Anna Fill Interviews
Interview: Stephen Valkenborg talks shopping in the 21st century
The world of shopping is complex and big business. Depending on the type of person you are, shopping can be something done on a needs must basis: "I need x, y, z and so I will go out at the weekend and buy it". For others it can be a ritual process, or one based on all things luxury, and many, women in particular, would argue that the shopping experience is an essential therapeutic one.
We all have our own ideas and theories of the kind of experiences we want and the places we prefer to go to to do our shopping. Today technology is playing a huge role in how we shop today with internet shopping becoming more and more the norm. With this shift in trend it is becoming increasingly difficult for shops and shopping centres to compete. But can the same experience and satisfaction be achieved through keyboard shopping? And is this a factor that is affecting the luxury market too? Shopping centres globally have been phenomena since the 1940s with easy access to all the brands in one space. This market is fiercely competitive, so how easy is it to keep stimulating the crowds and what is key to the success of a shopping centre?
I met with Stephen Valkenborg who is the new kid on the block at the Metropole Shopping Center, where luxury and sophistication is evident to anyone who knows or has visited Monaco. Stephen is the General Manager and took up his new post in February, 2017.
The new GM of the Metropole Shopping Center is no stranger to the world of luxury shopping. For the past 4 years he had been commuting between Paris and Brussels, leading Ralph Lauren retail stores in multiple countries, such as France, Benelux (Belgium, the Netherlands, and Luxembourg), Germany and in Switzerland.
"It is a fantastic company and with an amazing owner behind the brand, keeping up and respecting so many traditions." says Stephen.
Before Ralph Lauren Stephen used to work for a small independent retailer in Hasselt, a city in Belgium which is renowned for its shopping and fine dining.
"I believe retail has always been part of my DNA"
Stephen's mother used to own an apparel store for many years and as a child he was brought up with fabrics, quality and being surrounded by customers. For this reason he believes retail has always been part of his DNA.
"All those features are still very important to me. Being able to touch exquisite fabrics, talk to front of house colleagues, talking to customers and trying the understand their needs, seeing retail changing at an enormous fast track, but still holding on to traditions; to respect, to quality, to kindness. That’s what makes retail today so unique and special." he continues. "Shopping, buying is no longer just about the product as it used to be, today it’s a 360° experience." he adds.
With his new role, Stephen aims to combine history, the needs of the existing retailers and most importantly the vision of the owner, and he intends to inject dynamism with his retail experience and brand/product know-how.
We continued to chat with Stephen Valkenborg and discovered that this was a man who has real passion for retail and is driven by determination, dedication and respect for the industry. It is charming to know that values and traditions can still be prominent in 21st century shopping.
What is the mission for the Metropole?
SV: That’s a difficult question. The Metropole is without doubt one of the best examples of great real estate achievement in the principality. All the elements which have made and still are making the success of Monaco have been brought together: exceptional architecture in an area with a prestigious past, high quality service as well as efficient security. I believe one of the missions lies in to preserve the exceptional architecture and to fuse this with the 21st century.
The Metropole has been a reference point in Monaco for almost 30 years. Like retail, we need to evolve, but still protect its soul. If we look at small, medium and high-end luxury brands, they have all evolved, whilst maintaining their uniqueness and their soul. The same counts for the Metropole. That’s our biggest challenge, how do we have something looking new, but still feeling familiar? It’s a question that we ask ourselves daily. Our intention is to re-design the technology, lighting, sound, to create harmonization, and to attract dynamic clothing and accessories companies and F&B (food and beverages) brands.
We have an exciting project starting next year.
How do you prioritize the changes?
SV: In 2017, prioritizing has become a priority as everything and everybody is #1. It’s easier said than done. It’s about prioritizing the work that matters on a daily basis. Stephen Covey told me about the 7 big rocks or 7 habits. I still use this quite often to prioritize what needs to be done.
What do you think attracts people to the Metropole? The fact it is Monaco? The types of shops?
SV: The first time I visited the Metropole Shopping Center, it felt like I was stepping into a special part in history. Nowadays shopping malls feel all alike, white coloured glass boxes. With the Metropole, I didn’t have that feeling at all. You just feel the richness of the mall itself, in its materials, its people, its stores, its welcoming, its aroma. The Metropole has the uniqueness of being so diverse and eclectic in their product offer. Don’t forget that we are in the middle of the golden square in Monte-Carlo on the Cote d’Azur, with an exceptional climate. All these facts together would make even someone in heaven dream. Also safety plays a big part today in a shopping experience. And I believe visitors do feel safe within our premises.
How important is service in 21st century shopping?
SV: Service combines so many words, like courtesy, respect, good manners, product knowledge, social knowledge, etc… A lot of companies have tried to prioritize customer service, but in the end the accountants take over. I really have a difficulty in that still today stores are unable to welcome you with a genuine smile. Isn’t the purpose of customer service to make the customer feel at ease in every single situation? For many decades, retailers have been looking into the mirror and asking what they wanted. Today, its what the customers wants and expects. For example, Sunday trading is still a huge topic in Monaco, although what does the customer want? We need brick and mortar stores to show our product, but we can’t practice retail as we did 10 years ago. I don’t want to tap into the E- or M-commerce, but that given fact speaks for itself that service should be everybody’s priority. The physical shopping experience will always remain and an excellent service should become THE foundation for retail in the 21st century.
With so much competition how do you brand the shopping centre?
SV: The image or brand of the Metropole Shopping Monte-Carlo is something that has been created over time. The Metropole shopping is used as a landmark, a location, a direction in Monaco. We can only fine-tune this, by adding or replacing brands, bring in a much more harmonized feeling in the future, but definitely to preserve its philosophy.
We are now in the age of digital shopping, so how do you attract new and regular customers back to traditional shopping?
SV: The aspect of digital shopping is a good thing. It brings retailers closer to customers, or the other way around. But to do that, you need brick and mortar stores to create the HALO effect, like a retail footprint. Then this follows-up with service. So in fact you get a 360° degree cycle. The Metropole Shopping Center will always be part of Monte-Carlo, Monaco, a place to visit. We from the Metropole Shopping need to assure that the premises is dynamic by constantly introducing new product offers, art, food and beverage, new services. But for new or regular customers, the Metropole Shopping Center is known for the place with a soul and we should be its guardians and maintain this as a legacy that continues.
What would be your ultimate goal for the Metropole Shopping Center?
SV: Create a constant prestigious synergy between what you see and what we offer. The Metropole Shopping Center has existed for 30 years and I would love, over the next 30 years, that the Metropole can still radiate its glamorous & prestigious character.
We asked Stephen to answer our famous 5 questions and this is how he repiled:
1) What makes you smile?
Driving my scooter every morning and seeing the wide open Mediterranean Sea.
2) What or who inspires you?
Open your eyes and just look around ‘The World’ is one big source of inspiration.
3) Do you believe in gut instincts?
4) Your three essential things if you were stuck on a desert island would be what?
Music player, pillow, knife.
5) If you are planning a day/night out, what do you enjoy doing the most?
The silence for a day out, the friendship for the night out.