Getting back to business
Retail property managers focus on technology in preparation for the holiday season
Following coronavirus concerns and a summer full of civil protests, shoppers will be looking for safer ways to navigate the aisles this holiday season.
And thanks to the growing number of technology solutions available, property managers today are in a unique position to help retail tenants improve the communications, health and safety of their many different stakeholders—from shoppers, employees and tenants’ staff to the surrounding communities.
“In the next few months, I anticipate any new technology implemented will be related to ways for our tenants to conduct business while maintaining social distancing,” says Mark P. Schultz, CPM Candidate, CSM, associate director of property management at Houston-based Weingarten Realty.
Due to distancing requirements, consumer demand for conveniences such as curbside pickup or same-day and next-day delivery will be higher this holiday season than ever before.
This increased demand in shopping options will have significant implications on store and property operations, says Jeff Cloud, director of digital platforms for Chicago-based Brookfield Properties, which has a portfolio of more than 150 shopping locations across the country.
“Designing and implementing micro-fulfillment solutions on our properties to get goods to shoppers faster and cheaper will be necessary to meet growing expectations and compete with other available options,” Cloud says.
Kaci Hancock, CPM, ACoM, notes that connectivity is also key to today’s shopping experiences. Hancock is the operations director at Rice Village, a historic, open-air shopping district in Houston, with 56 retail and dining tenants.
“Consumer behavior was changing rapidly before the COVID-19 pandemic, and a few of our national retailers have already started pivoting toward an omnichannel customer experience,” Hancock says, citing apps that allow shoppers to try on clothes and learn about products even before they step foot in a store. On site, interactive kiosks and augmented reality are enhancing the shopping experience.
“We’ve been working with our local connectivity and data companies to make sure that all of our IT infrastructure on the property is being updated and has the bandwidth and the capacity to accommodate the new technology that’s coming in from some of our retailers,” Hancock says.
Rice Village reduced its hours but remained open for business throughout the pandemic. The management group was quick to implement social distancing signage and markings that enabled customers to maintain six feet of separation throughout the shopping center.
From a shopper traffic perspective, government-imposed capacity limitations on retail space could pose a challenge. “Queuing or reservation systems may help manage traffic volume and flow for our tenants and minimize social distancing issues in our common areas,” Cloud says. “Venue intelligence solutions could also be used to monitor and mitigate associated risks.”
From a leasing perspective, travel restrictions may prevent potential tenants from touring spaces they’re interested in leasing. “Technology, such as Google’s Street View in Maps, can be used to provide virtual tours and walk-throughs,” Cloud says.
Adjusting to health concerns
“As facilities gradually begin to open, physical distancing measures and clean surfaces, as well as the need for people to be able to move around in shared spaces, all need to be addressed,” says Ken Schmid, executive vice president of KONE Americas, which specializes in elevator and escalator solutions for buildings.
Upgrades, such as replacing manual door entries with automatic sliding door entries and adding hands-free, foot-operated openers to restrooms, can also help maintain cleanliness and facilitate shopper traffic and distancing requirements.
New sanitization technology can also play a key role in keeping public areas cleaner and safer for tenants and their customers. For example, KONE has partnered with companies such as NanoSeptic to develop self-cleaning products that adhere to high-touch areas like elevator buttons, touchscreen surfaces and elevator car handrails. “These mineral nanocrystals harness the power of visible light to create a powerful self-cleaning oxidation reaction that continuously breaks down all organic contaminants,” according to Schmid.
COVID-19 has introduced additional operational challenges with greater emphasis on indoor air quality for buildings. “We have introduced strategies to maximize the amount of outdoor air introduced into our properties and evaluate technology geared toward improving air quality through ionization and active monitoring,” Cloud says.
Adjusting to new standards
During these unsteady times, many property managers are streamlining core functions and strengthening existing infrastructure to minimize business disruption.
Communications is a priority for Weingarten Realty, a shopping center owner, manager and developer with more than 167 properties in 16 states. “We implemented several internal processes to better record events, dates and collections efforts at each of our properties,” Schultz says.
The entire Weingarten staff has been able to work remotely during stay-at-home orders, thanks to videoconferencing to assist with internal communication and to view properties that they were unable to visit due to travel restrictions.
“As a landlord, we are also looking at ways we can improve our interactions with tenants, such as more contactless leasing functions and expanded electronic payment methods,” Schultz says.
Touch-free technology was already being offered at The McPherson Building when COVID-19 hit. The 12-story office building in Washington, D.C. was equipped last year with a keyless access system that allows tenants to unlock doors with a smartphone app, says Kasara Smith, CPM, director of asset services at Cushman & Wakefield, AMO.
At first, adoption of the new keyless entry system was a bit slow, says Smith, who manages The McPherson Building. Now, she is actively promoting the feature to her tenants and hopes that “the pandemic will encourage them to utilize the hands-free access control for health and safety reasons.”
In late May, looters near The McPherson Building started a fire and damaged the windows of the retail space occupied by a Starbucks. Fortunately, Smith’s contractors were on site and able to quickly extinguish the flames.
As a result of the incident, Smith says basic building security and access protocols are more important than ever during times of crisis. The app allows tenants to register and admit visitors, providing authorized guests access without physically interacting with a receptionist or employee. This function can be particularly important during times of duress or when social distancing is required.
“While we’re looking ahead at technology to help us through civil unrest and the pandemic, it’s forced me as a property manager to go back to basics,” Smith says. “We’re making sure we’re logging in visitors correctly and making sure something basic in my building, CCTV [closed circuit television], is functioning, has a clear picture and covers areas that are at risk during times like civil unrest.”
Above all, it’s essential to stay flexible. “The biggest thing that we have learned is that we have to be flexible and creative,” Schultz says. “These are unprecedented times, and we all need to consider many different scenarios and options. Organizations that are doing this can be extremely successful, even in these more challenging environments.”
Kasara Smith, CPM, director of asset services at Cushman & Wakefield in Washington D.C., actively monitored social media channels during the weeks of civil unrest this summer. In addition, several email alerts from local organizations tipped her off to possible damage to the building she manages. This enabled her team to respond quickly and start boarding up windows to protect the building from looters and rioters.
Smith advises property managers to always stay connected and keep the communication flowing. “Every holiday season, we’re in touch with our security company and reminding tenants to keep cars locked and valuables out of sight in parking garages,” she says. “Crime may be more of an issue this year due to economic situations caused by the pandemic.”
Now is the time to establish connections with the local police department and local officials. “Get to know the head of the district you’re in and have their numbers handy,” Smith says.