If you’re familiar with the world of shopping centres then you’ll know the intu name. The company operates a network of successful spaces across the UK, but it also has a serious digital presence with more than 300 retailers selling via its online shopping centre.
With their digital ambitions not stopping there, it’s no wonder that intu has its own digital-focused department – intuDigital. It’s here that the company tackles product development, digital innovation and the future of retail challenge.
We spoke to intuDigital managing director, Karen Harris, to find out just what the future looks like according to intu, where retail is going wrong when it comes to digital and the new innovations we’ll see coming to intu spaces soon.
Can you describe your role and what intuDigital does in a nutshell?
I’m managing director of intuDigital. We are a separate department of around 55 people based in intu’s head office and we focus on 3 key areas. The first is our online shopping centre, intu.co.uk. Whilst intu has 14 physical shopping centres nationwide with approx. 35 million customers and 400 million annual visits we also have a 15th online shopping centre with hundreds of retailers integrated on our site. intu online, like our physical shopping centres has its own mix of retailers including pureplays such as Amazon and ASOS. The retailers pay a turnover & tenancy based rent.
The second key area for us is new product development, data and innovation. We are the future retail hub for the business. We currently have 5 new products in active development – these range from some which have recently been launched to others in live testing and a big concept which is probably five years away and linked to mixed reality.
The third area is our engineering team that supports the consumer digital platforms across all of our shopping centres.
What is the intu vision for the future of retail?
Our digital vision is the merging of our physical and our digital environment to create a personalised shopping experience. All of our current development work takes us closer towards this goal. We estimate that in five to seven years’ time customers, with some kind of wearable, will walk into our shopping centres and be greeted by a virtual shopping assistant, let’s call her Joy, who will welcome them and ask “how can I help you today”.
For example, Sam might be visiting a shopping centre in order to look for an engagement present for her friend Kate and not want to spend more than £50. Joy the virtual assistant, who will be able to identify Kate from her contacts and from Facebook will quickly understand her preferences. This will enable Joy to make gift suggestions within the price range whilst pointing out relevant in centre retailers. Joy will also be able to guide Sam through the centre to the suggested products and offer to buy them online and ship to her home for delivery the next day.
Joy will make the payment on Sam’s behalf and then offer to book her a table at a restaurant within the centre following the film she’s been intending to see with her husband, Tom.
Although you’re working on the digital vision, you’re still very much thinking about physical retail then?
Yes. 100 percent. Leisure and dinning have been taking a larger proportion of the shopping centre mix for a while now. We are also seeing hotels in shopping centres as well as residential and concierge services. The future is likely to turn shopping centres into little villages where you live and enjoy leisure activities on tap, eat out, go to the supermarket and meet your friends.
Does your department collaborate with the rest of intu when it comes to digital direction and are there benefits to intuDigital being a separate department?
Sure. However, everyone has their day job and this is pretty all encompassing. The leasing model still underpins the profitability of the shopping centre business. Innovation needs focus, agility and space to think differently and this is why it helps to have a separate team. At the same time, it is absolutely essential for the future of any big organisation to be able to blend and work together effectively. We must be part of the ‘day to day’ experience and that actively test new product ideas and technology with a live shopping audience.
You can have a good idea, but in my experience most things in tech are counterintuitive and many of the good ideas often fail and some of the worst ideas are the ones that disrupt industries. Live testing is a critical part of innovating and if you are too remote or do not have access to your audience, that is a big problem.
Can you talk us through the products that are live or being live tested at the moment?
We recently launched a new content brand – Inside Source. Our key objective is to engage a Gen Z and millennial audience through content. We decided that this would be a new product that would not be branded intu. Nor would it be linked to any of the shopping centres. It is a digital content brand that lives and breathes through social. We have a small team of writers supplemented with a much larger team of expert content writers and influencers. It is already getting traction and we’re really excited about it.
Inside Source is all about engaging a new audience with specific targets, so over time we can learn from them and adapt our centres to be perfect for them. Building this engaged community will be key for our future.
We are also live testing our voice shopping assistant, Joy. You can access Joy via any Android phone in the native Google Assistant or through the Google assistant app on iOS. Just say “talk to Joy shopping advisor” and then ask her to help you find the fashion items you are looking for. She’ll be able to show you items from any of the 350+ retailers that we have on our online shopping centre.
Is Joy limited to certain categories at the moment?
We are testing Joy live on our website on the women’s category only at the moment. For the time being, we have limited her reach, as she is still learning from the customer interactions and, although she is good now, she will get even better.
At the moment are her recommendations more general rather than looking at their purchase history or Facebook account?
Exactly. Her recommendations are based on turning voice commands into text (NLP) and then matching this with key words and labels from products across the site. The difficult bit is making sure she understands the context as conversational interfaces often generate sentences rather than key words. We are also working on Joy’s personality to reflect our brand.
A really strong and recent addition to our online shopping centre is our visual search functionality. Visitors are able to upload an image or screenshot and instantly surface the item or similar from across all of our retailers. We are looking to combine the visual search function and Joy by using visual search to create text labels that then improves product descriptions, which will, in turn, improve our voice assistant.
When it comes to developments to the online shopping centre, like visual search, is this something you do yourself or do retailers come to you with requests?
We took the decision ourselves to add the visual search on our website across all of our retailers. We are now working closely with retailers and introducing some of them to this new tech directly.
What other products do you have in the works?
One of the products we are hoping to live test in January will replace our current app and start to bridge the digital and physical divide by offering added value to customers.
We are also in discussions with retailers and brands about a totally new retailing concept we have developed. We hope to live test a pop-up version of this at the end of Q1.
How will mixed reality change things?
I am a big believer that our screens will be redundant and we will use mixed reality to merge our digital and physical worlds. The implications of that are massive because we then redesign our entire world, including our shopping centres.
Currently, our world is designed in a 2D digital format. Somebody created how messaging and email functions and how we interact with them. In a 3D world messaging may consist of your virtual friend standing in front of you and talking.
What’s really compelling about mixed reality is how the current headsets scan your environment identifying every surface, every bit of furniture, so that when they overlay digital elements in your world interact with your real space making it almost indistinguishable from reality. This makes every mixed reality experience totally personal to you and your space. That is ridiculously compelling. In the future we will map our shopping centres and visitors will be able to select their own digital layers that enhance the reality.
Do you think that generally the retail industry is getting it wrong when it comes to effective uses of digital tech?
I think it is really hard for retailers who have legacy systems that were expensive, margins are often tight and many are in a cycle of discounting. That is not an environment which lends itself to being able to innovate and live test. As a consequence, some retailers have fallen into the trap of discovering new tech and investing heavily before discovering that it is more of a gimmick.
Having said that, there are some retailers who are ahead of the curve and who really have the right approach to testing things. It is important to focus on creating a seamless customer experience with on-line and offline. There should never be a shop that isn’t an endless aisle. If an item is out of stock the customer should be able to scan the barcode and instantly buy online. It’s an interesting, transformational time for retail.
Can you tell us about your accelerator programme and the start-ups that you’ve found most inspirational?
intu Accelerate is our start up incubator programme. We have just completed our second year and we are working with some amazing start-ups. Over 150 applications were whittled down to 7 start-ups who we incubate for a 10-week period. This year we are actively working with 5 out of the 7 start-ups selected.
One of the companies selected this year is Yosh.Ai who helped us develop our Google voice assistant Joy. Another, Greendeck are working with us to automate the categorisation of products on our online shopping centre. Rhythm is a gaming company where centre visitors use their mobile phone as a controller to play games on our large screens. WeFiFo is a food experience company based around a sharing tables concept and Grid Edge, is helping us with predictive maintenance within shopping centres.