Future-Ready Retail with Ibrahim Ibrahim

Many physical retail developments are failing to attract the crowds required to be sustainable, impacted by both online shopping and changing consumer behaviors. This month’s Bigeye Book Club selection, Future-Ready Retail, examines how brands can develop winning strategies to create engaging stories that recruit and retain customers. The book’s author, Ibrahim Ibrahim, is a futurist, retail strategist, and designer. In this episode, Ibrahim discusses key ideas in his book.

Episode Transcript

Adrian Tennant: Coming up in this episode of IN CLEAR FOCUS: 

Ibrahim Ibrahim: What makes great place making is this shift from a shopping or transactional rhythm to a community rhythm, and that rhythm of footfall makes a great place.

Adrian Tennant: You’re listening to IN CLEAR FOCUS, fresh perspectives on the business of advertising produced weekly by Bigeye: a strategy-led, full-service creative agency, growing brands for clients globally. Hello. I’m your host, Adrian Tennant, Chief Strategy Officer. Thank you for joining us. Today’s podcast is part of our Bigeye Book Club series in partnership with our friends at Kogan Page. Our featured selection for July is Future-Ready Retail: How to reimagine the customer experience, rebuild retail spaces, and reignite our shopping malls and streets by Ibrahim Ibrahim. Suffering from the impact of online shopping and changing consumer attitudes and expectations, many physical retail environments failed to attract the crowds needed to sustain their businesses even before the COVID-19 pandemic. Future-Ready Retail examines how brands can develop winning strategies to create engaging stories that recruit and retain customers. I’m delighted that we’re joined today by the book’s author, Ibrahim Ibrahim, a futurist, retail strategist, and designer. Ibrahim is the Managing Director of Portland Design, a company he founded, which is now part of the Perkins and Will global architecture and design network. Ibrahim is a board member of the UK Government High Street Task Force, the ULI UK Infrastructure and Urban Development Council, and an advisory panel member for the Center for London think tank. To discuss some of the key ideas in Future-Ready Retail, Ibrahim is joining us today from his office in London, England. Ibrahim, welcome to IN CLEAR FOCUS! 

Ibrahim Ibrahim: Thanks, Adrian.

Adrian Tennant: So Ibrahim, what prompted you to write Future-Ready Retail?

Ibrahim Ibrahim: If I’m truthful, I actually got approached to write it by someone who was following me on LinkedIn. And I had no kind of intention to write a book, but that particular conversation didn’t go anywhere. But, having said that, he planted the seed, and I continued from that thinking about it. And I wrote a synopsis thinking this could be a good idea. But then I was connected to Kogan Page and once they saw my kind of brief synopsis, they said, “Let’s now do it properly and write a proper synopsis.” So we did that, and yeah, then I got a deal. So that was great. And for the next year, I got my head into it.

Adrian Tennant: So, could you tell us about Portland Design and the types of projects you typically undertake for your clients?

Ibrahim Ibrahim: Yes. And I suppose that’s partly the answer to the first question and, what prompted me to write a book is the work we are doing and the speed at which we are witnessing change. Not change in design or technology or some architecture trends – the change of expectations and behavior of our audience. And I specifically call them our audience and not consumers because we don’t take them for granted as consumers. And that change, we kind of refer to as Retail Darwinism, and that is, the expectations are changing much faster than these big behemoths can adapt. And if you are a retail business that has hundreds of thousands of square meters of immovable concrete, it’s very difficult to be agile in terms of the built environment. And if you then, you know, magnify that to an urban regeneration setting, then it’s even more difficult. That’s what drives our business. What actually we do is we’re a place strategy and retail design business. So we help clients define their place, whether that place is a shopping center, whether it’s a high street, whether it’s a big mixed-use development, an airport, a railway station, we help them define what the essence of that place as an experience is. Not as a piece of architecture, not as a piece of urban planning, but as the human experience – we help them define that. And we have data that informs our work in that respect. And once we’ve helped them define that proposition as an experience, we then help our clients translate that into a whole series of different areas of design from brand – brand strategy, brand identity, all their elements of communication – through to sometimes marketing that place, particularly in the retail sphere and shopping centers, through to wayfinding, the expression of branding wayfinding, through to the design of the public spaces, through to the architecture, very importantly, what we call the experience master plan: what offers, what districts, how they connect. So yeah, so a whole range of this blending, this blurring of brand and architecture or interior design is the two. And one of our clients saw that as quite unique and termed it Market-ecture, which I thought was quite interesting. 

Adrian Tennant: In the introduction. I mentioned the decline in footfall at conventional shopping malls, a trend worsened by social distancing during the COVID-19 pandemic. Is this something you’ve observed primarily in Western countries? Or is this a global problem?

Ibrahim Ibrahim: We’ve observed it, in specific areas, definitely in Europe and worse in Germany and Italy and France, less so in Northern Europe, like Scandinavia. We’ve observed it in the Middle East, but less so, generally speaking, the recovery was much quicker. And in Asia, notwithstanding the hotspots of COVID in China, we’ve certainly observed a recovery very quickly. We don’t have experience throughout the whole of America, but where we do work and have a bit of experience, we’ve observed that being very similar to the UK.

Adrian Tennant: In the first chapter of Future-Ready Retail, you observe that retail today is less about prime real estate and more about content, which you define as the curation of blended commercial offers and compelling experiences. You go on to talk about the importance of placemaking. So Ibrahim, what is place-making?

Ibrahim Ibrahim: I like the idea of redefining retail, not in terms of real estate, but in terms of content, because – and I’ll come to answer your question about what is place-making – but this is the context. Because retail has always been and will always be about four things: recruitment, transaction, fulfillment, and retention. But what’s interesting is that transaction and fulfillment are migrating away, if you like, from the physical space increasingly. And therefore, the physical space is increasingly being used to recruit and retain audiences. Which means that if you are a recruitment and retention space, you are actually behaving like a media brand, and therefore it’s content that’s going to help you recruit and retain. And if we agree that that is the case, then that changes the whole paradigm. It changes the design of that space. It changes its physical makeup. It changes the service proposition. It changes the experience, of course. It changes the master plan. It changes its connectivity to the public realm and how that works. It blurs much more with the public realm. So to answer your question with that context, placemaking for us is about three things: the three Cs. It’s about content which I’ve just explained. It’s about community. Localism. Reaching out to community, moving away from a hermetically sealed development that looks inwards, and creating a permeable connected development shopping center or whatever that locks outwards and connects to the urban grain, to the streetscape, and to community. So that’s community. And thirdly, culture. Placemaking, to be successful, has to resonate with the culture of its audience and not just be driven by agents that help fill spaces with tenants, without any reference to the cultural drivers that impact the behavior of our audience. And I think that is key. And I think that is where if you like shopping centers have been going wrong with this cookie-cutter approach. So we refer to – and I refer to it in the book as well – the four pillars of placemaking, which goes towards answering your question directly, what is placemaking? It’s based on four pillars. The first is convenience. So placemaking must deliver on one big expectation of our audience, and that is hyper convenience, simplicity, an experience that’s intuitive. That is devoid of complexity. I think that’s the first. And of course, if we drill into that, really extensively by understanding the impact of things like quick commerce and the whole kind of area of convenience. The second is fast. The polar opposite of slow, which is about a place creating programmable content about creating and delivering participatory experiences that are about community – and I don’t mean local community – communities of interest, brands that bring those communities together, and places about activation of public realm with those experiences. Not about a fixed demise that separates the public realm with tenanted space. These are blurred. And I think this blurring of the inside and the outside also is about placemaking. The third pillar is about localism. How do we create a place? And only a successful piece of placemaking must be connected to and align with the local community and the local environment, and its local heritage and its local makeup of audience, whether they are citizens, whether they’re influencers, whether they’re local brands. And very importantly, when we are master planning a place – and again, this is what makes a great place – is how we blend in one master plan local independent brands, influencers, local groups, community groups, not-for-profit organizations, social enterprises, with big brands. And whether those big brands are retail, leisure, entertainment, culture, the days of separating them and putting local small brands into tertiary spaces and giving prime space to big brands are over. And that is the death of place-making. And the fourth pillar that really, I think, cements a place and makes it sustainable in terms of futureproof is what we refer to as belonging, how we create a place that delivers on, and aligns with the values of our audience – their values in terms of the role this place plays in their day-to-day life and in the wider world, and not just somewhere to sell them stuff. And I think that means – and again, to answer your question maybe in another way, which is a very succinct way – what makes a great place making is this shift from a shopping or transactional rhythm to a community rhythm and that rhythm of footfall makes a great place.

Adrian Tennant: You believe that retailers and brand marketers need to shift our focus away from traditional demographic consumer segments, and instead consider cross-boundary, psychographic segmentation, which reveals what you refer to as Generation C. You highlight Nike, Apple, and Patagonia as exemplars of this approach. So Ibrahim, could you give us an overview of Generation C and explain how their traits inform how you design brands and place experiences?

Ibrahim Ibrahim: Yeah, I think the five Cs plus the sixth one is really key, but the sixth one is the first one is control. You know, the overriding demand of our audience now is control. Being in control, feeling in control, that gives them dignity. It gives them hyper-convenience. It means that their experience is intuitive. It means the business is transparent. It means there’s authenticity, all the elements, and what can go on and on about what do we mean by control or being in control, an experience that’s devoid of complexity. Those kinds of things. As I move on to the Cs, the first is convenience, which is exactly what I’ve just said. This idea of hyper-convenience, this idea of creating an intuitive experience. The idea of queuing is anathema in retail. Quick commerce is taking hold. We want – obviously COVID’s really driven the kind of demand for digital experiences – the whole fulfillment ecosystem, how we can have different aspects and types of fulfillment to meet the demands of our audience, how convenience delivers on this, a new way of working, this fragmentation of work, how people want to work as a dip-in, dip-out culture of work, how we fit working increasingly around other activities. We work a bit. We shop a bit, you know, go and eat a bit. We have a yoga class, we go back to work, we then meet a friend, and we work again. And what that work could be 10 minutes of emails, or it could be an hour Zoom call. And we do it all between moving from home to somewhere public, to maybe the office. If you think about how quick commerce is changing our behavior, how we can be anywhere, deliver, order anything, whether it’s a sandwich or a toothpaste, and get it delivered to us within 10, 15 minutes. What does that mean? I mean, at the moment, mostly that’s being done from home, but as we start getting used to that, and we start using quick commerce, wherever we are, we could be sitting on a park bench. I had a call the other day, and someone was literally sitting on a park bench in the call. I’m thinking, “Actually, you know, how we design public seating is no longer just about sitting. We gotta have public seating, which is where we work, which is where we eat. This is where we shop”, you know? So what does that mean in terms of the public realm? So anyway, all that is around convenience, and then, of course, the brands we choose, the brands we select, and the brands we put into our experience master plan are those brands that can deliver community, that have got communities following them, that are what we call community-first brands. It’s not product-first, it’s community-first. And I think that delivers on the S in the ESG. How can we bring brands and our selection of brands and in a master plan that drives social value? And drive the activation of the public realm. And of course, then those brands that we bring in are ones that should drive also what we call the third C is co-creation, brands that are open to helping the audience kind of shape their product. You know, thinking about brands like Fenty, for instance. Fenty is a cosmetics brand, as you know and that is what we call circular commerce. It started as a social network, it’s a social-first brand. And from that social network, from the learnings, from the interaction and the engagement of that social network, they developed a series of products, and they continue to develop those products through their social network. So it’s a circular commerce. So co-creation is really important. The fourth one is collaboration. That’s part of the same thing. How do we create environments, places that drive collaboration? We work with a really interesting group called Incredible Edible. Incredible Edible or a social enterprise that come to a place, they work with a local authority or a developer, and they take space, whether that’s a disused car park or a roof space, and they develop allotments where they grow produce. And they reach out to the local community and get the community to own these allotments. They help them grow the produce. And then the intermediary between that produce being sold to restaurants in this development and Incredible Edible take a cut of that. And so do the community who have been growing it. So collaboration is really important at a community level, at a place level, if you like, but also at a brand level, how we introduce brands and encourage brands that are collaborative with their audience as opposed to what you call monologue brand. And finally, the final C – and the most important C – is conscience: brands that have a conscience that prioritize the role they play in people’s lives and in the wider world. And of course, increasingly, that’s becoming a driver of preference, brands that are a purpose that look at sustainability ESG as a priority. And of course, we can see that also through the growth of B-Corps and triple bottom line. And I know that, and I think that will become universal, a kind of narrative at a kind of everyday level. Not many people have heard now of B-Corps, I’ve been talking about it for three or four years, and as I speak to more and more people, I see it’s becoming more and more kind of universal. And I think that it will get bigger and more kind of popular.

Adrian Tennant: Let’s take a short break. We’ll be right back after these messages. 

Adrian Tennant: Each month, in partnership with our friends at Kogan Page, The Bigeye Book Club features interviews with authors who are experts in specific areas of marketing, consumer research, and customer experience. Our featured book for July is Future-Ready Retail: How to Reimagine the Customer Experience, Rebuild Retail Spaces, and Reignite our Shopping Malls and Streets, by Ibrahim Ibrahim, a futurist, retail strategist, and designer. IN CLEAR FOCUS listeners can save 20 percent on a print or electronic version of the book with exclusive promo code BIGEYE20. This code is valid for all products and pre-orders and applies to Kogan Page’s free e-book offer. To order your copy of Future-Ready Retail, go to KoganPage.com – that’s K O G A N P A G E dot com.

Sandra Marshall: I’m Sandra Marshall, VP of Client Services at Bigeye. Every week IN CLEAR FOCUS addresses topics that impact our work as advertising professionals. At Bigeye, we always put audiences first. For every engagement, we’re committed not just to understanding our clients’ business challenges but also learning about their prospects’ and customers’ attitudes, behaviors, and motivations. These insights inform our strategy and collectively inspire the account, creative, media, and analytics teams working on our clients’ projects. If you’d like to put Bigeye’s audience-focused consumer insights to work for your brand, please contact us. Email info@bigeyeagency.com. Bigeye. Reaching the Right People, in the Right Place, at the Right Time.

Adrian Tennant:  Welcome back. I’m talking with Ibrahim Ibrahim, the author of this month’s Bigeye Book Club selection, Future-Ready Retail: How to reimagine the customer experience, rebuild retail spaces, and reignite our shopping miles and streets. Online shopping received a major boost during the extended lockdowns due to COVID, as did the use of social media and shopping live streams. In what kinds of ways is digital media reshaping the customer journey?

Ibrahim Ibrahim: That’s a subject of a whole book. I think the first thing to say is the idea of even mentioning in your narrative that there is online and offline shopping will be something of the past. A digital-first generation doesn’t refer to shopping online or shopping offline as shopping online. It’s the convergence and the blending and the blurring of online and offline. And more and more online shopping will happen in-store and more and more of that will be socially-based will be on social platforms. So I think the way digital is impacting shopping, and the experience is definitely the consumer knows more about the product than any sales assistant will know. So therefore, that is about transparency. So I think that is certainly driving that. The idea that information about anything is at our fingertips impacts how they see the role of shops. So therefore, that’s going to impact the role of retail. Certainly, it’s delivering convenience through e-payments, through delivering convenience, but also that it delivers a much more immersive experience. I talk about digital magnifying the experience, going to a different level, a deeper level of information of brand stories, if you like. And of course, AR and VR will accelerate that. I think what digital is doing is making shopping much more social. So it was social before, but to a limited extent, now it’s completely social in terms of the ability of our audience to share experiences instantaneously. So the people in the shop are only a small part of the audience, if you like. and of course, you mentioned live streaming. Live streaming will, I think, be really, really important. I think this idea of shops with shelves for sale is going to shift to stages with stories, for sharing. So shops, with shelves for sale; stages, with stories to share. I think that’s the shift, and I think live streaming will impact the makeup and the notion and the purpose of a store. Being a stage set whose audience primarily are not in the store, but are remote. and I’m really, really keen to see how this develops.

Adrian Tennant: Ibrahim. I know you believe we need to rethink mixed-use developments and reimagine them using a blended-use approach. What do you mean by blended use? 

Ibrahim Ibrahim: So what it means is that in any given development, and we are master planning, a series of uses – whether they are workplace, whether it’s healthcare, whether it’s residential, whether it’s education or manufacturing maker spaces – we look at those, and we identify in each of the uses we’re working with what is the blending component, the blending agent, what part of that use blends. When we say blend, what we mean by blend is blends with retail, food and beverage, leisure and entertainment, how that helps activate the public realm, which means that those blending components are at the ground level. And they blend, as I say, and align and blur with retail. So let’s take workplace, which is predominantly one that always appears in a mixed-use. So when we look at co-working, we see co-working not as an office per se, co-working is a response to a demand for a dip-in, dip-out culture of work. That’s what’s driven co-working. And we see that as a very important blending component at the ground level blending and becoming one with retail and wellness to allow that audience to dip in and dip out whilst activating that public realm. And we are working on such projects where we’re blending retail and leisure into co-working in order to reposition and reimagine a shopping center. So let’s take healthcare. Another one that’s beginning to become important in blended-use. We’re seeing the increasing consumerization of healthcare therapies and services, those that used to be clinical, they’re becoming much more consumer-facing. And therefore, healthcare is an important part of consumer experience, an important part of activating the public realm. And again, aligning and blurring with F and B and retail. Let’s take education. We are seeing education components, colleges, universities, adult learning centers, lifelong learning centers, becoming part of the urban realm, becoming part of the consumer-facing experience. If you look at what Related Argen as it is now have done in Kings Cross in London. There’s Central St Martins, a very, vulnerable art design college in the middle of a development called King’s Cross, one of the major developments in London, and they haven’t stuck it out on the side, they’ve put it bang in the middle of the development – on the way that people walk from the major square to the shops and to the restaurants. And when you pass this college, you look through windows and you see artists and designers, making things. They are creating part of that public experience, it’s really interesting. So they saw that as a blending part of the development. Residential: you’re seeing more and more brands occupy residential space in order to allow their audiences to live that brand. So if you’re developing a residential component of a blended-use, where do you put those pieces of residential? And of course, with Airbnb, with co-living, the growth of co-living, so the residential same, manufacture maker spaces, we’re seeing the increasing blurring of manufacturer making. Whether it be 3D printing, 3B weaving, basic fun things like coffee roasting and brewing, they are now part of our retail experience, activating ground level to give really interesting experience for our audience but also lending the offer. Great authenticity and a localism that’s important. So that’s what we mean by redefining mixed-use into blended-use. And it’s really resonating with our clients.

Adrian Tennant: Well, here in America, of course, we have a growing deficit in housing supply. In your book, you highlight a couple of European projects that reimagine retail as residential space. Could you explain what Hay Stay and the John Lewis Partnership are doing?

Ibrahim Ibrahim: Yes. and there are others as well, but they’re quite two quite interesting ones. So John Lewis are repurposing, I think it’s two levels – but don’t hold me to that – of well, of quite a few different stores, but the particular one I’m referring to is the London Oxford Street store. So they are repurposing them into residential. But of course, they’re not just creating flats to create revenue. What they’re doing is that they’re using them as a way of their customers or potential customers to experience the brand through the apartments. So I think that’s really interesting. And then Hay House in Copenhagen have done exactly the same thing, but they are not permanent apartments. They are places you can rent on Airbnb. So you can, if you want, if you’re thinking of refurbishing your house with Hay House products, you could spend a weekend in an apartment and experience them, really live with them. So that’s what I mean by what we call Resi-retail, and I think that’s going to happen more. It’s really interesting, Adrian, is it, so what is that? Is that a shop? So the whole notion of the shop is really important. And I think that plays to another thing we talk about, we call it the shift from your brand being a buyer brand to being a join brand. And I refer to this in the book. And how do you become a join brand? How do you get your audience to be fans, to be advocates and not just customers, not just consumers to really feel that you are part of their life? And there’s not many brands that do that to any individual person. I’ve got a few that I would allow into my life, allow to message me anytime because I value their input. But what I’m saying is that this idea Resi-retail shifts customers through these three steps to becoming a joint brand and this is, we call it the three Ls. The first is learn. First thing is that people, consumers, first learn about the brand, they understand it, they understand the benefits. They understand the attributes of the brand, the product, the functions, all the performance functions, all those kinds of things. The next is they love the brand. They talk about the brand, they share on social media. They’re almost infatuated by the brand, and they hope that brand will consistently deliver. But then the third one is how they live the brand. You know what, actually an integral part of their life. It adds value to all aspects of their life. And that brand is much more than just about a product or a service is about the role that brand plays in the world. The fact that I can live, I can go and live with that brand before I buy it, that is an important part. I become then an advocate. I become a fan. and I understand the purpose of the brand. I’m moving from buying a brand to buying into it, buying what it believes, not just buying its products – so that learn, love, live is three steps to becoming a joint brand.

Adrian Tennant: In addition to your own very detailed analysis, Future-Ready Retail also includes sections written by twelve contributors. Ibrahim, how did you select the contributors that decide which perspectives to include?

Ibrahim Ibrahim: Yeah, that was the key differentiator of the book, So I  started with the premise and the honesty, I suppose, the realization that what I’m writing about is a very broad subject, and there’s no way I can be an expert in all of it. And I’m not an expert in a lot of it, actually. And also the bits I am, have more expertise in, there is an alternative point of view. And I didn’t want it to be a kind of monologue. I wanted it to have alternative viewpoints and so I thought to have 12 contributors would be really good in different areas, and it would give a different pace to the book and add a different interest. And I suppose also – which I didn’t plan- but the byproduct of that is that, of course, they all have their networks, so the network effect of the book and the way we can spread the word as multiply by 12, which makes good sense. There are some really smart people, really very varied backgrounds and viewpoints. And, yeah, I was really pleased with them.

Adrian Tennant: Ibrahim, if IN CLEAR FOCUS listeners would like to learn more about you and your work at Portland Design or your book, Future-Ready Retail, where can they find you?

Ibrahim Ibrahim: I’m on LinkedIn. So definitely confirm me on LinkedIn. I’m on email, Ibrahim@Portland-Design.com. And, of course, the book is available on Amazon and all good book shops. 

Adrian Tennant: If you’d like a copy of Ibrahim’s book, Future-Ready Retail, you can save 20 percent when you purchase directly from the publishers online at KoganPage.com. Just add the promo code, BIGEYE20 at the checkout. Ibrahim, thank you very much for being our guest this week on IN CLEAR FOCUS!

Ibrahim Ibrahim: Thank you, Adrian. Thank you so much. 

Adrian Tennant: Thanks to my guest this week, Ibrahim Ibrahim, the author of this month’s Bigeye Book Club selection, Future-Ready Retail: How to reimagine the customer experience, rebuild retail spaces, and reignite our shopping malls and streets. As always, you’ll find a transcript with links to the resources we discussed today on theIN CLEAR FOCUS page at Bigeyeagency.com, just select Podcast. And a reminder that you can save 20 percent when you purchase any of our Bigeye Book Club selections directly from KoganPage.com – just add that promo code BIGEYE20 at the checkout. If you enjoyed this episode, please consider following us wherever you listen to podcasts and contributing a rating or a review. Thank you for listening to IN CLEAR FOCUS, produced by Bigeye. I’ve been your host, Adrian Tennant. Until next week, goodbye.

And More