WITH growing numbers of shoppers “liking” their favourite brands, tweeting product opinions and banding together in Groupon-style buying clubs, retailers have been forced to seriously rethink a sales landscape that is in rapid overhaul.
Chains such as John Lewis and Next have successfully tapped into online sales to offset declining high street custom. Shopping centres, however, are still all about footfall – and this sector is increasingly turning to social media to reel in patrons.
Problem is, like a lot of businesses in many industries, shopping centres are not very assured in either their objectives or execution when using web-based networking.
Richard Barron, co-author of the report Social Media: Do we really know what we are doing? says surveys reveal that centre managers are struggling despite describing themselves as confident social networkers.
“If we were doing a kind of end-of-term report, I think it probably would have said ‘could do better’ – that would have been the thought coming through,” said Barron, managing director of Manchester-based research firm Aspect.
Though some three-quarters of managers say social networking is a central element in marketing their shopping centre, most have no written policy on how to manage it. Responsibility for putting out a centre’s message is variously left with anyone from the head of operations down to a six-month intern. With more than a billion people around the world now using Facebook, leaving the management of this massive outlet to chance is potentially foolhardy.
The report, commissioned by the British Council of Shopping Centres (BCSC), highlights other sobering figures, such as the 40 per cent of social networkers who use Facebook recommendations when deciding on a purchase.
Across social media as a whole, shoppers are inclined to trust the opinion of an online stranger when choosing a brand. Garrie Renucci, chairman of BCSC Scotland, also notes the fact that social networks have surpassed search engines as the most visited group of sites on the internet.
“Those statistics really bring it home as to where the world is going,” Renucci says.
Despite the uncertainty that comes with a new medium that crosses the barriers between advertising, market research, public relations and customer service, there are signs of progress in the sector.
Glasgow’s St Enoch Centre raised its customer awareness on social media from 1 per cent to 11 per cent during the six months to July, and successfully deployed web-based networking to promote its recent Fashion Weekend.
St Enoch marketing director Anne Ledgerwood says the centre has about 4,100 “likes” on Facebook and 1,600 followers on Twitter, the two main channels the centre targets. However, she adds that it’s not just about the numbers. “We would love 15,000 ‘likes’ on Facebook, but I don’t want 5,000 of them from America,” Ledgerwood said. “I want them from people who can come into the centre.”
Meanwhile, Kingsgate manager Neil Mackie says the Dunfermline centre used social media to “blow the opening day targets to bits” when H&M began trading there last month.
Mackie and others emphasise that social media is foremost a communications tool, with expectations of quick and conversational interaction that is rendered ineffective by cautious and slow responses, or no reply at all.
The Kingsgate manager also warns that businesses must be prepared for the possibility of “trial by social media”. In one example of such a backlash, thousands of people last year clicked their approval for Facebook group Boycott Braehead. The group was set up to protest against the treatment of Chris White, who was questioned by police after taking photographs of his daughter inside Glasgow’s Braehead shopping centre.
“That was a wake-up call to the industry about just how powerful these channels have become,” said Barron.