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It has been just under three months since the second Corona lockdown for retailers in Germany came to an end and shops are once again allowed to open largely without nearly any restriction. However, the effects of the pandemic are still visible and tangible. At the same time, there is positive news: Shopping in the summer of 2021 feels so much better than you might suspect - in terms of quality and quantity. Ulrich Schmitz, Senior Director Center Management responsible for the operation of around 150 ECE centers in nine countries, explains why this is the case and how it should stay that way.

Mandatory masks, one-way streets, capacity restrictions. Doesn't sound like an El Dorado for shopping fans!? That may be so. However, people's longing for stationary retail seems to be great. Visitors have become accustomed to the extensive Corona security concepts and rarely see retail restrictions as a disruptive factor. Rather, the joy of refreshing long-forgotten experiences and emotions, meeting family and friends, and experiencing merchandise with all their senses prevails.

This subjective feeling coincides with the positive frequency developments of the past weeks. Thus, the current visitor numbers in Germany are above those of 2020 and at many locations only slightly below the 2019 values. In Italy and Denmark, the frequencies have even risen above the 2019 mark in particular weeks. There is therefore justified hope that visitor numbers will also continue to develop positively in other markets.

Operator experience and customer trust pay off in crisis management

The increasing popularity can be explained on the one hand by catch-up effects, but to a large extent also by the trust that visitors have in retail, in our centers and thus also in our competence as operators. The freestyle of presenting emotionally charged shopping worlds in the high street does not work, especially during the crisis, without doing the duty behind the scenes. With our claim of "Excellence in Operations", we continuously developed adapted and improved hygiene concepts during the pandemic and lockdown, informed visitors transparently about regulations via online and offline channels and monitored compliance.

This was extremely challenging, especially against the backdrop of the different regulations in our international markets but also at the state level. In order to be efficient here despite the enormous additional effort, we set up a comprehensive monitoring system. The system allowed us to react as quickly as possible to changes in regulations and to implement them in a coordinated manner across the large number of our locations. In the future, we and our partners will continue to benefit from the traditionally good cooperation between the ECE centers and the local authorities on site, which even before the pandemic always took place on an equal footing.

Pandemic intensifies exchange with stakeholders

In general, the exchange of views at eye level has become an even greater asset during the pandemic. Despite all the challenges and bad news, we focused on one maxim with regard to our tenant partners and investors: communication and transparency. We provided extensive information material at all times - in the form of newsletters, telephone calls and meetings - and thus raised the level of cooperation to a new level.
One important component for our actions must not be forgotten. Even in the pre-Corona era, we set the course for the future by optimizing our digital systems - especially with our business intelligence platform. It is the data home for many relevant key figures, including visitor frequencies at the centers, occupancy rates or online sales reports from our tenant partners. The BI platform allows us to prepare content individually and with just a few clicks for our various stakeholders and thus analyse market developments or compare benchmarks of our investors' center portfolios. Particularly in view of the difficult last few months, this was the right decision and is also a sign of the increasing flexibility of an established player in the market.

Vaccination offers are a central component of our opening strategy

Retail is open - and it must remain so. We are placing our full focus on this, especially now that we have joined forces with an entire industry to bring life back to the center - whether as a trusted operator or as a convincing heavyweight in political work - it is essential to do everything we can to continue on the path towards normality.

The most important contribution to this can only be made by progressively vaccinating the population. As a member of the initiative "Leben statt Lockdown" (Life instead of Lockdown), we not only want to raise awareness of this, but also use our extreme reach to create low-threshold and nationwide vaccination offers in our centers for people with vaccination reservations. The vaccination campaigns in the Hamburger Meile and in the Alstertal-Einkaufszentrum, among others, show that this can work in no time with the coordinated cooperation from our headquarters and our experienced, strong implementation teams on site. One example: On Wednesday evening, the first contact was made between ECE and the Corona Taskforce of the City of Hamburg regarding the feasibility of the vaccination. After the involvement of the centers, the detailed planning and the communication concept were already in place on Friday. Parallel to the printing of the advertising material, the vaccination stations were set up on Saturday and could be used for the vaccination on the sales-open Sunday - after less than four days. A model that is proving successful nationwide: By mid-August, more than 18,000 people had been vaccinated in 26 ECE centers - and the trend is rising. Vaccination and shopping - they go together! And is another piece in the mosaic for a positive future 

Ulrich Schmitz

As Senior Director, Ulrich Schmitz has been responsible for the operation of our shopping centers since 2017, currently in nine countries. With the tasks as authorized signatory of ECE Marketplaces and Managing Director of ECE International, further building blocks were added in 2021. He joined ECE as center manager in 2007. After being responsible for the Allee-Center Hamm and Limbecker Platz in Essen, he took over as Regional Director for the North and then the Northwest. Schmitz was born in Münster in 1968 and began his career at Karstadt in Essen after completing his business studies, most recently as Deputy Purchasing Director. He also worked for Thomas Cook and TUI, where he was in charge of the promotion division.