Talking Points

Mark Mason, CEO of Zebra, reflects on his 25 years in retail.

JUST OVER 25 years ago I was happily working at the Burton Group when a press release came onto everybody’s screen (as one of the first businesses in the UK to have email) announcing the Burton Group was about to split from Debenhams and that the group itself would be renamed Arcadia Group.

Part of that transformation was a review of all services, including the design and development division. Six months later, RGH Management, later renamed Zebra Projects was formed.

In many ways, those dramatic and sudden changes perfectly reflect the constant and seismic changes that have challenged and helped reinvent retail and hospitality ever since. The internet barely existed. We didn’t believe it would have such a significant effect on retail. Yes, people would purchase books or CDs online, but clothing? Never.

UK retailers expand overseas

It was the expansion of UK retailers that took us and British design outside the UK. Globalisation was just starting, with brands looking to grow outside their domestic market for the first time. During that period, what we did was quite basic – fixturing, mannequins and graphics were all shipped from the UK from the host brand and would arrive six weeks later. Drawings would take three days to arrive via DHL.

Major malls such as Dubai Mall in the UAE and The Avenues in Kuwait are still thriving.

The American brands didn’t really appear until the financial crisis, when all of a sudden they were very keen to expand. For our part, that’s when Zebra really changed because we’d opened an office in Dubai in 2006, with a team able to provide local design development and implementation. We were used to taking brands out of their domestic market and adapting them for international markets as that had become our USP, as had working in a unique triangular relationship of: brand; local partner; and Zebra.

This also led us to opening more offices to better service those brands. We opened a US office in 2017 in Phoenix, Arizona – a great place to test the market and make sure we could adapt our business model for the US – then an East Coast office in New York in 2021, with an office in Miami also planned. Away from the US, Hong Kong followed in 2019 and, last year, Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.

The design industry has had to take a global view. London is still an attractive city, while New York I would argue is the centre of retail, counterbalanced by Milan and Paris for the luxury retail sector. The more creative retail trends can be found in California, in LA or San Francisco. And then you’ve got the key markets of Asia. You can’t underestimate the creative strength of Tokyo, Seoul, Shanghai or Bangkok.

Malls were still being built in the UK and US 25 years ago. Today, many are being repurposed – but not everywhere. Where a mall has a critical mass, or serves a distinct catchment area or customer group, contains the right brands, is well designed and accessible, it continues to thrive. Dubai Mall in the UAE and The Avenues in Kuwait illustrate this well, but equally the same success is evident in smaller lifestyle malls around the world.

Major malls such as Dubai Mall in the UAE and The Avenues in Kuwait are still thriving.

If malls can continue to be part of our everyday life, so can department stores. Even 25 years ago, their days were apparently numbered, yet Selfridges in London or El Palacio de Hierro in Mexico are both still very relevant, continue to grow, develop and reinvent themselves, providing new products, brands, services and experiences in a unique environment.

The merger of retail and hospitality into essentially lifestyle has also been a key development, aligned with the rise of social media. The Instagram moment has become huge with food and the environment around a food hall or restaurant has to be very strong. The interior/environment has to seamlessly link with the brand values and the brand message on social media. You can’t just look at the physical – you’ve got to link it with technology and social media.

Rebalancing retail

Amid these industry changes came Covid, the ultimate disrupter. That altered things because for retail the internet became king. We had to respond, delivery became a key component of every new project, we began reimagining/redesigning drive thru restaurants again. Everything that we knew and that was standard was turned on its head. Once you’ve got such a big disrupter, it takes time to rebalance, but the market always bounces back, just in a different way.

That’s where we’ve been over the last maybe 18–24 months, depending on the country. And there’s definitely been an increase in retail work, focused around fewer stores, based on the guest experience. In the UK specifically, it would be interesting to see how many more traditional stores might open if the playing field between online and physical was level, with the true costs associated with online purchases and returns passed to customers, and the taxation system more fairly spread.

The shopfront of Charlotte Tilbury at the high-end Dubai Mall

What seems inevitable is that disruption will continue. AI will definitely have an effect, speeding up the design process even further. If we think over the last 25 years, processes have got faster and clients expect more and more in less time. In the future, AI will allow us do things differently and much faster.

Covid also reminded us that people do like physical space and, although they’re very comfortable with technology, they like physical interaction. The demarcation between retail, hospitality, physical and virtual space are no longer present. We can visit a store or mall; purchase goods in a traditional way, or online in-store and have them delivered at home; order lunch at a digital kiosk, collect it from the counter and enjoy dining in a physical environment so good that we want to share it with our friends and family via social media – it’s a hugely complex environment.

Sustainability has also become central. I can recall 25 years ago we used to do store refurb work every three years and would start again every five years. It’s now about trying to put the infrastructure in place for it to last far longer and the overall process to be far more sustainable.

For a project, even ten years ago, we would ship goods around the world. Our objective now is to source in country, reduce shipping time, reduce the environmental impact through local materials and finishes sourced locally. It’s one of the reasons we have a number of global offices, so we can think globally but act and implement locally, giving our clients and their customers the best of both in an ever-changing retail world.

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