Retail Real Estate: Tech, PropTech, Value

Gaspar van Wittel Piazza Navona, Rome 1699

Gaspar van Wittel Piazza Navona, Rome 1699

A recent conversation with a large retailer went like this:

‘The market is tanking, opening up some real buying opportunities, do you want to get involved with a distressed asset fund we are putting together?’

‘Are you kidding? We are murdering our Landlords on rents, there is no way we’d buy any retail real estate’.

That’s where we are: the ‘retail apocalypse’ is in full swing. 

In the US some 8,200 store closures have already been announced this year, with an expected shuttering of 150+ million sq ft of space. On top of the 155 million sq ft closed last year.

In the UK a net 1,234 stores shut in the first half of the year, according to the Local Data Company. More than the same period last year and the highest since 2010.

Of course you can, and many in retail Real Estate do, slice the numbers in different ways and argue the situation is not in any way an ‘apocalypse’. For me, ‘we’re murdering Landlords’ rather trumps that Panglossian viewpoint.

What no-one can deny though is that the world of retail, and therefore as sure as night follows day, retail Real Estate, is changing dramatically. The only valid variance of opinion is in the degree of change. In my mind the degree is very large indeed. 

This is why.

First off we have to accept that physical retail is no longer just, or even primarily, about shopping. Historically physical shops were the distribution channel for manufactured goods. As the Industrial Revolution developed, and factories enabled the production of large quantities of identical goods the only way to sell them, at scale, was through physical shops in every village, town and city across the land. Sure there was mail order way back when but that was very slow and useless for anything perishable. Sears had their famous catalogue back in the 19th century (where incidentally one of the best selling items was self assembly homes) but that served a huge market, the US, with very limited infrastructure. Shops were IT … if you had products to sell you HAD to have shops. Lots of them.

Today shops are not needed as distribution channels. There are other ways to get goods into the hands of customers. Shoppers no longer need shops, to shop.

In this world a physical shop has to perform one or more of four functions:

First, you have to be a ‘destination’. Somewhere that is just so exciting, or attractive, or fulfilling, or intriguing, or beautiful that it will attract people of its own accord. This might be in town or out of town, there are examples of both. It might be newly built or old, high brow or low brow, low end or high end. There are many ways to create ‘destinations’. There are also successful and unsuccessful ‘destinations’. Economics still applies; create a ‘destination’ in the wrong place, or where local purchasing power is low, and even the best places can fail. But a great place in the right location is a pretty solid asset.

Secondly, you can be a fulfilment centre, somewhere that helps retailers get over the ‘last mile’ problem. Many retailers still stick to the fantasy that their customers want ‘Click & Collect’ services. They do, but only in the absence of being able to get their orders quickly some other way. Why did Amazon buy WholeFoods? Because their stores get them close to a large percentage of prosperous shoppers. All of the best retailers are working on getting delivery down to as short a timeframe as possible. Shops can obviously help, but they do not need to be open to the public. Urban logistics, vertical warehouses, micro warehouses, car parks, sites awaiting development; all of these are pieces in the fulfilment puzzle. Build a network that offers 2 hour delivery to the largest, richest customers and you have another solid asset.

Thirdly, you can win by having shops particularly well ‘tuned’ to local particularities. These would be areas that are the antithesis of the clone high streets we are too familiar with. Hard though it is is to believe, not everybody wants the same 50 brands. The days of the same old same old are as dead as thinking of stores are distribution channels. Think of a High St more like a smartphone - everyone’s home screen is different. We might well fit in to cohorts of like minded people but we certainly do not all want the same. And critically today we do not have to accept all being sold the same. Personalisation at all levels is the name of the game. Curating places with a deep respect for, and insight into, the locality and the locals is the third way to build solid assets.

And fourthly, you can supply the cheap and everyday needs of people. Either people who do not use online very much, or goods that are fast turnover, or too cheap to deliver. Places where convenience and price trump all else. These are the final solid assets.

Whichever category you choose though, everything you do must be data driven. In conception, design, build and ongoing management there is no success in retail real estate that will not be data driven. And this means real time data, not quarterly reports of out of date information. As Larry Page has said ‘at Google we trust in God, everyone else must bring data’.

The upshot of the above? There is going to be a lot less physical retail, but it is going to be much better retail. Obsolescence will be bountiful in the next 5 years.

There is a wildcard item 5 to the above typology. And that its creating great retail spaces and places, not to generate any great intrinsic growth but to make surrounding residential assets more attractive. Creating and curating really interesting, attractive retail locations as loss leaders to entice people to pay more to live in an area is a valid goal. Clearly this only makes sense when a large owner controls enough real estate to really be able to leverage this strategy, but those places do exist. King’s Cross and Marylebone in London are great example of this.

So where does tech, or PropTech, come into all of this? At a macro tech level it is the development of the Cloud, Smartphones, connectivity, robotics and automation that has propelled the growth of e-commerce and the rise of Amazon, ASOS, Boohoo et al. Infrastructure matters; for years people laughed at how pets.com raised hundreds of millions and then collapsed in the dot com bust of 2000. What they tend to not mention is how chewy.com (essentially the same thing) floated last year and is now worth nearly $10 Billion. Selling pet food online does work after all. But only when the necessary infrastructure enables it to work. 

Physical retail is suffering today because technology, in the widest sense, has enabled all manner of competitors, and competition, to flourish. Mostly the real estate industry has been caught out by this because mostly the real estate industry pays little attention to, and has little understanding of, developments within the technology sector. You cannot see a huge obstacle in the way if you keep your eyes focussed elsewhere.

The flip side to the tidal wave of change largely driven by technology, is the ability of more targeted technology, in the guise of PropTech, to come to the rescue. There is a great deal we can do to build and grow great retail assets.

Let’s start with localisation. KYC is the name of the game here. KNOW YOUR CUSTOMER - nothing works without this. Fortunately we live in a world of ever growing data with rapidly advancing tools to analyse that data. So instead of just profiling a location based on crude (and inevitably out of date) demographic data we can today utilise the following:

  • Psychographics enables us to understand consumers based on their psychological attributes, and focuses on activities, interests and opinions.

  • Socio-economic data enables us to understand the behaviour of people, through the lens of economic drivers. How does the economy of this location impact on how our customers are likely to behave?

  • Data from mobile phones (and just about everyone has one of these and they are ‘broadcasting’ all of the time) helps us understand who shops where, where they live, where they work, the other brands to ours that they visit and the way they tend to move around an area.

  • Married with Transaction data, an increasingly rich picture of purchasing behaviour can be developed.

  • Whether from retailers directly, or via credit card companies we can build enormously deep Geospatial models based on this transaction, mobility, economic and behavioural data.

And here Artificial Intelligence, and its sub-set Machine Learning is very much our friend. The three areas where AI & ML can, and do, excel are:

  • Personalised Product Recommendations

  • Assortment Optimisation

  • Pricing Optimisation

i.e What are the broad Product categories our customers are most interested in, how can we optimise the mix we stock, and then how can we ensure pricing is set just right. Not too hot and not too cold.

This of course works at the individual shop level, the centre level, the street level and across a wider area.

This use of AI is more likely to occur amongst individual retailers but for the landlord an awareness of the power of these tools is important. When judging the covenant of existing or prospective retailers an understanding of how deeply said retailer is using these tools could be very instructive. Used well they give a retailer great insight, so one should be looking for retailers who are advanced data users. They have a much greater chance of surviving and thriving.

All the above gets us to the new reality of retail real estate. Physical shops are a ‘Customer Acquisition Cost’ not a distribution channel. Sales, per se, are not the point (hence beware the allure of ‘Turnover Rents’). The aim of a shop is to inspire a customer and to learn about that customer. 

This is how the smartest online retailers who are opening offline stores look at them. Unlike the retail real estate industry, which often sees online moving off-line as a vindication and loudly acclaims ‘See, told you they needed ‘proper’ shops’, to online retailers a physical store is a way to acquire a new customer, who they can then service more efficiently and effectively online. An example of this is the US store Bonobos with their ‘Guideshop’ concept. Here you book an appointment to be introduced to their whole range, try on items, and order what you will. Which is delivered online, as the store holds no stock that is not on display. You get a very strong personalised experience while they get to know a great deal about you. With all that data, marketing to you online is cheap and very effective.

Doug Stephens, who writes brilliantly at retailprophet.com, has described this as ‘Shops as Media’ and he posits a different way of looking at the value of a physical store. If you combine the number of people who visit your store, with how long, and then compare this to the cost of being able to keep their attention online, in an immersive experience, then the value of that shop can be looked at in a very different way. How much does it cost to get a customer to watch a 20 minute branded piece of content online? Answer: a lot!

You absolutely have to design, stock and manage a shop in the right way to make the most of this (which is where AI and other PropTech options come in) but if a retailer can think of their touchpoints with a customer in an holistic way, where online feeds offline, and vice versa, then you have a single channel to work with, not an omni-channel one. The problem with ‘omni-channel’ is that today it mostly means multiple routes to customer, segregated in data and fulfilment terms and a morass of duplicating costs. Which explains why so many retailers are losing so much money; their fundamental business model does not, will not, work.

Which gets us to China, Alibaba and ‘New Retail’.

In their book ‘New Retail: Born in China, Going Global’, Zakkour and Dudarenok have this excellent line:

If you want to see the future of retail, you don’t need a time machine or a multi-million dollar research initiative. You just need airfare to Shanghai and a week to explore

‘New Retail’ is a term coined by Jack Ma in 2017, and summarised as a way of ‘making it easy to do business everywhere’. As the founder of a company, Alibaba, through which 80% of all e-commerce in China goes, he has extraordinary insight in to supply and demand within the retail sector, across the entire country. Alibaba also own department stores, shopping centres and supermarkets, including the poster child for ‘New Retail’ Freshippo (aka Hema).

The core proposition with ‘New Retail’ is the merging of online & offline. This is achieved by arranging four capabilities into one continuous feedback loop:

  • Starting with Commerce, which incorporates social commerce, and marketing tools across B2B, B2C and C2C channels. Whether you are marketing to companies, consumers or allowing consumers to market or interact with other consumers, you have to have capabilities that allow this in a frictionless way.

  • Then onto digital capabilities, which includes search and native mobile websites, underpinned by data science and AI, all resident in The Cloud, and ideally incorporating mobile payments and financial services.

  • Logistics is next, where you take advantage of automation, unmanned vehicles and warehousing that enables last-mile and cross-border fulfilment.

  • And lastly Media & Entertainment, where you have sophisticated teams managing content creation, social media feeds, AR & VR experiences and localised services.

Put this together and you have places like Freshippo where you can buy goods using your phone, pay for them with Alipay, select a live lobster and have it cooked to your preference in store, or simply order what you need online and have it delivered to you within 30 minutes if you live within 3km of the store.

And on it goes. Everything connected to everything else, predictive stocking, automated processes removing all the friction in shopping, and a deep understanding of every customer on an individual basis. Build, Measure, Learn, Build, Measure, Learn …….. 24/7/365.

The question of course if where does the Real Estate industry fit in to all of this? Alibaba largely do it all themselves. But would they if they had the right partner. Is real estate part of their core competence? No. It is necessary, but not sufficient.

In the West we are a long way from this. Walmart & Amazon might have the data to work like this but it is unclear whether they want to. Or need to. However, it IS clear that the service provided to the end customer from a ‘New Retail’ approach is extremely impressive and generates amazing demand. The Real Estate industry needs to move closer to this mindset, regardless of whether or not it wants, can or should develop such deep ecosystems and networks.

In conclusion then, all of this is a big deal. Retail is changing and changing fast. And not in a linear way; we are not digitising the past. It is being reinvented. Technology is changing how we shop, where we shop, and how we want to be served. There is not going to be any great reversion to the norm when the ‘apocalypse’ abates. Much retail real estate is going to continue to lose value, even becoming completely obsolete. Many long established centres, streets and areas will die. Don’t bring a knife to a gunfight: if your retail real estate is not suited to how the market is changing then there is nothing you can do about it. Change the game, or get out.

What the above does show though is that retail, and retail real estate, can be much much better than ever before. We have the tools and technologies (some broad tech, some narrower PropTech) to know far more about our customers, far more about what they want, where they want to go and how they want to be dealt with than ever before. The next ten years is going to see many old name retailers fade away but many new, quite brilliant ones will take their place. Their design flair, and human skills will be in a class apart from the norm today, but they will also be powered by a wide range of technologies, fed by incisive data, that enable them to delight us shoppers.

We are social beings, but increasingly only on our own terms. If the retail real estate industry wants to thrive it will need to develop new skills, particularly around technology and data and use these to work more closely with the best retailers to mutually create places we really want to visit. Retail Real Estate is still an area of great opportunity, but Real Estate skills alone will not be enough to make the most of them.

The game has changed.

WeWork IPO - Equally Cursed and Blessed?

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WeWork released their S-1 IPO preliminary document last Wednesday, the 14th of August. 

Reading and ruminating on it I’ve ended up with Gian Lorenzo Bernini on my mind. 

The wondrous Italian sculptor was commissioned in 1619 to create a portrait pair, the ‘The Blessed Soul and the Damned Soul’. These are now in the Spanish Embassy in Rome and face each other on either side of a small room, backed by mirrors. You cannot look at one without seeing the other. One is on the way to Heaven, the other to Hell. 

Seemingly an odd association to have come to in relation to a stock market flotation, it becomes less so when you look at how WeWork describe their mission as being to ..

elevate the world’s consciousness

and then compare this to the ruthlessness of execution in how the business is run in the following several hundred pages.

Most pertinently the 28 pages of risk factors, the byzantine corporate structure and the extraordinary set of financial statements about vast sums going back and forth between the company and its founder Adam Neumann. The pièce de la résistance of which is the $5.9 million paid to him when the company (of which he has almost total control) decided to change its name to The We Company and needed to buy the Trademark, which just so happened to be owned by a company owned by …. quelle surprise, Adam Neumann.

As has been screamed from the rooftops since this document went live, corporate governance within WeWork is a horror show. Quite how one borrows $10 Billion without a lender saying boo to a goose about governance is baffling. Maybe that is why Adam Neumann is so valuable; who else could get away with it? According to the Wall Street Journal Neumann's sales and debt transactions total circa $700 million. 

I genuinely do not know if such ability represents being Cursed or Blessed. 

Does anyone care? Who knows? My social media is full of people who do but as we all know our own filter bubbles are just that. Maybe outside my bubble no-one does care and this will make no difference to their flotation, but for me at present WeWork is so very clearly the Neumann Family Show that without knowing the man intimately (for all I know he might be 100% ‘worth it’) I’d rather watch how this all plays out.

Financially at least, things aren’t so good. As Professor Scott Galloway savagely wrote on the 16th ‘Any equity analyst who endorses this stock above a $10 billion valuation is lying, stupid, or both.’ For the complete rant see https://www.profgalloway.com/wewtf

The faster they grow, and the increase in speed seems to be cast in stone, the more they lose. And even here the S-1 numbers are being queried. Just this morning CNBC reported that ‘Net losses at We Company would have been $1.39 billion as of June 30, instead of the reported $904.65 million’ (if an accounting gain relating to Warrants had not been included). They go on to quote an analyst pointing out ‘So the next six months are going to look closer to the $1.39 billion than the $900 million (loss)’. - https://www.cnbc.com/amp/2019/08/15/reuters-america-softbank-convertible-note-helped-cut-wework-losses.html

If you compare today with what was projected in 2015 the picture is abysmal. Buzzfeed (https://www.buzzfeednews.com/article/nitashatiku/how-wework-convinced-investors-its-worth-billions) published the Pitch Docs WeWork used when raising money at a $10Billion valuation. To quote from there:

‘By 2018, the company predicted operating profit of $941.6 million on revenue of $2.86 billion.’

So within 4 years things have ‘changed’, for the worse, by Billions of dollars.

That said, the last money raised by WeWork was at a $47 Billion valuation, so again, who on earth knows what to think. Cursed or Blessed?

BUT

… and this IS a BIG BUT … I still think WeWork are far and away the most innovative company in real estate, have fundamentally changed the industry (regardless of whether they blow up or not), that the industry will largely take the wrong message from any problems their crazy S-1 causes, and that non real estate industry commentators on this flotation almost all completely fail to see why the company is important, and what is, if not unique, then extraordinary about it.

So if we park the governance horrors in the ‘Cursed’ bin, together with no women on the Board (come on guys, this is 2019) and the ‘raising consciousness’ tosh, we can move on to the ‘Blessed’ part. Why are they ‘better than all the rest’?

  1. The flip side of the governance issues, is the fact that they have raised vast amounts of money, have scaled very fast, and built a global presence that is matched only by IWG. Incidentally, IWG often say they are 5 times the size of WeWork but as the company points out in their S-1 they are pretty much on parity today in number of ‘workstations’ available. IWG have a lot more centres around the world, but WeWorks are much larger. And in this game, size matters. At macro and micro levels.

  2. They have built a very strong Brand in an industry that throughout my whole career has adamantly insisted that Brands don’t matter, and aren’t needed or possible in real estate. The industry is 100% wrong, and WeWork is 100% right here.

  3. IF their ‘unit economics’ is as they argue, then the numbers will right themselves over time, as centres mature, fill up, economies of scale kick in, and the yield of each centre increases significantly. I cannot quite see how they WON’T make each centre profitable as, contrary to many assumptions, they are not a low cost office provider. In fact their office space is circa 3X the cost of conventional office space. They average about 50 sq ft per person against a European norm of 100-125 and a US norm some way higher than that. Per sq ft you are paying a fortune to WeWork. The point is you are using space more efficiently, much more efficiently. WeWork is actually a luxury good (or at last a Premium one).

  4. They recognise better than almost anyone in the real estate industry than technology matters, and is a competitive advantage. Whilst most real estate companies eschew employing technology talent (beyond ‘IT’) they have over a 1,000 on their books. They have also spent many tens of millions buying some of the best technology companies, in order to build an end to end technology platform for designing, building, optimising and managing real estate. Does anyone come close? Non real estate commentators say ‘they are not a tech company’ and ‘every company has lots of techies’ but what they do not appreciate is that WITHIN REAL ESTATE this is bunkum. Real Estate is not like other industries. It invests paltry, pathetic amounts in technology, and is institutionally luddite. In that company, WeWork stands out. Big time.

  5. They also recognise that ‘the real estate business is no longer about real estate’, which is something I evangelise about. It is, of course, still about real estate. Every real estate skill companies have today is still necessary; but is no longer sufficient. Real estate going forward is about Real Estate + IoT + Data + Workplace + Hospitality. It is about creating and curating great customer experiences. WeWork are very good at this.

  6. Following on from point 5 they further recognise that creating and curating a great ‘user’ experience for their employees is a major problem for companies today. A modern, agile, activity based office is complicated and internally few companies have the skills to create such a thing. Which is precisely why office satisfaction scores amongst employees are low. The modern workplace largely does not work for people. With their ‘Powered by We’ service WeWork are tapping in to what will become a huge market; designing, building, optimising and managing great workplaces on behalf of corporates. #SpaceAsaService is for everyone, not just startups. And the best thing about this? No leases, asset light operations. Get rid of the real estate obligations and a ‘real estate’ company like WeWork could end up looking much closer to a ‘tech’ company than many presume.

  7. The same applies in deals they have done such as at Devonshire Square, where effectively they partner with ‘Capital’ to acquire real estate and then, with the physical space entirely under their control, provide a product/service that is hard to replicate when just a leaseholder. As with, I suspect, all Flex Brands that develop over the next ten years (WeWork will not be the only game in town), partnering in various forms so that one can control the hardware + software + services of real estate will do wonders for their balance sheet. Maybe it’ll be less profitable but the opportunity to really scale is far higher.

  8. Lastly, one other area where they do think like a tech company is their understanding of the value of the ‘Network’ of members they are building and how providing them with an ‘Ecosystem’ of service providers cognisant of their wants, needs and desires (partly discerned through the technology they deploy in their spaces) will lead to a myriad of non real estate revenue opportunities. They will never have the network scale of a social network of the likes of Amazon or Apple but what they do have is their customers in their buildings a great deal of their time. We all have a lot of requirements during the working day; who’s to say our ‘Landlord’ cannot service at least some of them?

So…. WeWork - Cursed or Blessed?

Frankly I do not know. The governance issues worry me a lot. The numbers not as much but their variability is alarming. I could agree with the comment that they are the ‘most Unicorny Unicorn ever’ - slagging them off is not hard. BUT, they are also a rather remarkable company, super innovative and forward thinking. 

They are so much worse than many real estate companies, but also so much better.

Now if you could have a company with all the pluses but without the minuses that would be perfect. But then the point Bernini was making is that perfection is not possible; we are all Cursed and Blessed equally.

Let’s see what transpires.

Real Estate as a service: all change, all change

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I have written a series of five articles ahead of MIPIM PropTech in Paris, w/c July 1st 2019.

The theme is Real Estate as a Service: All Change, All Change

No 1: The changing nature of demand

No 2: Human + Machine; because technology is not enough

No 3: Landlords aren’t what they used to be…..

No 4: Invest wisely

No 5: 10 Takeaways

In just under 11,000 words this is a deep dive into many of the key trends within the commercial real estate sector and #PropTech. There is a lot in here, and I welcome any feedback.

Winners & Losers in PropTech: 16 Differences

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2019 has kicked off with something of a feeding frenzy in the world of PropTech. There is much talk of this company investing, that startup raising, and the thousands of new entrants from all around the world looking to ‘disrupt the biggest asset class in the world’. Well, here is a tip: most startups will fail and most investments in using startup technology will fail as well.

Why? It is simple:

“Winners win because they do the ‘right’ things. Losers lose because they don’t’ 

Winning in the real estate industry of the future is not about knowing which company to invest in, or what technology to buy, but in understanding how to think about technology and the nature of truly digital businesses. It is about a mindset, learning, and constant iteration as much as anything else, 

Below are 16 differences between Winners and Losers. On what side of the fence do you sit?

1.Winners understand the speed of change / Losers don’t follow the tech industry

Technology drives behaviour, not vice versa. Societies undergo rapid transformation when technological change is rapid. And today, technological change is especially rapid. Moore’s Law, essentially the doubling of computing power every 18 months or so, might have held for 50+ years but other areas of computing are developing much faster. GPU’s, the processors largely used for artificial intelligence, have massively outshone CPU’s (the standard unit of measure for Moore’s Law) over the last 6 years. Neural Network Training (a foundational process for AI) increased in speed 60 times between 2013 and 2016. The scale of computational power available to leading AI practitioners increased 300,000 times between 2012 and 2018. Yes, that is not a typo - 300,000 times.

And this has consequences. Professor Amy Webb’s company, The Future Today Institute, released their latest annual Tech Trends report last week (free to download at https://futuretodayinstitute.com/2019-tech-trends/) and this contains 315 trends that will impact significantly on business and society within the next 0-10 years. i.e within the lifespan of a major development project.

Winners in real estate companies will know this, and whilst not needing to discern every granular implication will be cognisant of major trends, because trends impact on behaviour and fundamentally behaviour drives real estate demand. Losers, on the other hand, will carry on as they have historically within real estate knowing next to nothing about developments in the world of tech.

The flip side, of course, is that PropTech winning companies will update their knowledge sets by diving equally deeply into how the real estate industry functions, what incentives different sections of it respond to, and the nature of competitive advantage within the market. Losers, and many fall in to this camp today, will know little, and care less, about real estate. Both sides have much to learn.

2. Winners know about networks, ecosystem and what ‘being digital’ means / Losers know nothing about networks, ecosystems and ‘being digital’ 

Digital companies are different to analogue ones, in six areas: Data, Customers, Competitors, Networks, Ecosystems, Platforms and Marketplaces. Knowing the difference is a major difference between winners and losers.

Truly digital companies (think of tech being an interwoven thread throughout the organisation as opposed to the IT department down in the basement) are built upon data. Without having your data ‘in order’ you cannot be a digital company.

Digital lends itself to direct to consumer, or as Tim Cook of Apple would have it ‘the iPhone is the most personal computer we have ever built’. Each of us has a £25,000,000 1980’s Super Computer in our Pocket, connected thanks to the Cloud and the likes of Google, to just about ‘all the world’s information’. As such digital companies can provide each of us with personalised, contextual, on-demand data and services. In real estate this should be leading us to communicate not just with those responsible for official matters concerning our assets but every single person who enters into our spaces. Our Customer has changed.

As has, or might, our Competitors. Winners are paranoid about whether the tech industry will learn real estate before they can learn tech. In the years ahead our competitors are very likely to not be traditional real estate ones.

So we need to understand the power of networks. Every tech business aims to build as large a network of users as possible, and to understand their wants. needs and desires well enough to be able to build an ecosystem of partners who can help them sell, up-sell, or side sell as many non core products or services as possible. Ultimately tech companies aspire to be platforms or marketplaces where they curate their networks by matching supply and demand, buyers and sellers. GAFA - Google, Amazon, Facebook, Apple - are as powerful as they are because they are mighty platforms and marketplaces.

in real estate, despite interacting daily with the majority of our customers, we tend to know very little about them, and mostly do not think of networks, or platforms. An exception, which hopefully elicits the right response, is of course WeWork. They emphatically do understand the value of networks.

3. Winners have the Four V’s of Data sorted / Losers have Data ‘issues’

Building on point 2 above, winners invest in the Four V’s of data: Volume, Variety, Velocity and Veracity.

They know how much data they have, they seek to ensure they have the variety of data that is required to garner true insight, they know exactly whether their data sources should be captured annually, monthly, daily, hourly, by the minute or even the second. And they are ruthlessly honest in defining just how ‘true’ their data is. Data does not have to be 100% accurate, but if it is not you need to know, and know whether that matters.

Winners invest the money time and effort in to getting their data in order. Losers have ‘data issues’, and in the years ahead that alone will destroy many an established company.

4. Winners work in multi-functional teams / Losers work in silos

The Ultimate Marketing Machine (https://hbr.org/2014/07/the-ultimate-marketing-machine) is a Harvard Business Review article from 2014. In it the authors describe how solving a customers problem, or need, or desire requires the input of three different types of people. First people who can ‘Think’ and who are focussed on data and analytics. Secondly people who can ‘Feel’ who are focussed on customer engagement, and thirdly people who can ‘Do’, whose job is to build the solution. Each different problem needs a different mix of the ‘Think, Feel, Do’ toolkit; sometimes the solution is more technical than anything else, whereas in other instances the problem is a very ‘human factors’ one. Regardless though, you always needs a mix of inputs.

Much the same core thinking lies behind the practice of ‘Design Thinking’ or ‘Sprints’ (see the book by three Googlers - https://www.thesprintbook.com/).

Steve Jobs nailed it in 2003:

 “Most people make the mistake of thinking design is what it looks like. People think it's this veneer – that the designers are handed this box and told, “Make itlook good!” That's not what we think design is. ...Design is how it works.” 

Now maybe you do not think of your role in real estate being about design, but ultimately everything is. ‘How it works’, for you, you customer, partner or stakeholder is the bottom line.

Start thinking about the UX, or User Experience, of everything you do in business and you soon realise that this is where competitive advantage lies. As we move from a world mainly focussed on selling Products, to one more involved with delivering a Service, the UX you offer your customers is the difference between you and your competitors. 

The best UX wins, and winners know that only multifunctional teams can collaboratively create a great UX. Losers carry on with what is, sadly, largely the norm, working in silos. That doesn’t work so well know does it? Why is it likely to in the future?

5. Winners know the difference between disruptive and sustaining technology / Losers think all technology is equally important

‘We need to buy some PropTech!’ - who has heard or read that? Yes, I thought so, too many of us. Or ‘we’re not a tech company, we can’t build any technology’. Again, this is not a novel thing to read or hear.

And of course, completely the wrong way to think about technology. Understanding the difference between technology that is table stakes and that which is a competitive advantage is vital, but also something that only winners do.

‘Anything that can be bought is by definition not a differentiation’

The great management writer Charles Handy (in The Empty Raincoat) used S-curves to to demonstrate the need for significant and regular reinvention and change. Technologies, and businesses, start at the bottom left with real innovation, maximum competitive advantage, but few customers (or competitors) and work their way through the S, hitting customisation and then productisation, and then finally at the top right, with the biggest numbers of customers, but also the most competition, end up being commoditised.

Knowing where you business is, or the component workflows and divisions within it, is absolutely vital to knowing what type of technological strategy to adopt. Anything in the upper right hand side of the S you may as well buy in, as all your competitors will be doing the same, and whilst you must have this technology, it is just table stakes. Think Word, or Excel or Yardi, or Altus.

During the central part of the S, where services tend to be highly customised but still available off the shelf, you are often best to partner with someone who can help you leverage the available tools better than your competition. But at the bottom left you are at the point of maximum competitive advantage. You have something no-one else does. Often this becomes something competitors acquire over a period of time but the opportunity exists to build a persistent competitive advantage. Most particularly at the moment, use of Artificial Intelligence can enable strong and persistent advantage because unlike with most technologies, being a fast follower with artificial intelligence is very hard. The hint is in the term ‘Machine Learning’, which means the system learns through experience and over time. There is no short cut through this learning process so the entity that has the best data to learn from, will benefit from a flywheel effect where better data leads to better learning which leads to more data which leads to more learning. 

Team up AI with a firm grasp of the benefits of networks and winners really will have powerful competitive weapons. Fail to understand why just ‘shopping’ for tech is a bad policy and you’ll be deep in loser territory.

6. Winners think of Real Estate as a Service industry / Losers think of Real Estate as a Product industry

Two trends have been growing in strength over the last few years and they are the move from Products to Services and Ownership to Access.

Increasingly we are moving to an almost post consumer world where we are less bothered about accumulating more things and much more interested in being provided with services, experiences and ephemeral pleasures. 

So Uber instead of Cars, Spotify instead of CD’s, Netflix instead of DVD’s: on-demand this, on-demand that. Why bother to own something you seldom use, that becomes out of date rapidly, or that you really cannot afford. Rent it when you need it.

And Real Estate is not immune from this trend. 

In fact the real estate business is no longer about real estate, or soon won’t be. Just as it is now easy to buy almost any Software as a Service, so it will become with real estate. Space, as a Service, is the future of real estate. On demand and where you buy exactly the features, and services, you need, whenever and wherever you are.

The key point is that real estate is moving from a Product to a Service. And that means that organisationally, culturally, financially our industry is fundamentally changing. We will need a different mix of people, with new and different mindsets and skills. Yes we will still need all the real estate knowledge that we have today, but going forward that will most definitely be necessary but not sufficient.

Losers will persist in thinking real estate is a product business, where the physical asset represents the value and the sun around which everything else rotates. Winners will realise the physical asset is just the wrapper; the business is about what goes on inside that wrapper.

7. Winners put the customer at the centre of their business / Losers put themselves at the centre of their business

How many meetings have you been in when the only topic of conversation has essentially been about how you, as a company, wishes the world worked? It is a constant of modern business; in a way understandable as we all try and configure our businesses to work in a way that suits us best, whilst too often forgetting that ‘it’s not about us’.

Jeff Bezos and Steve Jobs provide the best summations of the winning way to think:

“You’ve gotta start with the customer experience and work backwards to the technology.” Steve Jobs

“The most important single thing is to obsessively focus on the customer. It’s our job everyday to make every important aspect of the customer experience a little better.” Jeff Bezos

It’s back to the UX point; ‘how it works’ matters and only by focusing on the customer need can you win.

8. Winners ‘Build, Measure, Learn’ / Losers stop at ‘Build’

In the software industry there is a golden rule for development. You Build, you Measure and you Learn. And then you repeat the process. Software is never finished, it is always in permanent beta.

In real estate we typically stop at ‘Build’. A project is finished and everyone disperses. No-one measures performance, or how well the asset meets the needs of the customer, or successfully addresses the KPI’s it was designed around (in fact the notion of KPI’s is generally ignored). Which is why so many buildings perform so badly, according to their users.

Real estate, especially the workplace, needs to be thought of as software. We will build it, we will measure how it performs (across a wide range of physical, and human, criteria) and we will adapt it accordingly. Optimise, optimise, optimise is the new location, location, location.

9. Winners are ‘Learn-it-Alls’ / Losers are ‘Know-it-Alls’

This is derived from something Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella recently said in an interview about how he likes to think of himself. In a world where change is a constant, and what you knew yesterday might not be right for today, winners have to be endlessly curious and voracious acquirers of new knowledge. If you’re not, you’ll be a loser.

10. Winners understand what AI is good at / Losers don’t understand what AI is

AI is clearly a big topic, too big for this article, but at root it has five key capabilities:

  1. Perception - Understanding the world based on sensory input, such as images or sound

  2. Communication - Natural Language Processing, Speech Recognition

  3. Knowledge - Aggregating, synthesising multiple datasets or streams

  4. Reasoning - The application of logic : deductive, inductive, abductive

  5. Planning - Setting goals and how to achieve them

Which means that all companies can now exploit 6 new capabilities:

  • Understand people using language

  • Automate processes

  • Optimise complex systems

  • Understand what is happening in pictures and videos

  • Create content

  • Make predictions

McKinsey in January 2017 wrote this:

‘Overall, we estimate that 49 percent of the activities that people are paid to do in the global economy have the potential to be automated by adapting currently demonstrated technology.’

The critical point is that anything ‘structured, repeatable, predictable’ will be capable of being automated by AI. And that involves a great deal of the tasks performed everyday within the real estate industry.

Winners will get to grips with AI, and the best will aggressively try to leverage it within their businesses, as it is uniquely powerful. 

Losers will not make the effort (this is hard), and over time will live to regret that.

11. Winners realise companies want a productive workforce / Losers think companies just want an office on a ‘reasonable’ lease

Following on from all the above it is clear, to winners, that no company actually wants an office; what they want is a productive workforce. Historically they needed to have an office, today they do not. They must be made to want rather than need an office, through the provision of a range of services and overarching UX that does enable their workforce to be as productive as possible. That, essentially, will boil down to #SpaceAsAService (see https://www.propmodo.com/space-as-a-service-the-trillion-dollar-hashtag/)

Losers will continue to argue that people ‘need’ an office and that companies are only really after a bit more flexibility in their leases. Good luck with that in five years time.

12. Winners embrace automation / Losers avoid automation

Don’t bring a knife to a gun fight. If something benefits from, and can be automated, it will be automated. If your business makes money out of manually performing tasks that will be automated, then the best thing to do is either move out of that line of work, or be the first, and best people to automate it.

Mostly automation will allow people to do more with less. So you could take the attitude that there is only X amount of Y to be done and therefore automation will wipe out your business, or, by enabling A to be delivered 10x cheaper, faster, better than now, you could see automation as an opportunity to massively grow your addressable market.

The only thing that is clear is that losers will fight automation, with inevitable results. It might take time, but the end point is certain.

13. Winners think ‘Human+Machine’ wins / Losers think Machines will wipe out Humans

As with the attitude towards automation, losers tend to look upon ‘the Machines’ as an existential threat that is going to wipe them out. Images of the Terminator come to mind far too fast.

The reality is that we are many decades away from the sort of ‘Artificial General Intelligence’ that would enable the sort of super intelligent machines that pose a real threat to mankind.

The reality is more in line with what is known as Moravec’s Law, which states

"it is comparatively easy to make computers exhibit adult level performance on intelligence tests or playing checkers, and difficult or impossible to give them the skills of a one-year-old when it comes to perception and mobility”

Human + Machine is the smart way to think about the future. The path of using technology to replace humans is a dead end. Far better is to think how humans can be augmented by technology, and indeed how technology can be improved by humans. 

14. Winners obsess over ‘Value Propositions’ and ‘Product/Market Fit’ / Losers assume their Value Proposition is OK, and what’s ‘Product/Market Fit’?

In the tech industry everyone obsesses about ‘Value Propositions’ and ‘Product/Market Fit’, concepts made famous by Alex Osterwalder and Steve Blank respectively. In the first, one dives deeply into how well one’s product or service matches the exact needs of a customer and in the second how well suited one’s overall business is to the market, and how big that market is. The point being to place a laser like focus on pleasing the customer, and to precipitate repeated iterations until that is achieved. 

In software you know you are winning when growth goes exponential, whereas in real estate a number of different measures could be used. One of the best, but least used in the industry, is your NPS or Net Promoter Score. This is:

‘an index ranging from -100 to 100 that measures the willingness of customers to recommend a company's products or services to others. It is used as a proxy for gauging the customer's overall satisfaction with a company's product or service and the customer's loyalty to the brand.’ 

Winners will increasingly be following the tech industry in making these two concepts central to their businesses. Losers are unlikely to know what they are.

15. Winners look to be 10X better / Losers look to be a 10% better

Absolutely critical to how to think about PropTech and the future of real estate is to reject the notion that the industry is working just fine and all we need to do is ‘digitise’ it. Digitising the past is one of the worse mistakes to make. All that will do is move you on 10% or so, and it is what losers are doing, and will do. We have a wide range of extremely powerful digital tools at our disposal and we must use them to rethink ‘how it works’, as Steve Jobs described the role of design. Almost every area of real estate could be re-designed to be 10X better than it is now. Either a much better experience, or 10X faster, 10X cheaper, 10X quicker or 10X smarter.

Thinking 10X requires you to use all the tools covered here to go back to first principles and consider just how good something could be.

Take Uber: the experience of simply tapping your phone, getting in to a car and then getting out at your destination is definitely 10X better than the old ride hailing, fumbling around for change and shouting directions at the driver way of old.

Take your own speciality in real estate and rethink it. Make it 10X better. 

16. Winners think Better before Cheaper and Revenue before Cost. Losers the opposite.

This last difference between winners and losers is inspired by another Harvard Business Review article, this time written by Michael Raynor entitled ‘Three Rules for Making a Company Truly Great’ (https://hbr.org/2013/04/three-rules-for-making-a-company-truly-great)

The three rules are:

  1. Better before cheaper—in other words, compete on differentiators other than price.

  2. Revenue before cost—that is, prioritize increasing revenue over reducing costs.

  3. There are no other rules—so change anything you must to follow Rules 1 and 2.

For me these are what PropTech and Future Real Estate should be all about; Aspiring to being better, and pricing accordingly, not looking to cut costs and price your way down to gaining a customer.

They used to say you could not brand real estate. And maybe in a product centric industry that might have been true. But in the world of new real estate, where the service, the UX, you deliver is what sets you apart, you assuredly can. Putting better before cheaper and revenue before cost is a core component of how to do it.

So that’s it, 16 differences between winners and losers in the new world of PropTech driven real estate. Mostly representing a new mindset, inspired by the best companies in the technology sector. Not only might these companies be amongst our best customers, they have much in their DNA we can learn from.

Antony


AI, Retail Real Estate, Value: 6 Questions

The Bezestein Bazaar, El Khan Khalil, Cairo, 1872, by John Frederick Lewis. Watercolour. The Higgins Art Gallery & Museum, Bedford

The Bezestein Bazaar, El Khan Khalil, Cairo, 1872, by John Frederick Lewis. Watercolour. The Higgins Art Gallery & Museum, Bedford

Recently there has been much talk of a ‘Retail Apocalypse’, with millions of square feet of retail space shuttering and the demise of many long term household names. The US and UK have been particularly heavily affected but the impact has been felt widely across the developed world.

Just across the US we are now seeing over 100,000,000 sq ft of retail space closing per annum.

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And online sales have been, for years, growing much faster than offline:

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Though still the overall penetration is not that high and varies markedly across countries.

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Looking at all of this positively many real estate people point out that the majority of people still prefer to shop, in shops. A recent US survey results are shown below.

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Further comforting the real estate industry is the sight of many previously ‘online only’ Brands opening physical stores. So we may have an industry closing a lot of space but ultimately it seems like ‘online only’ does not work and shoppers, by and large, still want to go to physical stores. Or that is the way the real estate industry likes to look at the market.

What we will discover over the next few years though is that they are both right, and very wrong. Yes, people will always like the experience of shopping but the current experience of shopping, with notable exceptions, does not have product/market fit.

A rising tide will not lift all boats, it will expose the naked.

Fundamentally, and this is the problem for real estate investors, not all retail, or retailers, are equal, and the difference in capabilities of operators is going to become more and more a key driver of returns. As with the office market, where one could previously ignore the particularities of occupiers and focus purely on the NOI, today and going forward the operator of that asset will be a major determinant of performance. Retail Real Estate is going to become an asset class where understanding the dynamics of the retail industry, at a very granular level, will pay of handsomely. 

Real Estate Investment as a numbers game is coming to an end. Our industry is morphing from being about selling a Product to delivering a Service. And that changes everything. You’re no longer buying into an asset class, you are buying into an ecosystem of variables, most of which are not real estate related, that combined, will determine short, medium and long term value.

Where though does AI sit in all of this? 

Below are a series of questions I put together for a panel discussing the impact of AI on the valuation of retail real estate.

1. We can see how AI changes things for retailers but how does it change things for shoppers?

The best retailers have been utilising AI for some time. The recent report from the MIT Sloan Business School ‘Artificial intelligence in Business Gets Real’ shows how the early adopters are doubling down on their AI investments, building competencies, and working to take AI to scale.

Principally retailers are working on understanding their customers at a deep level so that they can:

  • Make personalised product recommendations

  • Tailor the inventory in individual stores to better reflect the wants, need and desires of the local population

  • Optimise pricing

  • Deliver more targeted offers and deals

  • Reduce the incidences of fraud.

All of the above is of course aimed at delivering a more compelling shopping experience for customers, by better understanding the individuals drivers of consumption.

Mostly this data harvesting and analysis is being performed online, which is why the best online retailers (think Amazon or Alibaba) are so successful. They understand what I want, and make it extremely easy for me to purchase goods, any time of the day.

Providing customers with what they know they want is a very hard thing for anyone to do better than an advanced e-commerce company. 

What online is not good at though is ‘discovery’, the serendipitous finding of something I didn't know I want. And generating that frisson of pleasure when this occurs.

Which is why offline shopping will persist, albeit with a huge caveat.

And that is that the offline retailer has to make it a more enjoyable experience for me to get up off my sofa, leave my house, and travel to visit their store. And then, when I am there, know enough about me that this experience is tailored to me. Yes I know, this is all sounding very ‘me, me, me’ but the reality is that is what offline retail is all about. Delighting me, and whoever I choose to go shopping with.

Much of all this personalisation is made possible by carefully collecting the right data, with the requisite ‘Volume, Variety, Velocity and Veracity’ (the famous four V’s of data) to be able to answer the right questions that provide the answers to deliver this personalisation.

So how does AI change things for shoppers? By upping their expectations as to what a shopping experience is.

It was recently said, by the ‘Retail Prophet', Doug Stephens, in response to a question about millennials being fickle:

‘Millennials don’t suffer from shortened attention spans. Rather, they simply have a much higher sensitivity to things that are boring.’

That’s how AI has changed things for shoppers.

2. Amazon Go is pioneering AI powered automated stores - is this going to be a big thing?

You’ve probably seen the promotional video Amazon released, showing how the experience of shopping in one of their Go stores was different. You simply walk in, tap your phone to begin shopping, then pick up whatever you want, and simply Go.

Frictionless retail. Just pick it up and off you go. How easy it that?

Essentially this is only possible because of the incredible advances in the AI behind ‘Computer Vision’, which is the ability of computers to understand photos, videos or the world around them. Today, a computer can ‘see’ better than a human. This is the same technology behind many of the autonomous vehicles you hear about, and the ‘self driving’ capabilities of a Tesla.

In computing terms, this is now largely a solved problem. The technology will improve (it is mostly a function of computing power and the availability of training data) so these prototype small Go stores are very likely to grow in size over the next five years. They will be a big thing. Autonomous shopping will be a big thing.

Paradoxically the aim is not solely to replace humans in store. In fact new prototypes include open kitchens, where you can see your food being freshly prepared, right in front of you.

Remove the boring bits of shopping to concentrate on the product and service.

It is speculative at the moment whether or not Amazon will release this technology as a ‘Software as a Service’ product but if they do, close attention needs to be paid to who picks up on these new capabilities, as they will almost certainly be the most innovative retailers in the market. Possibly, even probably, they will enable a new range of entrants.

Critical from a real estate perspective will be whether your asset is equipped to enable a retailer to ‘go autonomous’. Could it be that, in five years time, not having such infrastructure will be like having an office building with poor broadband? i.e effectively useless.

3. Alibaba talk a lot about ‘New’ Retail, especially connecting offline with online shopping. And are huge investors in AI. How does this impact on real estate?

Alibaba is prodigiously good at AI. They are also prodigiously good at e-commerce. The two are connected.

80% of all e-commerce in China touches one or more Alibaba entity, as they control the 3 largest marketplaces in the world, the B2B (Alibaba.com), C2C (Taobao), and the B2C (Tmall). 

Simply put, this enables them to have almost perfect knowledge about the nature of demand across China, in real time.

They have opened 65 of their Hema branded supermarkets in the last year. They own 29 department stores and 17 shopping malls across the country. And through their ‘New Retail’ platform they are helping to digitise hundreds of thousands (yes, hundreds of thousands) of ‘Mum and Pop’ stores.

Jack Ma explained what he means by ’New Retail’ in a shareholder letter in 2017:

 “E-commerce is rapidly evolving into New Retail. The boundary between offline and online commerce disappears as we focus on fulfilling the personalised needs of each customer.” 

The key here is that not only does 80% of Chinese e-commerce pass through Alibaba, but a large percentage of the merchants also run Alibaba software in their stores. So the two way insight, between demand and supply, is something new within retail, and immensely powerful

How does this impact real estate? 

First, as above, it is vital that any retail asset that wishes to plug into this sort of ecosystem (Alibaba is not the only one, just the largest) is technically capable of doing so. 

Secondly, investing in ‘New Retail’ locations should mean investing in areas where retailers are likely to be more successful, as the level of data and AI powered analytics should enable better matching of demand and supply.

And thirdly, hunting out locations where ‘New Retail’ does not yet exist but is likely to arrive in the near future should offer good returns as the quality of the retail experience will improve as these new technologies and analytical capabilities are put into practice. Asset values should rise accordingly.

4. New retailers like b8ta - who say their mission is ‘Retail designed for discovery’ - provide a very different in store experience. What role does AI have in their business?

What actually is the point of a store today? What will it be in five, ten years?

Most likely, it will not be about product distribution. You used to have to go to a shop because that was where the goods were. Today you do not; they can get to you in a myriad of ways. Delivered to your home, or office, even to your car boot. Delivery has largely been solved. Sure, we still have issues of deliveries when you are not at home but one way or another, that will be resolved in the near future. In a drone delivery world, they would only ever deliver when you were in because the system would know, you are in.

Amazon in particular are spending vast sums trying to solve this ‘last mile’ problem, so it will be solved.

So what then is a store for? Prefaced like that it is obvious isn’t it? A store is for ‘discovery’ and fun. Finding out about things you didn't know, or more about things that you did. All wrapped up in a human-centred environment that is enjoyable and a pleasure to experience.

So how does AI help with that?

Enter the likes of b8ta. They started a store where they work directly with Brands, and act as a marketing platform for them. Each Brands products are displayed in dedicated areas, with Brand trained staff on hand to demonstrate and inform. Sort of like the Apple Store but for multiple vendors.

They are beautifully designed stores dedicated to presenting a Brands products in the best possible way. You cannot buy anything in store, the whole point is nurturing and positioning each Brand.

In the background every movement and preference of every customer is recorded; what Brands they looked at, if they looked at Brand X did they look at Brand Y, what questions did they ask, what did they ask for that was not there, and so on. All of this data is then analysed by AI and fed back to the Brands, together with suggestions as to how to refine, optimise and improve on every aspect of the experience.

This is the software industries ‘Build, Measure, Learn’ for stores.

Since launch in 2015 they have opened 78 stores across the US.

The clever bit though, is that they realised that designing these types of environments was complicated, so they started ‘Built by b8ta’ and now offer their software and systems ‘as a service’ to third parties.

This pay monthly solution includes checkout, inventory, point of sale, inventory management, staff scheduling services and more.

There are large Brands that can do all of this on their own, but there is also a long tail of companies where this is beyond their capability to deliver but nevertheless could benefit greatly from having access to it.

This is analogous to the office market, where the workplace is becoming a too difficult problem for many companies, who are then ‘low hanging fruit’ targets for Flex space operators to sell to.

AI is a great enabler, but it is hard. All companies can benefit from AI powered services but most likely, they will buy into a complete, turnkey solution. Who owns the solution could be sitting on a great deal of value. 

The OneMarket spinoff from Westfield is essentially mining the same seam of need. Off the shelf, managed, highly sophisticated AI powered services. No capex, no long delivery cycle, just go.

5. In the future will we all have personal AI’s that do our shopping for us? That understand our needs, wants and desires so well they just order what we want before we even ask for it? Do we even need shops in that world?

There is a meme going around the internet that a future Amazon service will be one where they send you two boxes each month. One is full of all the things that they ‘think’ you need or want, and the other is empty.

You simply keep what you want and put the rest in the empty box.

Pre-emptive shopping. They ‘know' you, so just give you what you want. And if it is your husband's birthday they will also give you a selection of presents that they ‘know’ he would like.

Now tell me that that is not a service that a large percentage of people would buy in to. Sure, there is also a large percentage of people for whom it is the devils work and they would hate it. But that is the point.

In an AI powered world we will start to know the difference between people and how they want to shop. Our job is then to give each party exactly what they want.

6. Thinking about the role of technology and AI what characteristics of a retailer should we pay attention to? How can we know who needs what type of space, and will they be able to pay the rent?

The starting point from a real estate perspective is to get to grips with what types of retailer one has in one’s portfolio and to make a judgement as to whether they are providers to group 1 or group 2 in the answer above? And then ask, are they setup for their market?

Knowing how well the retailers in your portfolio are ready, willing and able to make the most of this coming world is a key risk factor. Some will not be, in which case they are a bad bet, whereas some others are fully aligned and should be aided and abetted in their efforts in whatever way the owner of their stores can help.

AI is becoming more and more central to the operations of retailers, either handled by themselves, or provided by ‘SaaS’ providers like b8ta.

I would contend that where these types of retailers, and technology providers, operate is where the successful retail of the future will be. Online or offline is now irrelevant, everything is one. Online behaviour feeds offline and vice versa. And much of this data needs to come from the physical environments these companies operate in, be it a single store, or a giant shopping centre. The physical environment has to be able to be analysed, and has to be responsive. Data will increasingly inform how we setup, manage and optimise our physical spaces. They have to be equipped to enable this.

In summary then, AI is profoundly impacting the retail market because it is changing the capabilities of retailers to provide better products, services and experiences. And that is raising the bar for everyone. Owners of physical assets need to be fully au fait with the new needs the best retailers will have. Ideally they will work in partnership, as the often confrontational nature of landlord/tenant relations is damaging the ability to satisfy the end user.

The bottom line is that shoppers do not need shops to go shopping. They need to be made to want them. AI can help make that happen. 

Ultimately human + machine wins! 

Antony