SalesTechStar Interview with Whitney Livingston, COO of Centennial
Covid-19 has not only forced leading sales and marketing teams worldwide to rethink their strategies, the pandemic has also impacted how retailers need to plan store visits and customer experiences in the light of the rapid spread of the disease. In this chat with SalesTechStar, Whitney Livingston, COO of Centennial shares a few thoughts while commenting on what it takes to create a safe shopping experience today.
Can you tell us a little about yourself Whitney? What are some of the biggest business operations and overall management lessons you’d like to talk about from your journey so far?
I am a mom of three little boys (aged 4, 6, and 9) and consider myself one of luckiest people alive! I have a career that I love, and a family that supports me in everything I do. I am an entrepreneur at heart and when introduced to retail real estate at 22 years old, I was immediately smitten. My favorite part about this industry is the pace — it’s fast and always changing, which forces you to always think five steps ahead and innovate. It’s the perfect blend of art and science; every project is different, allowing you to build upon past experiences, but encouraging you to try something now.
Over the last 10 years, I have held several senior roles with up to 100 employees reporting to me at any time. The single most important lesson I have learned is to be a leader, not a boss. While I am firmly in the real estate business, I consider myself more importantly in the human capital business. Our business is successful because of the people that propel it at all levels. Everyone plays a critical role. I believe strongly in building a culture that appreciates and motivates employees.
Tell us more about your role at Centennial and especially how the last few months have played out, during the Covid-19 pandemic.
I am the COO at Centennial (CentennialREC.com), a real estate investment firm with a national portfolio of shopping, dining, entertainment and mixed-use destinations. During the COVID pandemic, we have of course experienced some significant challenges, as has everyone in the retail real estate industry. COVID has accelerated a shift that was already taking place within our over-built industry, creating an expedited version of Darwin’s “survival of the fittest” theory as a number of retailers and shopping centers, already heading toward a market exit, were suddenly forced to make an earlier-than-expected departure. All said, COVID has also ushered in an era of extreme creativity, and that’s where Centennial finds its strength. We are a market leader in the retail real estate world, and our response to the COVID crisis has highlighted our team’s vast ingenuity as well as our ability to embrace all that technology has to offer to help COVID-proof our shopping centers. For example, earlier this year, we installed brand-new, cutting-edge UV sterilization equipment on escalator handrails at several of our centers, offering greater than 99.9% efficacy in killing bacteria and viruses. And most recently, we partnered with Adeptmind, a leading technology company specializing in artificial intelligence and e-commerce applications, to build a unique mono-channel shopping platform called Shop Now! For each of Centennial’s shopping centers nationwide, effectively turning each shopping center’s inventory into a mini-Amazon, but with local accessibility.
Centennial recently announced plans to build an omnichannel shopping platform with technology support from Adeptmind; can you share a few highlights about this platform and initiative? What are some of the other adjustments that are being made to help adjust to the new normal?
From the minute we closed our properties in March, we were focused on the safe, successful recovery of our portfolio. Most landlords were 100% focused on defense; Centennial was focused on the offense – looking through a mid-/post-COVID lens and committed to meeting the changing needs of consumers and tenants. The new “Shop Now!” platform, a first in the U.S. market, will give customers the option of searching the inventory of select stores in their local Centennial mall via Centennial’s existing property websites. Shoppers can then decide if they prefer to use the tool to purchase online, request curbside delivery, or simply pre-plan their in-person visit. Retail isn’t about brick-and-mortar vs. online shopping anymore; it is about the seamless convergence of these two channels in a way that makes sense for the consumer. We need to meet our shoppers where and when they want to shop, and we are doing just that with our new Shop Now! platform.
How according to you will the Brick and Mortar / Retail experience change post Covid-19 and in what ways will innovations in e-commerce and the range of enhanced online experiences being offered by retail brands and outlets transform with time?
Centennial’s new e-commerce capabilities are an extension of the Retail to Go program we implemented nationwide during COVID-19 closures earlier this year. The overwhelmingly positive response to the program’s simple curbside delivery offering told us all we needed to know: To thrive, shopping centers must adapt and meet customers where they want to be met. People want an ecommerce marketplace designed to improve the overall shopping experience, regardless of the shopper’s preference for where to buy and how to receive their goods. The seamless nature of our new Shop Now! platform delivers that, and it will define the evolution of the shopping center as we know it by dramatically simplifying the way people shop while providing them with a fully integrated, yet still local, experience. This is something we believe will be a game-changer for the entire shopping center industry, and we are proud to say that our Shop Now! platform is the first of its kind in the American market.
Can you share a few examples of what leading (retail / brick and mortar) brands have done during this downtime to help create a better online experience and stay connected with their audience?
COVID-19 left everyone in brick-and-mortar retail environments scrambling for ways to stay connected. Of course everyone has social media, and that became a big play at the start of the pandemic. At Centennial, we also have an incredible loyalty program called MyPerks, and we were in the process of rolling out a brand-new MyPerks app at a number of our centers just as COVID struck; the fact that our most loyal shoppers had access to the MyPerks app meant we could easily communicate with them directly, and we could deliver news about specials and events that they would be interested in throughout this unusual time. For example, at Centennial, we created online events – from inventive storytimes for children to cookie baking contests – anything we could do to stay in touch with and be part of our shoppers’ everyday lives. We then moved those online events to outdoor events, holding concerts and movies and even a very successful back-to-school bash in our centers’ parking lots, where COVID safety measures were fairly easy to implement. We offered Retail To Go curbside pickup in all our locations nationwide, which gave a much-needed boost to our retailers and restaurants. And now, with our Shop Now! platform, we are giving people 24 x 7 access to the local stores and retail brands, services and restaurants they love, with the ease of online comparisons, shopping, booking and ordering at their fingertips. They can use our new platform to make their purchases or simply plan an in-person visit. The beauty of the platform is its ease of use and flexibility; it’s the perfect response to what we could clearly see our shoppers looking for during this pandemic, but it’s also something we believe has ushered in a new way to interact with our customers from here forward.
What are some of the biggest takeaways customer-facing and business management teams should grab from this entire experience of working and living through a global pandemic?
Be creative. Think outside the box. Re-imagine everything about how you do business. At Centennial, that’s what we do best. And it’s one of the top reasons Centennial properties are continuing to thrive while many of our competitors are really struggling. You have to put yourself in your customer’s shoes and figure out what would make their lives easier and better, and then create and deliver it. Through our innovative events and programs like MyPerks and Shop Now!, that’s exactly what we did.
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Centennial is a national owner of major shopping, dining, entertainment and mixed-use destinations. Rooted in retail since 1997, the company is focused on shaping the evolution of American retail by creating a superior multi-faceted shopping experience. Centennial properties serve not only as a place of commerce, but a place of community.
As Chief Operating Officer, Whitney leads corporate operations and property services working closely with the Executive and property teams to develop and execute operating, repositioning and redevelopment plans that create long term value for the Centennial Collection and its partners.