Cadillac Fairview is Shaping the Future of Retail

At one of the largest retail real estate owners in North America, digital transformation means adapting to keep the customer in control.

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Retail models are constantly iterating. New trends permeate the industry each year as technology and consumer trends redefine the retail experience. Brands are always looking for new ways to connect with shoppers, and from this constant push, a seemingly infinite number of ideas and startups appear every year, all with the goal of generating better customer relationships, stronger loyalty, and ultimately revenue. 

During this torrid evolution, the industry morphed to become a fully-fledged ecosystem. With loyalty, e-commerce, subscription models, personalization, omnichannel approaches, and more now part of the average consumer’s day-to-day interactions, the binary “here is some money in exchange for a product” transactional retail relationship has been significantly altered. Dozens of partners now contribute to a single retailer’s ecosystem. 

Cadillac Fairview has been a major part of the traditional retail ecosystem for decades. The real estate company, commonly known as CF, showcases the depths of retail’s transformation. It has continued to hold its place in the market, even as tenant and consumer expectations have shifted. Whereas many real estate operators are just that—landlords of office and retail spaces that collect rent checks, CF’s foresight is looking ahead to the new normal.

Representing nearly 90 properties and close to 50 million square feet of leasable space across North America, the $30 billion CF has done a more-than-impressive job in the real estate portion of its business. Still, the company wanted to become a bigger part of its tenants’ modernization. In 2019, CF unveiled Ravel, its in-house innovation hub created to “disrupt the shopping center landscape.” As the owner of some of the busiest malls in North America (Toronto Eaton Centre, Vancouver’s Pacific Centre), CF saw every bit of the transformation its retail clients were going through and realized it could play an influential role. 

Between transformation and adaptation

“A lot of companies knew they needed to adapt to digital transformation. So there was this trend to Uber-ize everything and find one defining solution,” says Jose Ribau, the EVP of digital and innovation for CF and the head of Ravel. Ribau is responsible for spearheading CF’s digital initiatives that enhance the consumer experience, be it massive retail tenants, or day-to-day mall operations. 

“For us, instead of taking this blanket digital transformation approach, we looked across at adjacent industries that are in our space, delivering an experience or product in retail that exposes the friction involved in the physical store experience,” he says.

“It’s this idea of transforming our processes to appeal to the customer in a way that other brands have signaled. I think it’s more of an adaptation of our model than it is a transformation.” 

Jose Ribau, executive vice president of innovation, Cadillac Fairview

Ribau and his team looked at everything from the obvious like e-commerce marketplaces or how people test drive cars to the not-so-obvious: how the Olympics operates, how sports sponsorships are delivered. The goal was to determine what customers find rewarding about their experiences, identify what retailers might need when it comes to meeting those expectations, and then develop a scalable solution to address those shortcomings. 

“That journey led to us doing a bunch of pilot projects and designing a lot of mandates to see what digital transformation meant to CF,” Ribau continues. “Through that work, we figured out what it is that clients, partners, tenants, and customers are looking for. In that process, we discovered that innovation at CF is a catalyst for delivering a modernized version of your shopping and office experience, taking the cues from the companies that are the best at that in the world.”

This approach is what informs CF’s biggest launch so far: LiVE, an immersive shopping app that acts as a resource for both consumers and retail partners. An accompaniment for customers as they shop in a physical mall, LiVE is a mobile app that provides guests with access to an interactive directory, the ability to search and tag inventory from individual brands, up-to-date retailer hours, safety information, and special targeted promotions. 

As a massive retail space operator, CF knew it had a unique innovation canvas to work with. CF can partner with clients who occupy mall space (from Apple to Zara) to create compelling in-store experiences, or it can digitally augment how consumers access mall amenities and perks. LiVE, and CF’s overall approach to innovation exists somewhere in-between: improving the customer journey by connecting physical retail spaces with immersive digital experiences.

CF’s interactive shopping app LiVE.

“The digital transformation for CF is less about becoming the new Amazon and more about how we use tools to adapt to customer trends and deliver what we’re already good at in a better fashion,” says Ribau. “It’s this idea of transforming our processes to appeal to the customer in a way that other brands have signaled. I think it’s more of an adaptation of our model than it is a transformation.” 

LiVE has turned out to be a perfect example of what CF is trying to achieve. The app has more than half a dozen features, though none of them are necessarily net-new to the retail world. Instead, what LiVE does well is harness CF’s unique role in the retail ecosystem to deliver purpose-driven consumer-focused solutions. As a result, customers no longer need to download individual retail apps to check inventory, safety information, hours, and more. It’s all presented within a singular source that exists to enhance the consumer experience. 

“We’re taking an approach where the customer is in control,” says Ribau. “They’ll guide us on what should be in the app, and if it isn’t working, they’ll be the first to tell.”

The really compelling stuff comes when CF and Ravel look at what else this real-time view of the shopping experience can offer consumers. 

The first, and maybe largest, involves retailer inventory. LiVE has the ability to track inventory across all of CF’s tenants, but it’s up to the retailer themselves to fully take advantage. When a user searches for a product in LiVE, retailers can make their stock show in a couple of ways: the first is to simply show that they sell the product, without any specific up-to-date information. Retailers can also get as detailed as possible by showing if there is a specific size or color at a local store in real-time. 

“We’re taking an approach where the customer is in control.”

Jose Ribau

“[Real-time inventory] is the best outcome for the user, but we know there’s also just a lot of people looking for inspiration or ideas when they use the app,” says Ribau. “We don’t force every retailer down a particular lane. Some of our clients just want to know they’re in the funnel for discovery too, for marketing purposes. This tool is just intended to help people be more purposeful with their shopping trip, so the more we can load it up with inventory in real-time, the more they can think their trip is worth it.”

In a unique spot

CF cannot fully transform the retail experience on its own. But it doesn’t have to, and that’s why digital adaptation is the key mindset for Ribau. CF is not a retailer, and even though consumers may say they’re going to the mall to shop, they’re not directly transacting with CF. This has created an incredibly unique sweet spot for CF to forge its own path role in the retail ecosystem. The closest comparison Ribau can bring up is Google Maps: Consumers often use the popular platform for information on a retailer before heading there to shop. But that can often leave a lot to be desired.

“Customers have a certain expectation, but with that comes an unwritten expectation from what they want and what they don’t want,” says Ribau. “For Google Maps, it serves a purpose to help us find things. Store location, parking spot, whatever else. I know what it means, and that generally works. But once you step into this world where you’re marketing directly to me, now you’re in my space.”

Ribau realizes that with LiVE, CF has the ability to move beyond base-level details and get more personal with the shopping experience. For Google Maps and other similar aggregators, the onus is not on the platform to provide accurate information constantly—it’s up to the retailer themselves to do it, which can more confusing than helpful when they don’t update hours, safety information, or anything else in a timely manner. 

LiVE tracks inventory, saves favorite products, helps with wayfinding, and more.

CF, however, remains in constant communication with retail partners, acting as the intermediary and conveying everything from opening hours to curbside pickup locations. LiVE offers a real-time microcosm of the physical shopping experience, simply because it’s a digital evolution of what CF has already been doing for years. 

Another feature CF recently rolled out is CF Guest List, a digital line management tool. With the new platform, shoppers can join a virtual queue, pre-book a time slot to visit specific stores before arriving at the property, or easily arrange curbside order pickups. The first retail partner to take part is Pandora, with more joining shortly. 

“We discovered that innovation at CF is a catalyst for delivering a modernized version of your shopping and office experience.”

Jose Ribau

This type of feature really spells out CF’s depth of contribution to its retail clients. Virtual queue management is something each retailer could go ahead with and execute on their own, but from the consumer’s experience, it’s much more streamlined to have one centralized access point. Instead of having to download a dozen branded apps from each retailer they want to visit, they can download LiVE and book a shopping slot with any retailer in the mall. 

“I don’t want to call this kind of thing table-stakes, because that’s not the case, but I think customers will quickly come to expect it,” says Ribau. “And with the right retailer, you can turn that into an amazing experience. It is such a simple safety measure, but it’s also a marketing opportunity.”

The capacity to innovate

Right now, LiVE (launched in the middle of the pandemic) is doing exactly what it’s supposed to be doing: getting people back into stores. 

“We’re seeing around 20% of the purchase intent of that search result going to the retailer,” says Ribau, referencing when consumers search for a product through LiVE. “So the app is doing what we hoped it would—driving interest and intent to the store.”

“We have between a 4.3 and 4.6 rating on the app store, which, for something we just launched, tells us the design is working and people are getting what they’re looking for,” he continues. “The way this app is focused on utility and is generating interest—we’re quite happy with that.”

CF’s innovation roadmap represents one of the more compelling and unique ways digital transformation affects an entire industry. The way Ravel and its apps and features are affecting business for its retail partners is something you won’t be able to find in other real estate companies, mall owners, or really anywhere. CF is not innovating retail itself, but rather the relationship retailers have with their physical spaces. And when that’s applied to the current retail landscape, it creates new opportunities for brands to make up for lost business. 

“That’s the whole notion of this innovation hub,” says Ribau. “We have this capacity to do this kind of thing.”

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