Co-authored by Trevor Pereira

Intu owns some of the best known shopping centres in the UK and three of the top ten shopping centres in Spain. As a leading shopping centre owner it creates compelling customer experiences in store and online on the UK's first online shopping centre,

Technology is a key driver of this success and Simon Leaf, Managing Associate in our Commercial & Technology team, caught up with Trevor Pereira, Digital and Commercial Director, to explore how intu is using technology and to reflect on the role regulation plays in this.

What kind of technologies are you using at the moment?

When we launched ourselves as a national consumer brand about five years ago, we made a considered decision that we wanted our centres to be very well served by digital connectivity and that meant that the first thing that we had to do was improve our existing infrastructure. The result was the installation of a resilient fibre backbone and an upgrade of all datalinks in our centres.

Our portfolio is made up of larger, flagship destination centres which clearly have lots of concurrent users, so one of the first tasks was to ensure the quality and standard of our Wi-Fi provision. We did this by setting ourselves the challenge of providing network connectivity that would allow customers to walk from one end of a centre to the other whilst streaming live video – even on a busy Saturday. This has also given us the ability to better understand customer behaviour and in particular, their location by using wireless access points to triangulate their position. Up front, we recognised that technology gave us the ability to understand behaviour in a much more sophisticated way, rather than relying on exit interviews and footfall counters.

Wi-Fi provision brings legal responsibilities and while the European Court of Justice has recently suggested shopping centres are not liable for infringements over their networks, they may still have to password protect their network and ensure that users register to gain access. This of course has an upside, as it provides opportunity to better understand who your customers are. However, there are still other legal challenges, such as the new GDPR, depending on the type of data collected and how it is used.

We use the data that we collect in a variety of ways, from measuring the visits we get to tracking the performance of our leisure offer, such as ice hockey at intu Braehead and the Aquarium and Lego Discovery World at the Trafford Centre.

We can also use the technology to trial operational changes. For example, if we wanted to alter the vertical circulation space by removing an escalator, we can test this and monitor how customers' shopping patterns and behaviours change as a result.

More recently, we have deployed facial recognition technology at one of our centres on a trial basis to identify individuals that are wanted by the police or have previously been excluded for anti-social behaviour. We have been working closely with the police and the ICO in order to ensure that we are meeting our legal obligations on this front.

That's very impressive. However, compared to online retailers who find it much easier to get privacy statements in front of customers when they visit the site, traditional bricks and mortar operators aren't afforded the same luxury. As a result, given the personal data you collect, how have you married up your use of technology with your legal obligations?

We have a keen awareness of the regulatory and legislative environment around the use of technology and in particular privacy. We have been preparing for GDPR for two years and have used this as an opportunity to review all aspects of the customer journey. In addition, we have reviewed our third party supplier contracts to ensure that there are appropriate legal protections. Above all, we recognise that we need to retain our customers' trust and so look to provide them with some value in return for sharing their data.

Moving away from compliance, I'd be interested to know if the technology you use is developed in-house or by third parties.

We deliberately took the decision to develop as much as possible ourselves, rather than outsource, as we didn't want to be constrained in how we use our data and our fibre backbone by third parties. However, inevitably for some of the technology that we use, we do rely on third party providers.

That's interesting, as we find that clients often mistakenly assume that they own the technology that they have helped develop, but are then surprised when they are hit by the triple whammy of firstly, not owning or having any specific rights to the technology, secondly the technology that they have helped create being passed onto competitors for their use and, finally, finding out that the data generated from their use is also being commercialised by the supplier (again for the benefit of others). It's therefore worth checking the relevant agreements before entering into them. And turning to the future, the big question, how do you see the retail environment in 2025?

I think there will be an acceleration of existing trends, with more of a leisure and dining experience. We are planning a new centre in the Costa del Sol for delivery in 2021-2022 and pure leisure will account for a third of the space, up from 15% - 20% at present. We've already had electric charging points at our centres for nearly nine years and we are seeing demand for them outstripping supply. There's the growth of Uber and other providers of on-demand transport and with that, a potential release of existing parking spaces for other uses. Driverless cars could well be a game changer and we will also be keeping our eye on drone technology and the potential for creating hubs. All in all, the future looks exciting and there are likely to be lots of commercial opportunities for centre owners like us.

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