20 december 2021 in

It’s all about the shopping experience

The extent of the pandemic’s impact on shopping centres.

It’s all about the shopping experience

Together with Toon De Meester, Operations Director of Retail Property Management at CEUSTERS, we examine the extent of the pandemic’s impact on shopping centres and take a look at the innovative ideas that emerged as a result. Will we soon be shopping in a completely different way?



The coronavirus crisis came as a huge economic blow to shopping centres – places that unite catering and retail outlets. “For many shoppers, lockdown meant an end to their ‘regular outing.’ And then there was all the hassle with face masks, disinfecting your hands, social distancing, a limited number of people per shop… It made shopping a lot less pleasant,” Toon De Meester says. “The activity just wasn’t the same as before, no matter how hard the retailers and organisations involved worked on all kinds of scenarios to combine health and safety with shopping comfort.”

Foto Toon De Meester

Luckily, early September 2020 brought a turnaround. For a while, things seemed as if they might be back to normal again…

Toon De Meester: “We witnessed a sharp increase in visitor numbers. At the same time, however, all these additional measures and provisions put enormous invisible pressure on retailers. This was quickly followed by a new semi-lockdown. Everyone then worked extremely hard to make shopping go smoothly via click & collect systems. All kinds of online platforms were set up at almost unprecedented speed. But it turned out that customers don’t really take to this kind of shopping. Precisely because it was at odds with the traditional shopping experience, and certainly because food and drinks establishments stayed shut. The fact that this happened during the most commercially interesting period of the year was an additional major setback.”

What had always seemed to be the major advantage – no need to worry about rain or bad weather – became shopping centres’ Achilles heel. Because everything in shopping centres happens indoors...

“The presence of cafés and restaurants is a huge attraction for shopping centres, but of course they have no – or hardly any – outdoor terraces. While the air quality in our shopping centres is constantly monitored, these establishments still weren’t able to open their doors. People are now talking about the introduction of mandatory CO2 meters; But we’ve already been using these in shopping centres for 10 years…”

Retailers and their staff have shown incredible resilience throughout the whole pandemic.

“Complete closure, reopening with measures, click & collect, shopping by appointment,... We’ve seen it all. Each system demanded a different approach. That’s very tasking, especially if you combine it with customers who feel like they’re walking on eggshells under all these difficult circumstances. Retailers deserve the greatest respect for their agility and commitment. The same goes for the obliging attitude and goodwill of the owners. Luckily, there are plenty of indications that once all Covid measures have been lifted, everything will take off again. Naturally, we hope that retailers will finally be able to experience another outstanding end-of-year period in 2021. They’ve really earned it.”


The crisis as an opportunity

It is an economic law that a harsh crisis opens the door to new initiatives. But are things that simple for the concept of shopping centres?

“Our shopping centres have proven that the world belongs to the daring and the innovative. Concepts such as Fitchen and La Boutique in K in Kortrijk or O Taco’s and Asie A Tik in Les Grand Prés in Mons are all responding to the new ‘healthy fast food’ trend. These are attractive concepts for the younger generations, who are ultimately the customers of the future. The importance of food and drinks cannot and should never be underestimated for shopping centres. Businesses that respond to the latest trends will naturally – and quite rightly so – have a head start. The fact that people have the courage to open new businesses even in the most difficult times is certainly to be welcomed. This also shows that retailers themselves strongly believe in the future of shop- ping centres.”

In many sectors, there has been an extra focus on marketing. Does this also apply to shopping centres?


“If customers can’t make it to stores, it goes without saying that you need to focus more strongly on marketing and communication. That way, you maintain your relationship with existing customers or create one with potential customers. The more creative the communication, the greater the effect and connection, as this past year showed. In addition to pure Covid communication, major steps were taken in terms of social media and databases in particular. Because of this, shopping centres can now get in touch with consumers much faster than before.”

Wijnegem even took things a step further with a genuine augmented reality app.

“This is a first for the country, and we at Ceusters are very proud of this. Together with a team of developers, we created an application that combined indoor GPS and gaming. Starting in September 2021, visitors will not only be able to easily find their way around the shopping centre with this app, they will also be able to ‘catch’ all kinds of logos by scanning the space. These logos contain a discount or entitle them to something fun. This will make shopping in Wijnegem a bit more of a family outing and allow youngsters to save some money by cashing in on discounts!” (laughs)

“At Ceusters, we are convinced that once everything returns to normal, consumers won’t easily be satisfied with that normal life.” TDM

The shopping experience is becoming even more important than before, in other words.

“The crisis has taught us that it is crucial to pay the utmost attention to the shopping experience itself, which should be brilliant under any circumstances. At Ceusters, we are convinced that once everything returns to normal, consumers won’t easily be satisfied with that normal life. This is forcing us to work on the details of our manage- ment more than ever before.”

Can we already estimate the long- term impact of the coronavirus crisis on shopping centres?

“We’ll keep feeling the effects of the measures that were imposed for a while longer, there’s no doubt about that. Retailers have had to drastically cut their margins to be able to survive, but owners too have made great efforts to support their tenants. This latter aspect remains somewhat underexposed today. And wrongly so, be- cause we’re talking about large sums of money being written off. Of course, these organisations also have their own obligations, which put them under pressure to continue to guarantee the health of their own business. For this reason, projects were often postponed. We’ll probably see quite a bit of catching up in the next few years.”

In the coming years, the sustainability story will undoubtedly be further still be developed.

“With good management in mind, we are always committed to the monitoring and far-reaching optimisation of shared charges. Which is why we can present excellent results for the consumption of electricity, gas and water at each of our sites. But our sustainability story goes further than that. Employment also fits into this context. A shopping centre guarantees the employment of low-skilled people and therefore has a strong social impact. We’re working closely with social organisations like VDAB or Weerwerk to be able to quickly get back on track. We strongly believe that focusing on the long term and applying a sustainable approach is the most beneficial for all stakeholders and we will therefore keep investing in strong partnerships with our clients, tenants and customers.”



Positivity following tough times

Stefanie Van den Rul and Axel Ceusters are both COO at Ceusters:

“I mainly focus on property management, while Axel oversees retail, shopping centres and the commercial side of things,” Stefanie Van den Rul says. “We manage 1,300 retail leases, with a total of 6,000 leases on our books. This makes us the largest manager of retail property in Belgium. We’ve had a remarkable 18 months, to put it mildly, with all the inevitable ups and downs. In May, we noticed people started to resume their old habits. One month later, as the catering sector reopened, we were already back at 90% of our pre-pandemic figures. We know this because we collect and monitor all possible data, figures and visitor numbers very carefully.”

“To this, we add strong marketing efforts. The European trade association (former ICSC Europe) has already awarded us the title of ‘best in class’ for shopping centre marketing on several occasions,” Axel Ceusters adds. “There are plenty of reasons for positivity, which is more than welcome after a very tough period. A small anecdote to illustrate my point: my daughter was born on 17 March 2020. Literally a few hours before the country went into full lockdown. Unfortunately, we had to put some employees on temporary leave. I contacted all of them myself. As a family business, we attach great importance to a human approach. You should never shirk away your responsibilities in difficult times. When it came to the shopping centres, we also had to try to reduce costs – like security or energy costs – as much as possible. And we continuously had to keep our international clients informed of what was happening in Belgium.”

Operationally, one challenge was quickly followed by another. “In those very early days, we had to order 200,000 face masks when they were barely available, for example. We managed to get them, partly thanks to the excellent cooperation with the highly committed owners. We also had to constantly prepare for the ever-changing measures. We wouldn’t find out until 11pm what was in the ministerial decree that would take effect the next day. Not to mention all the other local bans and obligations… The incredible resilience all those involved demonstrated at the time is truly deserving of praise,” Axel Ceusters says.

Foto ACEFoto SVR



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