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Episode 039 : 12/02/2021

Daniel Aizenman, Stantec

Daniel Aizenman is a Senior Principal at Stantec, where his team envisions and creates delightful retail and commerce spaces through architectural design. His team focuses on connection and community as they build out the future of the retail experience.

Host: Ned Hayes and Ashley Coates
Guest: Daniel Aizenman

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Topics discussed in this episode

  • The importance of collaboration to the design process  
  • During the pandemic, Stantec spent a lot of time understanding what was going through people’s minds to provide a better overall design
  • A big game-changer for urban retail is an enhanced experience on the sidewalk and the disappearance of the car
  • Even today, malls have the opportunity to connect to the urban core of a city

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Audio Transcript

Ned Hayes [00:00:01] Welcome to SparkPlug, where we talk to smart people working at the intersection of business and technology. Brought to you by SnowShoe your smarter loyalty leader. SparkPlug is happy to come into December this year with Daniel Aizenman, who is a Senior Principal in visioning and branding at Stantec. He has an architectural background and he designs beautiful experiences that delight shoppers and customers of merchants of all sizes. Daniel has insights to share with us about experiential design and transforming retail spaces into welcoming environments. So welcome, Daniel. 

Ashley Coates [00:00:43] Thanks so much for joining us today, Daniel. You want to kick things off by telling us a little bit about yourself?

Daniel Aizenman [00:00:49] Sure. Obviously, my name is Daniel Aizenman. I’m a Senior Principal at Stantec shipping brands and experiences or for sort of bive Boulder Colorado. And I lead a group of multidisciplinary design and architecture planning, landscape interior design, branding, environmental graphic signage, wayfinding industrial design. Basically, the full gamut from a design standpoint, and we approach projects from an ideation to creativity, and we use design as a tool to convey our ideas and most of the work that we do is highly public environments that have a lot of people embedded in them, whether it’s an urban sort of district or a shopping center or an arena or sort of an airport, perhaps people that requiring a lot of curated environment around them. That’s where we specialize there. That’s how many of these disciplines that I’ve mentioned are required to see the world that way, similar to the general population does, you know, they don’t see in disciplines, they see this as they see environments, and that’s where we’re grade. 

Ashley Coates [00:01:52] Fantastic and can you give us an example or a few examples of some of the businesses or facilities that you work with? 

Daniel Aizenman [00:01:58] Sure. So over the years, with probably just about every category of project, that’s maybe the one that we haven’t touched to just some specific examples. We’re just finishing or about to almost finished McGregor Square mixed use project for the Colorado Rockies here in downtown Denver, next to force field, which is one city block mixed use project organized around the content Plaza said Denver’s first outdoor environment to come and celebrate surrounding this plaza, you have hotel condominiums, office, 80,000 square feet of retail, primarily food and beverage entertainment. And then the content plaza itself, which is a place for a concerts and events, TikToks, symphony movies. Anything happening that we plan on a number of events around it, so content is where we spend a lot of our time, and we think that content is the reason why people go to an environment and they want to be heard, they want to learn, they want to participate, and they want to be part of a community and all in a great setting that offers all the all the right qualities. And so that’s one of the projects we’re working on right now. We’re working for the San Antonio Spurs, district around their arena. But a year ago, we finished some of the design for the New York Islanders hockey arena and their entertainment district, working on some affordable housing projects in Detroit as well that require a lot of thinking, large project a lot of acreage working right now. A phenomenal project in the island of Holbox in Mexico, in the Yucatan Peninsula, where we’re creating probably what’s going to be the most sustainable resort in the history of this planet. That’s how high we’re aiming and creating a new destination within Mexico, unlike anything. 

Ned Hayes [00:03:39] Wow. Well, in that description of your clients and the environments that you serviced, you talked about a place nurturing us. So one thing that I know over the last couple of years as the pandemic hit, people left facilities. I mean, I work in a probably 30 story building here in this probably twenty seven people and the whole damn building. So, you know, people have less physical facilities that must have been a challenge for you. What were the hardest challenges when we went into lockdowns for your kind of work? 

Daniel Aizenman [00:04:08] To me, as a design leader with a staff, the biggest challenges were collaboration. You can’t forget the effectiveness of the casual conversation in the studio seeing somebody’s computer or striking sort of a casual conversation in the hall or in the lunch room kind of thing in solving a problem quickly. So to me, that was the challenge that collaboration. Most print design happens as a result of good accidents we call them where you trace the line of paper and then all of a sudden somebody trace the line and said, Oh, hey, it’s back to something interesting, right? So those things are not happening as a result of it’s really tough from that standpoint. Today is one of the first things that I have, I would say 90 percent of the staff in my office is here today and I’m feeling really energized. I think all this is for the good. I think our, the work were pretty boring, they got really boring. They got sort of none conducive to experimentation, not conducive to collaboration. And I think this is going to push everybody to sort of rethink how they see the world and how they spend their days. 

Ashley Coates [00:05:07] Absolutely. And what has the experience of working with health care facilities during these times been like? 

Daniel Aizenman [00:05:14] So my company Stantec is a very large company, we have a twenty two thousand person company that I think kind of section of the Earth Stantec touches everything from the atmosphere and the core of the Earth. So we have a lot of disciplines that work in multiple places. The health care sector is one specific one, of which I touch randomly, primarily on the customer experience. But during the pandemic, we spend a lot of time understanding what was going through people’s minds, as to having to interact with the hospital as they entered an emergency center, a pandemic center for that matter. Our folks in Chicago created sort of pop up hospital in one of the parking garages and in conference centers so that all of a sudden added a lot of reality to what our role in the community was. Our health care sector was really active from that standpoint, from my standpoint of what I do, the customer experience and the journey of a person traveling these facilities, the signage, the graphics, the findings, the amenities that you would use in order to protect yourself and not try to dodge or to act accordingly. What was on my mind throughout all this time is making sure that we’re acting accordingly and feeling safe in enclosed environments. If you don’t have the reminders around you in the amenities and things, you need to act accordingly, you don’t do it. It’s almost the thing when you walk into a restaurant and nobody’s wearing a mask, all of a sudden you don’t feel comfortable wearing a mask. But if you walk into a restaurant and the instructions are clear and people are wearing their masks, at least when they’re sitting down or in an enclosed environment when they’re walking around and there’s a hand sanitizer that’s not touching doors and just pushing them, methods of circulating so that people would flow quickly out of an environment and cut the time that somebody would spend indoors. Those are the things that were on my mind. We produced a number of think pieces along the lines for multiple sectors. One was getting back to health care. The reality is that we started with one that was called getting back to social, which was how do we get back to socially in a meaningful way where people feel comfortable? And how do we get back to production? How do we get back to health care? How do we get back to education? How do we get back right? How do we do this in a thoughtful way? So that’s where we spent time during the pandemic on. 

[00:07:21] Wow. Well, so let’s talk about pathways through a facility since you mentioned them. What’s a sample of a creative way to move visitors from end to end? 

Daniel Aizenman [00:07:32] Well, to me, the most creative way is making sure they’re entertained from A to B. The worst thing that can happen, this happens to boring things, say you’re walking in an urban district and you’re sort of in the part of the street where there’s active storefronts and the restaurants and people and there’s merchandizing, and all of a sudden there’s a gap on the street and you keep walking and all of a sudden that gap on the street that is not active, all of a sudden you lose interest in walking and you turn around you then get to point B. We’re like fish on every five to 10 seconds. There’s not something interesting along the way. We lose traction and we go back. So I think it’s you kind to keep people entertained and engaged along the best. 

Ned Hayes [00:08:14] Well, I know that in a recent blog post, you mentioned how some malls didn’t adjust to omnichannel. They didn’t improve the customer experience and therefore weren’t competitive. So they saw a decline in customer experience and traffic and sales. And so why did those facilities not adjust, not kind of move into the future? What held them back? 

Daniel Aizenman [00:08:37] A number of things. I think the first one is complacency was an industry that got very complacent. An industry that thought sometimes in the early 2000s, that they had conquer the world and nothing was going to beat them. The internet showed up and started chipping away slowly, slowly and these people thought, Hey, there’s a threat here, but I’m not going to think, how am I going to make my product or my experience better? I don’t believe this is going to happen sort of a little bit in denial. And before you know it, upwards of somewhere between 17 and 26 percent of all purchases are going to happen online in the very near future. So these places forgot what mattered to the customer experience. They get complacent and lazy to a certain degree, particularly the big department stores that were reliant on just say, Hey, put the product there, fill it up, have some mediocre lying here, people will come because we have a lot of stuff here and just does not work that is not engaging. There’s a very big difference between shopping and strolling while shopping. I think if you’re going to shop and just this might as well go online and do it there, it’s going to be faster. You’re going anywhere you want. If not, you’re going to go out and return it versus let’s create an experience around that. Let’s enjoy the activity of shopping. Let’s add more things to and let’s educate people along the way. Let’s enlighten them, let’s wow them. Let’s add texture. Let’s have music. Let’s add art. Let’s add a better experience from a product placement standpoint. Let’s keep them with a great coffee. Let’s keep in for a great meal and a great environment because the longer people stay in the place, the longer they’ll spend. So that specific element, they forgot and I think people started sensing that and they’re saying, you know, there’s nothing that engaging their back in the day. You know, when we were growing up, your mom would say, Hey, maybe you should spend a couple of hours on the mall with your with your friends. Your mom would not let you do that nowadays. You know, your mom doesn’t want you to do that because there’s nothing for you to do there except consume. So I think the paradigm shifted in the mall. It’s hopefully shifting in the mall where your primary activity is not necessarily around shopping, but just being being yourself, be more in a place and then you happen to be shopping around. You know, you happen to have that incidental experience. 

Ned Hayes [00:10:58] Right. So it should be an experience rather than just a destination for shopping. It should be a full meal deal, so to speak. 

Daniel Aizenman [00:11:06] Yeah, that’s exactly right. And shopping centers became a very monocultural environments. When I say monocultural, the only activity you are doing there is just shopping, going to the store and to the next store. You would grab a mediocre slice of pizza and then you would go to the next store. Very monocultural. So it doesn’t work that way. That’s that’s a pretty narrow minded environment in my mind. I think life needs to be a little bit more complex and they need to be more symbiosis between the U.S. So my mind, the more users you add to a shopping district, a shopping environment, the richer gets, the more successful. 

Ashley Coates [00:11:41] So what would be a good example, Daniel, of a shopping experience that isn’t monocultural, any great places that we should think should visit? 

Daniel Aizenman [00:11:49] Yeah. I love the pedestrian malls. And mostly, I live in front of one here on the street mall in Boulder. I look down on into our office design that got 40 years ago when it opened. And it’s a very interesting environment because life appears organically here on the mall, in the mall takes on a lot of different meaning. It’s not just the shopping mall, it’s the Mall of life here. And all of a sudden surrounding this mortgage is residential. There’s offices on the second floors, there’s stores on the ground floor. There’s sort of an underground layer of basement things that are happening all the way from a sort of marijuana store or rare book store. And I got to say there’s even a strip club in one of the underground sites of these buildings. So all of a sudden it’s sort of a natural place. And I really enjoy that, and I think people sense that the place itself is full of buskers. There’s violinists that launch. You’ll find a little band, you’ll find somebody playing a little show. It’s almost become a stage for live, for anybody to come and do their performance, while at the same time the great experience of not just shopping, but sort of average. So all of a sudden life is happening together here. Other places like it, I would say Third Street Promenade or Fifth Street Promenade, I can’t remember,  in Santa Monica is another great example. Some of the high streets in Boston perhaps are really good examples of that. My favorite shopping street is Shenkin Street in Tel-Aviv, for example, sort of a really intimate, little narrow street where a lot of small traffic of mopeds and cycles and cars and a lot of people a little part. Places that have more than just one thing. Certainly, that’s on the urban side of things, the shopping center. There’s some really good examples out there, places that actually are part of the community. They work well. They’re connected to a bigger story, and I think those work well as well. 

Ashley Coates [00:13:37] Well, so you’ve mentioned some of the benefits that malls to work with when it comes to staying relevant there near public transportation routes. They have all this space, ample parking, several things in their favor. Are there any other distinctive characteristics that you think Malls could take advantage of for the next generation of mall experience? 

Daniel Aizenman [00:13:58] Yeah, I mean, certainly I would categorize malls in three ways. One is I’m all of this other core market and a market, and it’s producing extraordinary sales. Those malls are doing incredibly well. Shopping is up. They’re absorbing the market share of these mediocre malls that are closing all over the place. I think we were over retail for a long, long time. Well, I’m going to play it loosely with some numbers here, but I think the U.S. has twenty plus twenty four twenty five square feet of retail per person versus, say, Mexico has three versus Europe has seven. So we were overbuilt in retail. We really never needed that much. So some of these B C class malls are just going to disappear because they were never meant to be there to begin with. And I think that was the over glut that we tend to get in the US and through things. So that is going to disappear on their own. Those are great sites for redevelopment because of the things you mentioned, Ashley, which is there’s great infrastructure around that. They tend to be on great corners in the city or next to a freeway. They have great power sources, great access to water and there’s just a lot of land, right? So that allows you to do a lot of things didn’t evolve over time. So. So I think there’s opportunities for redevelopment. The fundamentals of the market still will play a role. It’s not like you can just convert a mall and turn it into something else. Whatever the market can absorb can absorb what I think is deadly for a mall. And what I think it’s deadly for a city is to turn portions of the mall into an Amazon  warehouse. I think the tax revenues for the city are much less than what, say, having a lot of our residential base or an office base there would do. The Amazon warehouse provide nothing from a social standpoint to the fabric of community. It’s a job source, which is good and maybe easier to access, but I don’t believe it’s the best use, I think those warehouses should stay away from urban cores of public spaces in my mind. There’s room for smaller versions of that. So I think there’s opportunities, malls, they have the opportunity to connect to the urban great of a city. Some of these malls are islands, and they have no streets that meet them. Some of these malls have direct streets that meet them and having that opportunity to grow the urban grid and connect to the mall of a natural thing. And that’s pretty exciting. I think that every mall that has an opportunity to do that should do that. Connect to a bigger system, which is what malls needs to survive. 

Ashley Coates [00:16:19] Yeah, absolutely. Can you speak to the different relationships that various generations have with malls, and I’m thinking specifically about millennials and Gen Z. Do malls still have a place in their lives? 

Daniel Aizenman [00:16:32] Absolutely. Absolutely. You mean the convenience factor over traditional shopping centers? That means you’re looking for a pair of black pants or a red shirt. You’re going to go to the mall and try 10 different brands in a course of forty five minutes. You know, you’re able to try that much online will never give you that. If you’re on a mission, you’re going to leave the mall with something that you’re going to be able to use right away. When it’s online, your risk getting the product and it doesn’t fit, you didn’t like, the fabrics not right, can damage the store return then or let’s go to the mall, go to the store and return it there. I’ll try on for reals. So I think the malls still plays a role. We’ll still be buying goods and services. I think the convenience factor is amazing. I think the malls still plays a critical role in communities. That weather is really inclement, whether it’s hot or it’s snowing, and people still want to be socializing and be in a place that has a bunch of things to do. So from that standpoint, the mall is still a good alternative. I also think that perhaps not so much for the three of us, but, you know, in a rural community or in a smaller city where there’s not a foreign downtown per se like we’re the ones we know and in our cities, the mall plays that role of being the center of community. So I think it has really major role to play. It just needs to get more interesting so that we actually consider it as a better choice. 

Ned Hayes [00:17:55] Right, right. Well, let’s switch gears for a second and talk tech. So over the past few months of doing this podcast, we’ve heard from a number of tech innovators who are kind of changing the face of brick and mortar. So maybe you can unpack a few of these trends. I mean, we’ve heard about, for example, contextually aware computer signage in stores that could recognize what somebody has done and give them a digitally presented sign that reflects what they’ve done. What do you think about that as kind of something that will influence shopping? 

Daniel Aizenman [00:18:26] Well, I think it’s interesting to ads of things that you’re actually interested in. 

Ned Hayes [00:18:30] Mm-Hmm. 

Daniel Aizenman [00:18:31] Because you’re getting ads or you’re walking on a street on stuff that really doesn’t matter to you. 

Ned Hayes [00:18:36] Absolutely. 

Daniel Aizenman [00:18:37] So I think that’s a plus, you know, is it an invasion of privacy? I think we gave that one up a long time ago. And so it feels a little bit weird. It feels like someone’s watching you. Yes, somebody is definitely watching you. Somebody is actually targeting you specifically in your needs and what you want. And as a result, you’re probably going to become a smarter and better shopper. People are getting more educated before they buy. I think technology is helping that. And by the time you actually make a purchase, you’re gonna know a lot more, and you’re going to be a lot more intimate with a product than you’re purchasing as a result of technology. Right. So this omni channel and this expands that start sell your house or that starts on your phone walking on the street and you’re looking down on a product from that point to the moment you actually make the purchase in a bricks and mortar or online, that customer journey is pretty critical. There is a legitimate customer journey that matters there. And I think we’re going to get smarter in that. Integration between bricks and mortars and technology is where the future lies. I think augmented reality is going to start playing in ways that we just still don’t understand how that’s going to be. I think that’s pretty exciting. I think we’re in diapers in augmented reality capacity. So the trend that is what it is. You can’t stop it. The people that sort of say, No, no, I resist. The next generation is going to pick it up no matter what. You better be prepared and creating a multichannel experience that takes into consideration how you measure clicks and bricks, right? 

Ashley Coates [00:20:01] Mhm. How about shopping live stream? So we chatted with ShopShops and what they do is they have someone actually in the store, maybe an influencer, there may be a staff member livestreaming showing the new products, perhaps trying them on talking about the products. And then people can watch and purchase directly from the livestream. 

Daniel Aizenman [00:20:22] That hasn’t hit my radar. But it’s really not that different from Airplane magazine. That shows you a gal or a guy and sort of an attire. And it gives you which product is each one of them, the Ray-Ban glasses. $79.95, you know, go to Ray-Ban dot com to get them kind of thing. It’s just the digital version of that. You click on anything that you actually buy them and you know, it’s somewhat of an. The concept not really in my mind, but, you know, the fundamentals of retail, no matter what eyeballs and footfalls, the more eyeballs and footfalls you have in a place virtual or in-person is what makes it successful. So driving traffic is the fundamental here. Remember that you get that done in a meaningful way, that people find that sort of comfortable, unobtrusive, pleasant experience. I’m all for that, right? 

Ned Hayes [00:21:08] So thinking of future pleasant experiences, if we could ask you to look at the future. What do you think the future of spaces look like? You know, five, 10 years out, I know things are changing. New buildings are going up. What’s changing in both construction and in the kind of physical experience of being in a built environment? 

Daniel Aizenman [00:21:27] I think the biggest game changer for retail and I’m talking about the urban retail, perhaps even the shopping center later on. But the urban retail is the experience on the sidewalk, the increase of the sidewalk in the disappearance of the car. Things are not going to be car centric in the future. Most of our project, we’re not thinking of the car anymore. We’re trying to get it out of the way as quickly as possible so that people can actually just stroll and appreciate everything that is unique about the environment that they’re in. So when there’s no cars, people come down and they let their kids run and you’re able to sort of spend time in different ways. You’re able to actually look, you’re not distracted by the coming car. So I think that’s a big shift that will affect retail and storefront experience. I think the integration of more food and beverage along the way is critical. I think shopping centers in urban districts, they’re reaching upwards of 40-50 percent of the storefronts now are more in the food, beverage and entertainment. I think the retail footprint and the amount of square footage needed is constantly decreasing. You’re not going to need as much inventory because inventories are getting really smart. You don’t have to have 600 shirts of different sizes in your store. You’re actually able to control how much you actually really need and respond. Micro-mobility and the future of drones and how goods are going to be distributed is going to make a huge impact on that. Where instead of having the ground floor experience, put the storefront all the way to the front and then a warehouse in the back, you know, you might start seeing a different uses than the back in the store from being more of a showroom hands-on demo type of places, right? I think the blurriness of the indoor outdoor. I think it’s going to make a big dent into the storefront in the conditioned spaces. I think we’re going to see the blurriness of the storefront and the ability to cross in and out quickly. The cashier experience where you actually have to go and pay in line, that’s all going to be gone very soon. You know, we’ve seen the new Amazon models and you just walk out and you get charged. That is the future that eliminates a pretty specific part of a store, right? And one that it was heavy in equipment and you have to have a lot of staff. So I think there’s some changes happening that are really positive around the space. I think we’re going to see a lot more trees, a lot more integration of nature biophilic spaces as a result of that because we’ll be able to spend more energy on things that matter, not worried about things that are not going to matter as much in the future. 

Ashley Coates [00:23:56] That’s really fascinating? Well, Daniel, we have one last question for you, which is what is your personal mission and do you have any final words of wisdom for us? 

Daniel Aizenman [00:24:06] Personal mission? I mean, I’m going to go back to my daughters, and every day I think of them, they’re five and seven. And my personal mission is to create a place in an environment where they want to be grown up and where they want their kids to grow up. I think they deserve better. I think we’ve done somewhat of a miserable job in a lot of places around the country, around the world and understanding how future generations are going to interact with space and how they’re going to shop and how they’re going to get nourished and educate. So that’s what’s on my mind. We’re living in a little bit of apocalyptic times right now. It could be a downer for all of us. So I’m trying to sort of embed humanity and embed a layer of love into the space, a place where people can socialize and appreciate each other and appreciate everything that is unique about the community. I think we like to sit here in our office that we aim at the heart of people and everything we do. And when you create that emotional connection with place, you know it becomes more meaningful to you. 

Ned Hayes [00:25:04] Well, thank you. Thank you for that insight. Really appreciate your perspective. 

Daniel Aizenman [00:25:09] Sure thing. It was a pleasure talking with you. Thank you Ned and Ashley, thanks so much. 

Ned Hayes [00:25:14] Thanks for listening today to the SparkPlug podcast SnowShoe. If you’re smarter loyalty leader Smart Plug is a wholly owned property of SnowShoe all content. Copyright 2021 SparkPlug Media.