Five tips for shopping centre managers

There isn’t one way to be a successful centre manager, and my way is not the only way. But by sharing some thoughts I hope retailers will understand the ‘other side’ and centre teams might compare how they do things.

1.            Spend a lot of time on the floor

I learned my retail in South Africa. Whether it was myself (as a Trainee Area Manager 30 years ago) or the MD visiting stores, no matter what was happening anywhere in the business, during the peak lunch-hour trade every single person was expected to be on the floor and to be actively engaged with customers/ service etc. Meetings or lunches did not happen then because being on the floor was the priority.

With planning and a good system in place, it is possible to get a solid presence on the floor. As a rule of thumb someone from centre management should always be on the floor and the centre manager should be on the floor at least 2-3 hours a day. Some of the things I did:

  • The teams should also be rostered on to the customer service desk once a week.
  • Centre managers should schedule centre walks with each team member on a rotation.
  • Being on the floor includes loading docks and fire exits and parking areas of course.
  • Walking the floor should include face-to-face retailer communication and getting to know them by name.
  • Get to know the performance of every store, not by studying the sales report, but by talking to the retailer regularly.

Head offices are guilty of setting demands on centre teams (for reporting etc.) that keeps them off the floor and then also demand that they be on the floor – so it is not always the centre manager’s fault, but time on the floor and paying attention to the (microscopic) detail is the most effective way to have an impact on the centre performance.

2.            Pay attention to detail

The bromide ‘retail is detail’ is an absolute truth. But that requires hard work because human tendency is to become ‘store blind’. It can only be combated by building a system to prevent it and by consciously resisting it.

A centre manager should train themselves to look for the little things like:

  • know which cleaner is on duty in the food court
  • see when a piece of mall furniture is too close to balustrade
  • pay attention to the humming sound coming from a dead speaker in the ceiling
  • notice when a sign is peeling
  • be aware of the changes to the traffic flow because of a new casual lease
  • randomly check the fire extinguisher service date
  • inspect the broom cupboard for litter and personal belongings

Running a shopping centre (of any size) is like being the captain of large ship. Unless you are paying close attention, you don’t notice when you go off course easily or immediately and it takes a long time to turn around once you discover you have veered off course.

3.            Be stingy with abatements

Granted, when I was a centre manager the economy was more robust, but there are always and will always be retailers who struggle. My attitude generally has been that if a retailer needs money they should go to the bank – because that is what banks do. The exception to this rule is pre- and post-development centres that are undergoing structural change and instances where the property manager has actually made a mistake.

The only ‘rent relief’ I ever gave was for an independent food court operator who was robbed and did not have the cash to pay the rent. They caught up later though.

The key to managing rent relief is:

  • To know your retail and retailers well enough to plan/execute early intervention (see Point #1)
  • To have the right relationship with the retailers that enables you to be fair but firm – and be respected for your position based on your credibility. (See Point #1)

4.            Learn the art and science of retail

I know many centre teams who work hard at getting better – and strangely some younger centre managers are more knowledgeable than some old hands. (See point #1.) Centre managers are not in the retail business despite the fact that they are in and around retailers all the time. Learning about retail requires a concerted effort. I know Stockland runs a great in-house training program and there are obviously programs offered by the Shopping Centre Council – and I am sure there are other learning opportunities. But nothing beats the learning you get by being on the floor.

The one group that is unfortunately notably absent from most of those learning opportunities are the in-house Retail Design Managers. The RDMs (could) play a vital role in setting the retailer up for executing their proposition, but as a ‘profession’ they know a lot about design but I see too much evidence that many (not all) of them don’t know retail.

(Centre teams reading this on Inside Retailing are obviously less guilty of this than those who are not.)

5.            Systematise

When I started at Bankstown Square, I hid in my office for a week and set up a filing system. (You must have been worried, right Martin?) By the time I started dealing with the issues of my job, I had my workflow sorted. I also had a feel for the issues that were current and knew where to lay my hands on the things when I needed to.

In my first centre manager role, I spent about a month with my admin manager – the KEY to a successful centre operation. I built the system of getting the rent roll out on time and 100% accurate. There were many redundant checks and balances and there were (unbelievably) many checks that should have been made that weren’t part of the process. The end result was that we had zero disputes on our billing and therefore zero (lame) reasons to delay payments. And I saved a lot of time and raised my credibility.

These pointers apply to many other roles and positions – not just centre managers. In particular, if you are retailer, you can change the names and titles but the principles still apply.

Most importantly, whatever your industry, how much time do you ‘spend on the floor’?

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