OnBrand: creativity and innovation in retail will be vital as we run up to Christmas and 2022


By Emma Thompson, marketing director at OnBrand

Christmas is always an important time for consumer retail outlets and, this year, more than ever before, it is a crunch point for retail owners and shopping centres who will really be able to see whether consumers are venturing back in significant numbers to physical stores and whether they can start to recover from the effects of the pandemic.

The sudden closure of non-essential retail in March 2020 put pressure on both shopping centre managers and store managers in terms of how to communicate ‘the new normal’.  Shopping centre retailers had to quickly adapt their messaging to focus on COVID safety rather than retail promotion. The marketing role dramatically shifted into issuing emergency safety instructions on behalf of retailers, explaining how to use one-way systems and reinforcing pandemic advice, such as handwashing and use of facemasks. 

Interestingly, a number of clients saw customer engagement levels increase across more than one digital channel.  Email open rates doubled at the start of lockdown and we saw shoppers keen to interact with shopping centres from home, often searching for information on the latest store opening times, click and collect, entering retailer competitions and chatting on social media about entertaining children at home. 

For those shopping centres that did remain proactive in communicating with their customers, the picture has been more positive and it has helped them tempt customers back in as the retail sector opened up again.  People are still being cautious about venturing out so a lot of our work with shopping centres over the course of the year has focused on reassuring customers that shopping centres are safe and reinforcing messaging around additional safety measures being taken to help customers to come back through the doors and improve footfall.  

There is also a new recognition as we move out of the worst of the pandemic, that retail centres need to go further than ever before to attract people into their spaces. Introducing new leisure experiences alongside shops, such as escape rooms, independent cafés and even cinemas, will be key for retailers needing to think of innovative ways for customers to spend their spare time.  With that in mind, shopping centres particularly are becoming more creative in their approach to creating a much more personal experience for people that visit their venues.  

For example, way ahead of the rest, in November 2019, the John Lewis store in Southampton was revamped into an ‘experience playground’ where in-store specialists advised on everything from wine and gardening to interiors and technology to reflect the changing role of the shop in its customers’ lives. Events like cookery lessons, talks on garden design or fashion shows encouraged customers to dwell longer in-store, with a view to being rolled out across the country if it worked.

As the end of year seasonal shopping calendar kicks in this month, some of the more traditional retail events have been deliberately booked in bigger and better than before.  Halloween and Christmas are always popular among shoppers, and many shopping centre managers have decided to provide more immersive experiential events this year. 

The Brewery in Romford: full weeks of activities are planned

At The Brewery in Romford, both Halloween and Christmas bookings will be full weeks of activities this year, rather than just events happening at the weekend. ‘Spooky Spider’ selfie opportunities lend themselves better to the current advised social distancing requirements, with a vinyl spot showing shoppers where to stand for optimum views. Having week long installations rather than one day events also spreads out the impact, which has footfall benefits during half term, as well as reducing  overcrowding on single day events. And with free face painting added at the weekend, the trick or treaters will be ready to party on Saturday night!

For 2021 Christmas events, we’re finding that shopping centre managers are feeling more confident in booking traditional footfall drivers such as festive arts and crafts, mulled wine and minced pies. Extra treats such as Elf Workshops at The Brewery, visits from The Grinch and Gingerbread mascots at Pavilions Shopping Centre in Waltham Cross, and even a Christmas Grotto, hand-made by the management team at St George’s Shopping Centre in Gravesend will make local Christmas shopping outings memorable, with many centres bringing activities forward to the end of November as shoppers get ready earlier this year.  

Commenting, Tom Stobbart, centre manager at The Brewery, says: “We’re delighted that events are back on. Our first shopper event in two years took place this September for the charity One Great Day, raising funds for Great Ormond Street Hospital. We put on a whole range of family activities, with extra focus on additional safety reassurance: increased emphasis on hand washing around children and animals, distanced entertainment and contactless payment for activities and donations. And we were delighted to see a steady flow of families enjoying themselves, raising over £1200 online and on the day.”

As 2021 comes to a close, the next few months will be critical for the retail sector. My view is that retailers and landlords who seek to innovate and experiment with new forms of entertainment will be able to bring shoppers through their doors and keep them there for as long as possible. It is now necessary to create an experience to really thrive.  I hope that we will see a resurgence in the sector through the Christmas period and that shopping centres go into 2022 in the best shape possible.