Digital Transformation Brand Strategy Retail

How Westfield is boxing clever to reimagine the retail experience


By Richard Draycott, Associate Editor

May 29, 2024 | 8 min read

As part of The Drum’s Retail Focus, we catch up with Westfield’s head of marketing, Sarah Fearon, who tells us how its shopping centers are now about so much more than just shopping.

Westfield London

Westfield London hosting Anthony Joshua's weigh-in

In April 2023, heavyweight boxer Anthony Joshua fought Jermaine Franklin and, as always, the two fighters had their mandatory weigh-in hours before the bell. Joshua came in at 255lb. His fighting weight isn’t relevant here, but where he ‘weighed in’ is. It was in a shopping mall. Westfield London, to be exact.

That fact alone perfectly captures just how dramatically shopping center retail has changed in recent years. Traditionally, big fight weigh-ins take place in glitzy hotel ballrooms or multi-million dollar sporting arenas. Not in a shopping mall outside the doors of John Lewis.

Shopping center retail is now about much more than shopping and while driving footfall may have been the measure of marketing success in days gone by, today, retail therapy runs much deeper.

“Footfall remains a key metric, but our ambition at Westfield is to create memorable experiences,” says Sarah Fearon, head of marketing at Unibail-Rodamco-Westfield (URW). “We’re looking to build stronger emotional connections with our visitors and position our centers as go-to destinations. It’s not just about shopping; we have leisure, food, tech, entertainment and more. The key metric remains footfall, but there’s much more to it than that now.”

Staging Joshua’s weigh-in is just a single example of how Fearon and Westfield’s commercial partnerships team – called Westfield Rise – is expanding what a shopping center is and what it can do to attract the biggest and broadest audience into its centers, Westfield London and Westfield Stratford City.

A glance at the list of events and experiences that the two UK Westfield centers typically play host to across the year again hammers home how the once humble shopping center has been transformed into an entertainment center, more akin to a music or sports venue than somewhere to pick up a pair of jeans. It’s somewhere to come for a day out, for fun, to meet and socialize with friends, to see spectacular and unique things and for exclusive experiences. You can also shop there as well, although you don’t have to.

There’s everything from the Christmas ice rink (Willy Wonka Themed in 2023 as part of a partnership with Warner Bros and brokered by Westfield Rise), the Grotto Experience and festive pop-up shops to year-round live music and DJ sets, exclusive beauty product launches, makeover stations, flash mobs and promotional giveaways around key retail occasions such as Valentine’s Day, Easter and Mother’s Day.

“We describe our centers as a ‘third space’ – it’s not work, it’s not home, it’s that place somewhere in between,” says Fearon. “We’re a communal space where people can socialize, relax and engage in all sorts of activities, whether that be shopping, dining, entertainment, or whatever. Additionally, brands are increasingly seeing our centers as prime venues to host experiential events. So, with our extensive outdoor and indoor spaces, we can offer the ideal platform for brands to connect at a deep level with a very diverse set of audiences.”

Clearly, various external factors are driving how people are using retail centers today – the mass movement towards online shopping, the Covid pandemic and the cost of living crisis, to name just three. But Fearon says it is consumer expectations that are ultimately driving the range and variety of experiences that her team creates to keep consumers coming back to Westfield time and again, as opposed to gravitating towards other retail destinations, such as nearby Oxford Street.

“The world has changed,” Fearon says, “and the retail experience has evolved significantly. That’s being driven by the consumer’s increasing expectations. They want convenience, personalization and immersive experiences. Shoppers now seek a seamless blend of online and offline experience where those digital touch points enhance their in-store visits. They expect tailored services, engaging environments, instant gratification through innovative technologies such as AR and AI and I’d say for marketeers, that shift means investing more in our understanding of customer data.”

Supporting Fearon and Westfield since the center’s launch in 2008 has been agency partner Havas Media Network. As Jo Butler, managing partner at Havas MN, explains, the relationship has developed as the media and retail landscapes have, and today, they support Fearon not just in delivering campaigns but in helping create partnerships and initiatives that deliver business growth.

“Since 2008, we’ve been on quite a journey together,” says Butler. “Across that time, we’ve seen huge changes in both media and the retail landscape. We went through Covid together, but we’re on a new growth journey together in supporting Sarah and her team for marketing, and further up the funnel in terms of achieving Westfield’s growth objectives and marketing’s role in that. We have our annual strategy and planning sessions and we’re about to go back in for 2025. We are true partners and we take an integrated approach to help bring in other media partners and partnerships.”

Two key events that Havas MN has supported Westfield on are the Westfield Good Festival, which happens annually in Spring across Westfield centers in the UK and beyond, and the London Eid Festival, again a cross-center celebration of cultural performances, traditional music, art workshops and specialist food stalls offering traditional cuisines. As the name suggests, the Good Festival, which took place in April, is bang on point, celebrating sustainability and wellness through clothing swap pop-ups, eco-conscious brand initiatives and innovative sustainable products alongside entertainment. Likewise, April also saw the London Eid Festival return to Westfield for its fifth year, this time a celebration of halal foods, live entertainment and art workshops.

Westfield Good Festival

As the market leader, Fearon and Butler both know the pressure is always on Westfield to continually reimagine and reinvent the shopping center retail experience.

“There’s always a lot of eyes on Westfield,” Fearon acknowledges. “We are a very well-known brand and have great brand awareness, but we can’t rest on our laurels. The landscape is competitive, probably even more so than pre-Covid times. We’re always trying to stay ahead and we’ve got to really be that kind of forward-facing type brand to make sure that we stay the number one choice for people.”

While Westfield is very much a physical location, Fearon and Butler recognize that digital and AI are already playing a huge role in delivering that perfect physical in-center experience, both in marketing and promoting the many experiential events available to visitors and in helping deliver those experiences.

Fearon says: “Reimaging the retail experience is very much about the new technologies that are coming our way and adapting them in a way that enhances that shopper experience. We have a mobile app that offers personalized recommendations and a seamless way to navigate the center, which is hugely important for today’s audience.

“We use digital kiosks and augmented reality installations and are in an exciting period of test and learn. We’ve recently launched AI-enhanced chatbots on our website and social platforms. We are in the early stages of it, but many of the brands we have in our centers are really adopting that strategy as well when it comes to experiences, so the online and offline audiences aren’t separate any more. They’re really merging into one.”

As Butler concludes, the way forward is using data to fully understand what the new tech is bringing to the shopping experience, how it can help Westfield continue to deliver the very best shopping center experience and how to define Westfield within that third space.

Incidentally, Joshua won his fight, and it looks like Fearon, Butler, and Westfield will also go the distance.

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