Wednesday, January 18, 2012

West Edmonton Mall's Anna Alfonso

I always love to explore the business aspect of fashion and retailing. I think it covers an aspect of the industry that is just as critical to the success of a brand as the artistic perspective that we are all so accustomed to hearing about. I had the amazing opportunity to interview Anna Alfonso, head of marketing for North America's largest indoor mall (West Edmonton Mall), for the University of Alberta School of Business' monthly publication, Lazy Faire. Enjoy!
For years, the West Edmonton Mall (WEM) has been at the forefront of retail destinations in North America, perhaps even the world. “The Greatest Indoor Show on Earth”, WEM has proven to be a cultural wonderland of sorts, providing consumers with a diverse range of experiences to indulge in. With an impressive roster of entertainment facilities, ten world-class attractions, two hotels, a hundred dining venues, and over 800 retailors, this local business is a force to be reckoned with. We sat down with Anna Alfonso, senior manager of marketing, to discuss WEM’s offerings and the changing retail landscape.

Lazy Faire: Can you explain the scope of your responsibilities?
Anna Alfonso: I’m the senior manager of marketing, which covers mall as well as hotel marketing. Our marketing department is multi-faceted, in terms of the structure. We have retail marketing, which is where you see the fashion focus and category campaigns (beauty tenants, shoe tenants, destination campaigns, etc.) Our job as destination marketers is to educate consumers on what’s available in the mall. With events, one of our goals is to be a celebrity destination in Canada and North America. Most recently we had Selena Gomez here, which drew in about 10,000 people - and she didn’t even perform, it was purely an autograph session! Our goal is to really be that celebrity destination and create that fan experience. Then we also have our attractions. With the addition of our ropes course, we now have 10 attractions, and our responsibility is to market them properly and make sure that they’re busy. Tourism also falls under our marketing umbrella. We have a tourism marketing specialist, and fall primarily under what is called the “Rubber Tire” market, which applies to anyone within a 2-8 hour drive from Edmonton. Those are our #1 markets.

LF: How is WEM trying to position and market itself?
AA: It really depends on the audience, but when you walk around the shopping center, you see this great equation of stores that help to reinforce the mall as a true shopping destination. Ultimately, when people leave the shopping centre, we want them to leave with a positive story, which can be done through the shopping experience, the fan experience, and more.

LF: Has the target audience changed over the years?
AA: I think consumers change, but really, people’s intentions stay the same. You have the intention to shop, travel, spend time with family, and try new indoor adventures. What changes is the climate that we live in. I think with the recession, what changed was that people started to look a lot for value, and that value equation is what’s important today. It’s like that, “price plus what” mentality. People aren’t only looking for something that’s inexpensive, but also the convenience and quality of it, that little extra something that will make them purchase a product.

LF: It is interesting how the mall originally took inspiration from the Persian bazaars when it was first being built. It seems like WEM is more a cultural destination and experience of sorts, rather than just a big box with a bunch of stores.
AA: We hold many different experiences in the mall. For example, for Chinese New Year, we have a whole weekend where we host a trade show in the Ice Palace with dancing and other cultural activities. It is that place where you can experience really anything!

LF: It seems that the other major malls in Edmonton are trying to rebrand themselves as retail destinations for consumers to indulge in. How does WEM stay competitive?
AA: Again, the underlying factor is that consumers want something more. That word “more” is always in the mentality of consumers purchasing something. For us, our competitive edge is that we offer more. That’s just the difference between us and other shopping centres. Not only do we have retailers, but also exclusive retailers (like Anthropologie and Scotch & Soda), as well as other experiences – family experiences, dining destinations, etc. And so, that answers the question that consumers have of “who has more” – we do.

LF: There has also been a large influx of popular American retailers introduced in the mall. WEM seems to be at the forefront of introducing these great brands to the Canadian audience, with stores such as Victoria’s Secret and Abercrombie & Fitch. How are you able to land such exclusives within the Canadian market?
AA: From a marketing perspective, in terms of new stores that are coming in, American retailers come here specifically to Edmonton, over Toronto and Vancouver, because they experience success here. It’s a great way for them to come into the marketplace. The sheer amount of traffic and exposure that these brands get here, they wouldn’t be able to get anywhere else. We, as a marketing team, take that and always try to amplify it - working with these retailers to create events and using our marketing platforms to ensure that everyone is coming here. It’s this combination of aspects that retailers won’t be able to get anywhere else.

LF: It seems that you are also trying to expand on live entertainment, with artists such as Keith Urban and Selena Gomez having made appearances. Is the mall trying to diversify even more?
AA: We definitely are. That whole fan experience comes with a connection to celebrity. We’ve been successful in executing these kinds of events by working with record labels and other organizations to bring them here. Generating a crowd of 15,000 for artists like Keith Urban encourages them even more to come and perform for our audience. It’s been a very positive experience and we would love to have more celebrities.

LF: Our theme this issue is “Celebration”. WEM has much to celebrate with its successes and outstanding reputation.
AA: We love to celebrate, and we’re lucky that we can do it. But also, we work for it. We make sure that everything is executed properly and that our retailers, especially our new and exclusive ones, are supported. Last week we did a fall fashion segment with CTV and included Scotch & Soda, which is one of our newest tenants. We want to be able to include all our exclusive retailers because those are our points of distinction. They are our competitive edge with other shopping centres.

LF: WEM is the largest mall in North America, and at one point, was the largest in the world. Does this come into play when marketing the mall?
AA: I think that when you’re using these superlatives, they’re interesting points for people to know. Certainly, when we’re marketing ourselves to the tourism industry, we add all of these “Did You Know” facts because they’re interesting, true things about us that no one else can really say.

LF: We’ve heard that the amount of traffic the mall receives during the holiday season could qualify it as one of Alberta’s largest cities, if it were one?
AA: Oh, definitely. If you think of just the number of employees working in the shopping centre, it’s like a small city. From a marketing point of view, we always need to think of that. We need to market internally, as well, to all of our tenants about everything we’re doing so that they, in turn, can talk about what we’re doing. So that whole idea of being a city definitely plays a role in how we communicate to our tenants.

LF: It’s cool because, with this integrative aspect, you’re working as a community with the tenants internally, as well as consumers externally.
AA: Yes absolutely. It’s really important for us to build local relationships and to be involved in events in the community. We want to be able to do that. With partnerships, again, we provide a different audience, which is why it also worked for events like Western Canada Fashion Week, because we provided these up and coming designers with a different audience from what they were used to. Their ultimate goal is to be here, to be selling their clothes here, so it was a different way of marketing themselves.

LF: What do consumers have to look forward to from the mall during the holidays, in regards to their experience at the mall?
AA: Santa’s coming! We also have a holiday service centre where people can come in and wrap their gifts, as well as two “Moonlight Madnesses”, which is where we’re open until 11pm. Our holiday gift guide will also be out, which will be distributed in the Metro and VueWeekly, as well as the mall. We’re also doing a fashion show with the Bay to promote their new brands!

LF: As a leader in the business community, WEM also gives back through various initiatives. Can you elaborate on this? Why is this important?
AA: We support a lot of various charities within the community. It’s really important for us to be supporting our community – so we contribute not only dollars, but also experiences, to various communities. After the Slave Lake fires, we had a free day at Galaxy Land for all of the evacuees because they were all here. As a leader in the community, it’s a very important part of who we are because that’s who’s here.

LF: What do consumers have to look forward to in the future with WEM?
AA: We’re always just trying to up the ante and do better than what we’ve done before, always learning.

LF: If you could give any advice to our business students, what would it be?
AA: My advice would be to always be true to yourself. In marketing, who you are is what people will believe. You can say all these marketing terms, but if you’re leading a team, you have to make sure that this aspect comes through.  My advice is to be true, be honest, and be authentic!

By: Lance Chung

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