Ibrahim Ibrahim: The man with a plan to reinvent retail

Portland Design’s managing director tells Nicol Dynes why the sector needs a change of mindset based on people and places.

Retail is not doomed. It can be saved by active management and careful transformation, says Ibrahim Ibrahim. The managing director of Portland Design says retail real estate can no longer be driven by leasing boxes and collecting rent, it is now about content and curation of blended commercial offers and compelling experiences. 

“Our mantra is people and places, not buildings and spaces,” says Ibrahim. “People and culture are the essence of a place, of which the design of the built environment is a by-product. First you have to define the connective tissue that binds the offers and experiences and animates the public realm to create an authentic spirit of place.”

The process has five steps, he explains. The first is culture, looking at trends and the community, which involves deep research and analysis of cultural, consumer and retail trends. The second is people, assessing their profiles, missions and journeys. The third is the place story, defining the experience and the vision. The fourth is space: finalising an experience masterplan, with a focus on connectivity, getting the right mix and identifying synergies. 

Then and only then does the design of the buildings and public spaces come into the picture, to be driven by the ‘strategic platform’ established in the first four steps 

Changes currently being experienced in retail are driven by a fundamental shift in the relationship between consumers and brands and how they engage with branded places, town centres and each other, adds Ibrahim.

Generation C

The audience is what Ibrahim calls ‘Generation C’. “This is not a demographic segmentation, rather one based on mindsets, interests and behaviours,” he says. “The most critical ‘C’ stands for our audiences’ demand for Control in their lives including hyper convenience, simplicity, transparency etc. Generation C is of course also constantly Connected, ready to Collaborate and wanting to Co-create.

“They want to participate in Communities that mirror their interests and passions facilitated by brands, and most critically Generation C has a Conscience, they will increasingly gravitate towards brands and places that demonstrate added value in their lives and the wider world with actionable purpose.”

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Generation C also wants to be part of a place, he says, to belong and to shape it and they care about the role a place or a brand plays in society. They value freedom and choice in everything they do, and they scrutinise everything so there is no hiding place for brands: they demand integrity, transparency and openness. 

Entertainment and play in work, education and leisure is also important and they also want wellness to be imbued in everything. Speed is of the essence and they expect constant change and innovation. 

Portland Design is a place strategy and retail design business that works on projects ranging from large-scale urban regeneration to mixed-use developments, and retail assets like shopping centres and retail parks, airports and railway stations. It advises landlords as well as occupiers, retailers and consumer brands on how to be future-ready. 

To be future-ready in real estate retail operators have to focus on four pillars, says Ibrahim. First, reinventing convenience, because people now live transient, digitised lives and want ease and simplicity. “You have to respond to this need and create value by stripping out complexity,” he says.

Second, reconnecting to community, creating a sense of sharing and belonging. Participation is the new consumption: the successful brands today are those that go beyond selling stuff to creating communities. They see their physical retail places not just as channels of distribution but as moments of experience.

‘We have to think of these assets not as hermetically sealed shopping centres that turn their back on community, but as permeable open places that connect to community, the streetscape, the public realm and the urban grain.’ 

Ibrahim Ibrahim, Portland Design

Third, reimagining places to create a sense of excitement and surprise. Blending experiences to activate the public realm that encompasses co-working, co-living, hospitality and even healthcare and wellness. Ibrahim’s acronym for it is SWELCH – shopping, working, entertainment, learning, culture and hospitality.  

Fourth, repositioning value. People increasingly value personalisation, authenticity, social consciousness and environmental awareness as well as health and wellness.

Community shift

“We’ve got to shift from a shopping rhythm to a community rhythm,” says Ibrahim. “We have to think of these assets not as hermetically sealed shopping centres that turn their back on community, but as permeable open places that connect to community, the streetscape, the public realm and the urban grain.”

It is a matter of rethinking the old, tired, disconnected and siloed mixed-use to transform it into new, vibrant and connected ‘blended use’ that really activates the public realm with a new blend of experiences and rhythms.

Ibrahim says that they should, “bring together a mix of occupiers, both ephemeral and longer term, national brands and regional brands, local independents, influencers, individuals and community groups in the same spaces”. But it is essential to have diverse lease models to accommodate all these different occupiers, he points out: from fixed rent to turnover rent to footfall-based rent to ‘halo rent’, which is based on the impact on media impressions.

Additionally, to create a truly blended use development the ‘blending component’ of each use typology (work place, hospitality, healthcare, maker spaces, residential etc) must be identified, which will activate the public realm and connect to retail, F&B, leisure and entertainment to create a real place with a new rhythm that will draw in the crowds again.

As US advertising executive Marian Salzman said: “This is the era of the surprising, the spontaneous, the unplanned, and the serendipitous.” 

“Serendipity is the most powerful emotion that drives engagement, footfall and will bring the crowds back to our high streets and shopping centres,” says Ibrahim.

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The successful retail asset of the future is a place that “speaks like a magazine, changes like a gallery, engages like a show, builds loyalty like a club, can be shared like an app, seeds like an incubator and connects like a community. If it does all that, then it’s future ready”.  

“Retail has been going through an existential challenge, it’s been changing at warp speed and the changes we’re experiencing are no longer cyclical, they are structural,” he adds. “Those changes are not caused or driven by architecture or design or even by technology trends, they’re driven by a fundamental shift in the relationship between the audience and places and brands.”

The term Retail Darwinism has been coined for this shift, because the changes in the expectations of consumers are changing faster than many businesses can adapt. It is not so much a survival of the fittest as the survival of the most nimble and in tune with fast-moving trends. Retail businesses need to make the shift from being a responsive business to being a predictive one.

Board agenda

“As a retail business, whether you own 20 shopping centres or 300 stores, how can you adapt at the speed at which consumers are changing, when they are shopping on platforms that maybe didn’t exist six months ago?” says Ibrahim. “This has to be on the agenda of every board of every retail business at whatever level and whatever scale.”

Ibrahim’s prediction is that Instagram and Facebook in the next couple of years will become major shopping channels and this will be a significant development in the world of consumer engagement. 

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“Retail has always been and will always be about four things: recruitment, (finding the consumer); transaction, (selling them something); fulfilment, (making sure they get it); and retention, (making sure they come back),” Ibrahim says. “What’s interesting now is that transaction and fulfilment are migrating gradually away from the physical space, so what we’re left with is recruitment and retention.”

What this means in practice is that “the physical space is behaving more and more like a media platform, because it’s there primarily to recruit and retain customers, who are then driven downstream to online or social platforms”, he adds. “We’ve got to think about these retail assets less like real estate and more like media content.” 

As the physical space, which is no longer a mere shop, changes its function from transaction to media, everything else must change too: the design, the service proposition, the experience, the technology, the masterplan and the connection to the public realm. 

“But much more importantly, it changes the revenue model and it changes the valuation model and therefore, in order to establish how we can create a revenue and valuation model from a recruiting platform, we need to understand and leverage the data that these physical places generate,” he says. “So it’s no longer about monetising the experience only but the data that these experiences generate.”

It all boils down to people. The new art of curating places will require “a people revolution”, concludes Ibrahim. “We need people from the culture, entertainment and hospitality industries. We need curators, stage managers, set designers, media buyers, storytellers, ethnographers, data scientists, social media experts; who can identify the brands and the occupiers, curate the content and operate these retail assets to bring back the excitement and the crowds.”

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