This summer I decided to take in the GreenBuildingNY show at the Jacob Javits Center in New York City. I consider myself up on 'green' but I realized if I wanted to learn anything new, it was probably in New York City. I expected exhibits on anything connected with the building industry; what I hadn’t expected was chocolate companies exhibiting their energy efficient milk chocolate pieces and the cockroach-sniffing dog! It opened my eyes to the vastness of green.
This is also where I met Jennifer McGee, CEO of UPworld — a site with approximately 15,000 members worldwide. In addition, Jennifer is president of UP-Market
I liked Jennifer and her UPworld concept. It’s a LinkedIn on steroids. The more information she gave me the more questions I wanted to ask. Jennifer is multitalented and everything just fits together. What makes Jennifer outstanding is her background in both architecture and marketing. She was also named one of Real-Estate New York’s Woman of Influence for 2008. An architect by trade, Jennifer has her own ideas about retail and buildings.
As Jennifer so succinctly puts it, "A retail building must be more than a building. It should be a space molded around the people to enhance their retail shopping experience."
Here's an interview I conducted with Jennifer on her ideas, and what she sees happening in the industry in the future.
LC: Jennifer I see that your background is varied, with a Bachelor and Masters of Science in Architecture as well as a Masters of Real Estate development, but somehow it seems to fit together. Exactly what do you do?
JM: My interest has always been in how the customer experience and the design of a space function together, not just in the creation of a building. My work is varied to include clients such as JP Morgan Chase, W Hotel, Searle, Saks Off Fifth, and more. Each of these businesses are interested in building a brand experience for their customers. Different environments should help support the experience of the customer and how the customers interact with the building. In architecture school we are taught how to build different types of buildings. What we don’t study is how the people interact in a space and does the building enhance the brand image of the business.
I consider myself a retail consultant who can design both the building and the customer's experience.
LC: Were you always interested in building the brand experience?
JM: I started in high-end residential design, designing penthouses in New York City and then branched out into women's fashions. As I examined the businesses, I quickly realized that some designs supported the consumers connection to the brand. Other designs didn't support the buying experience – in fact they detracted. The key is to build an environment that makes the customer want to stay and buy.
LC: Can you give us an example of what you mean?
JM: I do a lot of work with furniture stores and you’ve probably noticed how stores have changed over the years. Furniture stores have been basically boxes with rows and rows of couches and chairs. Then along came Ikea, Crate and Barrel and all of a sudden it changed. We are an experience economy, customers want to be engaged, amused and above all, get ideas for their living spaces. The box concept suggests lower value as well as prices. It doesn’t give you an exciting experience. If you think about it, a kids birthday party used to consist of a cake and ice cream, now it means a trip to Chucky Cheese product with lots of friends. If you want to build your brand, product alone won’t do it.
LC: What should retailers be thinking when they are designing their spaces?
JM: Many retailers or business owners go into business because the product is their interest or hobby, they just love it. Their interest sparks the building of the business rather than hard, cold research as to whether the concept is viable. They need to determine who their customer is and what will drive traffic to their store and what is the value proposition for their business. Liking coffee is not the best reason to open a coffee shop.
How the space is designed is determined by the type of customer. Dunkin Donuts' value proposition is get the customer in the store and get them out. The traffic flow is in and out. On the other hand, Starbucks has comfortable couches and chairs and invites you to stay. As the space is designed, the specific customer and your brand proposition should determine the traffic flow.
Oftentimes the building is beautiful but doesn’t direct the experience.
LC: What about the buying experience?
JM: As the building is designed, the customer should be tracked through the buying process. Do you want them to stay or go? If you want them to stay, where will you put them? If you are not consumer driven and aren’t aware of your customer’s habits, you may be driving them from your store. The key is to understand how your space will drive traffic and help you build your brand. Are you promotion-minded or is yours a specialty store? How do you keep your product fresh and interesting for your customer. This encompasses both the design and marketing of the space and the business.
LC: Your business Upworld seems to connect to your business and would probably help your customers.
JM: Upworld was established to help industry professionals market themselves. We are an "invitation only" network and screen all of our applicants. These are high powered professionals that benefit from each other’s expertise and are capable of doing business all over the world. One of the reasons for its inception was to provide connections for my projects. I needed highly specialized sources and products so I started my own networking group. I saw it as a way to build my business as well as helping other professionals with their business. Upworld has been in business for two years and has over 15,000 members from the construction, design, real estate and trades industries.
LC: How important is social networking and networking in general to someone’s business?
JM: The adage of "it’s not what you know it’s who you know," is still very true. These days with social networking, a business needs a combination of traditional and online marketing. They have to decide the value of their web site: is it designed to promote and drive traffic or just provide information to the customer.
Upworld recently co-hosted an event with YREPNY (Young Real Estate Professionals from New York) and had over 300 people attending. We actually posted on Upworld the member’s names that showed and a little about each one of them. We try to give them ways to network and build their own businesses.
My friend Kevin Gamble, Partner of 332 Flooring, attended the YREPNY and had the following to say about the event:
"As a partner in a luxury vinyl flooring distribution company I am always looking for new ways to network. The Web site was filled with architects builders and realtors, exactly the people I wanted to meet and the event was more than I could have imagined."
LC: What advice should you give an entrepreneur just getting started?
JM: Hire someone who can help you determine your brand and what you are trying to build.
Be willing to step back and examine your motive for going into business. Ask the hard questions: do I really know what I’m doing. If I don’t know what I’m doing, am I willing to learn?
Remember that the customer experience and the design of the space go together; don’t do one without the other.