SAN FRANCISCO – Westfield Corp. is diving deeper into digital – and data.
As brick-and-mortar retailers rush to adapt to the online world, developers like Westfield also are having to rush to keep up. Westfield several years ago established a tech arm, Westfield Labs, and now it’s adding a chief data and analytics officer. The company has named Raghav Lal to the new position, recruiting him from Visa.
The San Francisco-based position, according to Westfield chief executive officer Steven Lowy, will see Lal overseeing the collection, analysis and dissemination of data at Westfield’s properties, which are in the U.S., the U.K., and in the future, Milan.
Lal will work closely with chief digital officer Kevin McKenzie, who also oversees Westfield Labs, and chief information technology officer Denise Taylor, who is responsible for the physical tech infrastructure (like cameras and beacons) that are in the shopping centers.
The role is becoming increasingly common. According to an August report from Forrester Research, as many as 46 percent of retail companies worldwide have appointed a chief data officer, which, Forrester Analyst and study author Gene Leganza said, “reflects a pretty big jump” over the last several years.
The specifics of the job can vary from company to company, but, Leganza said, in retail, the focus is generally around analytics and strategic use of data to understand customers, and to make the shopping experience more personalized.
“Click-and-mortar organizations are really interested in optimizing that multichannel experience,” he said, to increase the ability to sell to the customer online and off, and to provide a pleasurable experience. “That’s easy to say, but it’s a lot of work.”
According to Lowy, Lal will be tasked with continuing and expanding on Westfield’s efforts – especially in the three years since opening Westfield Labs in Westfield San Francisco Centre – toward converging the physical shopping experience with the digital world. Lal, who will be hiring a team, primarily of engineers and analysts, emphasized the vision of transforming retail from a “channel debate” to being seamlessly connected.
Ultimately, he said he sees the role as enhancing the customer experience, in addition to helping shareholders.
For a company known primarily for its physical real estate, “data” might not be an immediately obvious talking point. But, said Lal, Westfield is “a consumer experiential company, and data is a key ingredient.”
“We are in the business of connecting consumers with retailers,” Lowy said, “both digitally and in the physical world.”
Westfield is able to capture data from shoppers at its 7,500 retailers with technology that includes Wi-Fi, cameras and beacons that help them understand shopper behavior.
The information is not personalized, but it can help retailers understand, for example, the capture rate of window displays, where customers spend the most time in the store, which fixtures or merchandise areas have the most engagement and which areas have higher conversion rates, said Shelley Kohan, vice president of retail consulting at RetailNext, which has a presence in Westfield San Francisco Centre. Combining that information with point-of-sale data, she said, makes it even more powerful and in-depth.
The tech, she said, “is a great analytics tool that retailers have never had.”
It’s fitting, then, that much of the data borrows vocabulary from e-commerce.
Lal said privacy concerns were of utmost importance, but understanding the customer’s path ultimately enhances their experience.
Westfield has already begun testing examples of the ways it might converge the physical with the digital. In London, the company has begun services that connect the shopper’s journey from entering, shopping in and leaving the mall, including “seamless” entry into the parking garage that recognizes a customer’s car and charges them without the customer having to do anything (like Uber).
It also has created a “searchable mall” Web site in Australia, where Westfield is based, that lets customers browse, hold or even buy products. And the company’s Dine on Time app, which is available in San Francisco, lets customers browse and order food from Westfield San Francisco Centre’s restaurants and food court.
Although not all digital-savvy retailers have a chief data officer, Leganza predicted that, “across the board, we will see a lot more adoption. It’s beyond the ‘kicking the tire stage.’”
For his part, Lowy said he wishes he would have hired someone in this role sooner, but as he came to understand the value of data, “we know more of what we don’t know.”
“We don’t have that skill,” he said. “We are good at real estate, but not at the capture and analysis of data.”
According to Lowy, Westfield’s properties see half-a-billion visits a year and do $17 billion in sales each year.
“One thing is crystal clear,” Kohan said. “Retailers could build a strategy and make it perfect, but today they have to be more nimble, agile and flexible and learn from the data in a quick way.” And, she said, retailers need analytics to translate that data into action. According to a report recently published by Forrester, although a large majority of companies aspire to help their firms become data-driven, fewer than a third of those firms are good at turning analytics into business action.
“Three years ago, we decided to invest in technology,” Lowy said of the company’s forward-thinking Westfield Labs. “There is no roadmap for what I am describing. We are building a deep, scalable platform; we aren’t looking for low-hanging fruit.”