My own "mini retail MBA"
About a year ago, I held my regular quarterly meeting with a long standing client. He had just returned from a two week retail industry conference called the Westfield World Retail Study Tour and was clearly energized, focused and visibly excited. He shared with me many of his incredible experiences while visiting the sights and sounds of the best retail shopping centres and high streets in London, New York, Paris, Milan and Tokyo.

The travelling retail conference was sponsored by the Westfield Group. Westfield is an Australian based shopping centre owner and developer with 105 centres and a stable of 22,000 retail units in Australia, New Zealand, United Kingdom, United States and Brazil. Annually since 1996, approximately 40 retail executives across every dimension of the retail industry have experienced and shared fresh insights and learning after visiting the best examples of the world's bricks and mortar retailers in world class urban cities. The program is intended to be a 'mini MBA of retail' and my client surely felt that he gained great knowledge to apply to his business and most importantly the inspiration to share his experiences with his colleagues and associates.

My retail career, like many in our industry, has also allowed me to see the best of the best in retail stores and concepts, although not in such a condensed and intense schedule. In my travels throughout Europe and North and South America, I have sought out the best shopping centres and luxury rows of street stores that are contained in many major market cities. We truly live in a global market place. However, the similarities of customers habits, merchandise aspirations, and the abundance of globally expanding retailers does result in cocooning us from fresh new ideas, differentiations of cultures, emerging fashion trends and styles, and new products and designs.

I have recently experienced my own 'mini retail MBA'. Emerging markets, not world class retail was my choice of 'study' - Vietnam and Cambodia. These two historically war torn and impoverished countries are on a path of economic and political reforms, pushing toward integration into the world economy. Last year's GDP for both countries showed growth of over 12%. Industries are now flocking in as a cheaper labour alternative to China. As their economies expand, there are clear signs of an emerging middle class which brings along with it the consumer goods and venues to service their needs.

The current retail industry in both countries can be best described as individual & family 'entrepreneurial'. The lack of gainful employment coupled with a large amount of poverty has created a vibrant retail industry made up of street and market vendors. These micro-enterprises absorb large numbers of surplus labour that provide the urban population with high accessibility to low cost and inexpensive food, goods and services. The very few 'shopping centres' are vertical extensions of the street markets and storefronts. They have the same product and service offerings but are housed in modern five & six story buildings, usually with a ground floor anchor grocery store and small independent retail businesses above.

The surge of the consumer class is about to transform retail in these countries. By 2020, 24 shopping malls, of which 20 will be built in Cambodia and 4 in Vietnam will be financed and erected by Japanese specialist developer Aeon. In addition to shopping centre development, Aeon operates 180 companies that include retail supermarkets, department stores, specialty stores and amusement & entertainment facilities. Its network covers a vast amount of south-east Asia including Japan, China, Malaysia and soon Vietnam and Cambodia. Their shopping centre vision is to cater to the young and upwardly mobile market. Their centres will introduce into the markets internationally recognized brands housed in 150 large retail units aligned with 1,000 plus seat movie complexes and entertainment venues. Clearly the strategy is to target the younger generation and encourage competition to drive the continued growth of their economies. The dawn of the shopping mall and the resulting rise of the consumer middle class will lead to long term economic growth. Aeon's strategic philosophy is 'to create malls that enhance the quality of life, stimulate local economic activity and contribute to community life and culture' - a welcome sight in this part of the world.

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