day to day lives.
Putting this into context, in 2020 we had 450 million customer visits to our Westfield centres, making them some of the most frequently visited places in our markets. In Q4 20 we had an average of 46 million visitors per month. For NSW and Melbourne, with record vaccination rates and government roadmaps to reopen the economies in motion, we are confident that we will have fewer restrictions by November and will see retail return with Covid-Safe protocols in place. We expect people will come back in meaningful numbers in an environment where they are primed to shop, spending both their time and money.
What have you learned from the first Covid Christmas and insights from your recent consumer survey that you’re taking into this season?
What stood out from the survey was just how much people want to spend time with family and friends and reveling in that sense of coming together; they want to feel positive about Christmas with two thirds already looking forward to the season, telling us they will make plans regardless of the situation.
We know that people want to celebrate in a vibrant, fun and safe environment, and that Christmas is an important and precious time of year for the majority of Australians. We want to focus on the joy of the season, maintaining traditions whilst evolving our experiential and service offerings. Assuming that the country opens up, we believe that there will be even more pent-up demand and emphasis placed on celebrating and having fun this year.
Physical shopping destinations performed exceptionally well last Christmas in tough circumstances. What is Westfield’s approach to this season?
The interesting thing about Christmas is that you don’t need to overthink it, but you do need to plan. So, this year, we are doubling down on three key elements: Festive, easy, safe.
Customers were thrilled to get physically distanced Santa photos with their kids. The introduction of a VR treasure hunt and AR games encouraged safe flow around centres. New generations get freshly surprised and excited by Christmas decorations and activations, with more customer feedback on this than almost anything else.
Our research shows 92 per cent of customers feel safe in our environments. Being Covid-Safe is now a factor of business, with communication being key.
We are increasing investment to make things easier and less stressful, from increased customer service people on the floor to offering in-centre navigation and pop-up valet parking.
From a retail perspective, last year we saw a rise in customers opting for ‘click and collect services’, including at Christmas where this provided a Covid-Safe option for customers to pick up their goods.
Following the success of our own aggregated click and collect pilot in 2020, we will be launching a new aggregated click and collect service across the entire Australian Westfield platform in Q4. Westfield Direct is an extension of the in centre experience, enabling customers to access the Westfield platform and connect with our retail partners, anytime, anywhere across multi-channels.
We look forward to sharing more on this soon.
Why did you launch Westfield Plus in 2020? How can brands get involved?
We introduced the Westfield Plus membership program midway through last year and now have close to 2 million highly engaged members; and it's growing rapidly. With the current situation, it’s ever more important for us to connect with and listen to our customers. Westfield Plus gives us a platform to have an ongoing dialogue with them, ensuring we cater for their needs and provide relevant services.
We continue to develop the functionality of the Westfield Plus app and are working with retailers and brands to curate exclusive offers for members. Through Westfield Plus, we’ve celebrated Donut Day and Burger Day with retailers and distributed School Holiday craft packs to families thanks to entertainment brand partners.
What is Westfield’s approach to Black Friday - one of the biggest retail events of the year?
Black Friday has become an important feature on the retail calendar, and while it’s still relatively new in Australia, retailers and brands are supporting it more than ever.
In 2020 Westfield extended the platform to a week (Westfield Week of Offers), safely managing the flow of customers around centres and offering more shopping opportunities.
Data showed that it worked well as traffic increased by 16 per cent on the previous fortnight and that over 71 per cent of customers bought something for themselves5.
Marketing in physical destinations has strong brand-building element at Christmas. What is your advice to brands and how will you engage them this season?
If you want to connect with customers, then fish where the fish are. They’re in physical destinations, not just to buy but to experience – to see, feel, smell, touch products they’re going to buy. Surprisingly, online sales are still just 9 per cent2 of overall retail.
Our traffic is typically up 43 per cent at Christmas, so, if you’ve got a physical presence in this environment, you’ve got the best opportunity to connect and reach an audience who, after such a tough time in lockdown, are primed to spend.
Our environment is a curated mix of brands and safe experiences, and our network of screens, activation spaces, sampling and customer promotions, managed by our in-house brand partnership and sales team, BrandSpace, add a huge amount of value to the Christmas experience. Hence our own marketing spend supports brands that operate within our destinations and beyond.
My advice for brands is simple: Stay true to your purpose and be there for your communities.
Final thoughts and predictions on Christmas 2021?
It’s impossible to predict, but we have confidence in how much the community is anticipating the festive season. We will be there for them and with them.
In 2020 nearly half of customers had started Christmas shopping by mid-November (versus 40 per cent in 2018). Our survey shows that a third plan to start earlier, so combined with the positive outlook for Christmas- brands should be prepared for early shoppers.
When I worked on a luxury hotel development in New York during the 2008 GFC, there were concerns about whether luxury would return. It came back bigger, and demand was stronger. Humans have short memories for painful experiences, and we are also pretty resilient and predictable.
We’re human beings first. We all want to be with family and friends and enjoy shared experiences.
And there is no more significant season for this than Christmas – and perhaps, especially this Christmas.
For more information about Christmas at Westfield please click here.
Scentre Group operates Australia and New Zealand’s largest Westfield Living Centre portfolio of 42 high-quality centres with over 12,000 retailers, receiving more than 450 million customer visits in 2020. Approximately 20 million people live within close proximity to a Westfield Living Centre. The aspiration is to be integral to our customers' lives - their 'third place' outside of home and work for social interactions and experiences. BrandSpace is the inhouse media provider at Scentre Group and the only way brands can access the Westfield environment. If you are interested in finding out about media, retail, sponsorship or partnership opportunities, contact your BrandSpace representative today or enquire here.
1 Scentre Group Christmas 2021 Sentiment: Westfield IQ 11-14 June 2021 sample 1304
4 BrandSpace SmartScreen Network Audience Detection 2019
5 Scentre Group Christmas Behaviour Study 2020 Westfield IQ sample 2778