Written by Duncan Jefferies
A network infrastructure can be the difference between a successful and an unsuccessful new shopping centre, Duncan Jefferies observes.
In 1965, one of Europe's first covered shopping centres opened for business at the Elephant and Castle. Although voted London's ugliest building by readers of Time Out in 2005, it nevertheless helped kickstart a revolution in retail. Today a
shopping centre such as Leicester's Highcross is visited by over 18.5 million people a year. And just as architectural tastes have moved on from the soviet aesthetic that led to the Elephant and Castle Shopping Centre's 'ugly' tag, so too has the technology that ensures the continual smooth running of a modern complex.
"Ten or 15 years ago we used to talk about business critical networking; now there's no such thing as a non-business critical network," says Peter Williams, senior consultant at Redstone Communications, who implemented the mixed copper and fibre IP network at Highcross. "Everybody relies heavily on everything from email to instant messaging to actually do business these days," he adds, claiming modern IP networks are "absolutely bulletproof", with the widespread adoption of IP Telephony demonstrating that retailers are now confident that they are robust enough to handle anything.
Billed as the UK's most technologically advanced shopping centre, Highcross places a single IP network at the heart of the building to support functions such as security, access control, customer facing applications, and environmental monitoring. Andrew Thomson, operations director at Highcross real estate owner Hammerson, described the deployment as "unique" for using a pervasive IP infrastructure to run multiple systems, and said "there were those who doubted it could be done" when the refurbishment was completed in November 2008 last year. Nick Blofeld, head of Cisco's Connected Real Estate Division, agrees, stating that until recently the network infrastructure of a shopping centre was often an afterthought. "By that point, any chance of getting true intelligence out of the technology is reduced...Having an upfront approach delivers the sort of benefits you see at Highcross."
Based upon Cisco's Connected Real Estate principles and managing third party system connectivity utilising specialist commissioning software, the Highcross IP network is designed to be as future-proof as possible through the use of open standards; new IP-based services can easily be added. "Whether we're talking about adding building centric applications sitting on the network, or the latest services for visitors or tenants, they've got an infrastructure in place that allows them to do that with ease."
At Birimingham's Bull Ring shopping centre, one of the biggest and busiest in the UK with over 150 stores, thin client web terminals are installed in every retail unit, providing tenants with a broadband internet connection, and access to additional IP services on an ad-hoc, price per port basis. "News and information bulletins are posted onto the system, as well as the retailer handbook, contact details, communication channels, email and facilities whereby if certain services are required from centre contractors, requests can be forwarded and drafted through the system," says Ben Darji, network manager at the Bull Ring, who helped develop the building's advanced IT infrastructure along with Cisco, Redstone, SRM and the Birmingham Alliance.
According to Darji, the IT infrastructure at the Bull Ring has been used as a template for other recent shopping centre developments. "The retailers here are absolutely integrated with the network. Each has an intranet system which is connected to the Bull Ring's network. Through this we can provide them with performance information, sales data, statistical reporting, etc. It also enables them to enter their own sales figures for us. It's opened up the communication channels between centre management and retailers very effectively." Retail tenants are provided with total footfall data for the building, including year-on-year and week-on-week comparisons. "That historical data allows them to better understand their own performance."
But as Mike Bielinski, CEO at Vodat International, a retail telecommunications provider whose clients include Warehouse, Jaeger and Beaverbrooks, says, security and control concerns can limit how far retailers take integration with a shopping centre network. "The first issue, and the most important one, is security: retailers will not risk putting their traffic over a network which could be insecure." Vodat constantly monitors the end devices on a client's network. "We instantly know if there's an issue with an EPoS terminal, for example, so we can flag that and deal with it fairly quickly. That's a service that would have to be
provided whoever was running their network."
The Highcross development has 500 IP networked CCTV cameras which, aside from their security function, can also provide accurate real-time data on the number of people entering or exiting a shopping centre, thereby helping managers better understand buying behaviour. This type of footfall analysis is
one of the key metrics used in the retail industry. By combining
this data with sales figures, centre managers and retailers can quickly gain
insight into who is buying what, when and where.
This can prove useful when approaching potential retail tenants, says Williams. "As well as counting people coming in and out, you can also see where they're going. It could be that an area that people dwell around actually becomes prime real estate for a shopping centre. They could turn round to a coffee kiosk
and say: "We've got people sat there, why not try and sell them some coffee?"
Blofeld claims one of the main areas of focus for any future shopping centre network is the sustainability and environmental benefits it will deliver. "Because of the footprint of these open networks, it allows you to get visibility right across the shopping centre, so you can see where energy is being consumed, how it is being consumed, etc...With the network we've got at Highcross, we can immediately begin to use that approach to ensure that energy is being used intelligently within that environment."
He says any reluctance among retailers to further integrate their networks with the shopping centre is more a cultural issue rather than a technological one. "When you're talking about a multi-national retailer, they naturally have
their processes pretty much set in terms of the way they operate - they have a set model for certain types of outlet. But increasingly that's changing, particularly in light of the green agenda where there is a common motivation to share