Big Interview: Scott Parsons, Chief Operating Officer, Unibail-Rodamco-Westfield

Scott Parsons is the UK chief operating officer at Unibail-Rodamco-Westfield. After the reopening of non-essential services in mid-April, he spoke to Retail Gazette about how trading fared for both Westfield centres, and how the shopping centre giant expects a bounce back in a post-Covid world.

Unibail-Rodamco-Westfield Scott Parsons chief operating officer COO profile interview
Scott Parsons.

Since non-essential retailers in England and Wales were given the green light to exit lockdown and reopen their doors in mid-April, Scott Parsons said both Westfield shopping centres in London have welcomed 1.2 million visitors.

As the weather warms up and Brits scurry to spend their lockdown savings, shopping centres were arguably at threat of losing customers to the high street. But Parsons, the UK chief operating officer at Unibail-Rodamco-Westfield, is confident that the Westfield centres have enough on offer to lure consumers in despite the popularity of the high street.

“We are in constant dialogue with the managers of all of our stores,” Parsons told Retail Gazette.

“On April 12 by 4pm, our retail stores hit their daily targets and some of them just knocked the socks off their targets for the day.

“In terms of the first week, we had about 1.2 million people through both Westfield London and Westfield Stratford. It was probably as perfect a number as I could have hoped for.

“It was busy enough in the malls to really feel the excitement of non-essential retail reopening, but not so busy that people might have felt uncomfortable from a social distancing point of view.”

Unibail-Rodamco-Westfield Scott Parsons
Both UK Westfield centres welcomed 1.2m visitors during the first week of reopening.

Parsons said customers still appreciated bricks-and-mortar retail despite online taking a huge chunk out market share in retail – especially since the start of the pandemic. He said the key word in a post-lockdown world was “experience”.

“There’s been a lot of talk about showrooming and retailers bringing more services and experiences into their physical units,” he explained.

“This makes them more interesting and gives people more of a reason and a buzz when they make the effort to get off their butts and off their tablet or desktop to come into a physical environment.”

However, Parsons argued that retail landlords faced the challenge of having to keep adapting and evolving at a fast pace.

“Sadly, we’ve seen over the last year of the Covid-19 crisis that not all retailers are going to make it,” he reflected.

“Where they left space, we have to be a lot more innovative and open-minded in how we fill that space, because it may not be a traditional retailer that’s lining up to fill it.

“It may be a pure play that wants a touch point with their customer, but maybe they’re not looking to take it on a standard 10-year lease.

“Maybe we’ve got to be a bit more flexible and think about shorter term leases and pop ups.”

Unibail-Rodamco-Westfield Scott Parsons
Indoor hospitality remains closed in England until May 17.

According to Westfield’s research, Parsons said there was a trend in “localism” during lockdown.

“I’d like to see if that we are innovative enough that our centres are already the beating heart of their communities and embracing services like dentists and physiotherapists,” he said.

Unibail-Rodamco-Westfield – the shopping centre conglomerate that owns two Westfield centres in the UK, and a host of other centres across Europe and North America – predicted in its How We Shop report last year that more than half of retail space in stores would be dedicated to providing customer experiences by 2025.

It also said there would be five key trends that will transform the retail industry: upside down retail; anti-prescription; self-sustaining stores; retail surgery and locally-morphed retail.

A total of 59 per cent of consumers expected more than half of retail space would be devoted to experience rather than product by 2025, while 75 per cent of consumers believe this will happen by 2027.

“We’re still on track with that report despite Covid-19,” Parsons told Retail Gazette.

“It’s important that if we’re going to coach people off their desk chairs or their cell phones into physical environments that we’ve got to got to keep it interesting and fresh, and keep evolving.”

Parsons added that although indoor hospitality was not able to resume in England until May 17, the two Westfield centres are “blessed with amazing outdoor spaces”.

“We had 1.2m people through both Westfield centres in the first week of reopening”

“We’ve got the southern terrace here at Westfield London, which is one of the nicest public squares in in the area, and we’ve got the street at Westfield Stratford, so there is ample space to dine outdoors,” he said.

Parsons explained that 40 per cent of its hospitality offerings have chosen to wait until May 17 to fully reopen, while the rest are open for delivery and takeaway. He added that the Westfield centres can expect “excitement to heat up from May 17”, especially when the centre’s leisure offerings would also be able to reopen from that date.

“Our marketing events team have a great couple of surprises in terms of activities and events planned,” he said.

Separately, Parsons said both Westfield centres have new retailers lined up to open in the coming months, which is expected to draw more footfall. He also stressed that the message around community cannot be underestimated.

“Where you have centres like Westfield, where you’ve got great numbers of footfall coming through every year, that gives us a really unique opportunity to embrace community initiatives,” he said.

“We have such a fantastic partnership with the NHS. We very quickly worked with them to open testing centres as soon as the Covid crisis began.

“Our centres were a great place to put a Covid testing centre, somewhere that’s convenient, somewhere that’s the heart of the community, and somewhere that’s in a transport hub.”

Unibail-Rodamco-Westfield Scott Parsons
Westfield teamed up with NHS to open Covid-19 testing centres.

Parsons’ experience in property comes from his time as managing director of retail portfolio at Landsec, where he was taught that “an asset is an asset is an asset”.

“I looked after both the offices business for my first stint, and then the retail business for the latter half of my time there,” he recalled.

“It also taught me that I think retail is a little bit more fun.

“With some of our office developments here, the architecture is quite interesting and they’re fun projects to be involved in.”

Parsons said during his time at Landsec, he was on the board where he spent time talking to investors and analysts about the retail business he looked after.

“One constant message I had was that if you’re going to play in the retail game, you want to have the best basket of toys to play with,” he said.

“So when Unibail-Rodamco-Westfield called to ask me if I was interested in joining, it seemed like a logical and fun career step.

“We are in constant dialogue with the managers of all of our stores”

“Having these two Westfields in my basket of toys is a joy.”

Set side by side, Westfield London, in White City, west London, and Westfield Stratford in east London witnessed two very different kinds of footfalls since reopening on April 12.

According to Parsons, football at the White City site was a lot closer to 2019 levels, while Stratford was between 70-75 per cent of 2019 levels for the same week.

“It’s a little bit of an unfair comparison because in 2019, Easter was late so that was the first week of Easter holidays,” Parsons highlighted.

“You’d expect 2019 figures to be quite a high base for comparison, but Stratford might have been a little bit lower versus 2019 because the football is quite high in that area.”

He argued that consumers may have felt that Westfield Stratford may have been too busy in the first week of reopening, so Westfield London may been been more appealing thanks to being more spacious. The latter’s extension works in 2018, which drew in retailers such as John Lewis and Primark, may have also played a part in attracting higher footfall.

Some of the challenges Unibail-Rodamco-Westfield faces other than the inevitable struggles brought along from Covid-19 is a slow leasing activity.

“Sentiment in the capital market for retail property was mediocre at best, down at worst,” Parsons said.

“I want to get back to a stage where we’re looking forward with optimism and getting on with the business at hand.

“I’ve had enough of fighting fires in a lockdown crisis. We’ve got to just get through Covid-19.”

Another challenge was the shift to online, which Parsons said was exacerbated by lockdown because people had no alternative.

“The rise of online happened by necessity,” he said.

“One of the lovely things about the first week of reopening was that lots of people came out became they missed that retail therapy, they missed that physical environment.

“The retailers were really happy to have a touch point with their customer base again, because online hits saturation at some point and brands need an opportunity to physically engage with their customers.”

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