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Checking Out: Francesco Cordua

The founder of Exultant Brands on the benefits of an eclectic career, how COVID-19 pushed up app adoption rates by a decade and why the era of “easy” retail is over.

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Francesco Cordua

Francesco Cordua

Your career path includes stops working for Gensler, McDonald’s, Old Navy and Tiffany’s, among others. How did that happen?

It came out of the way the design community was connected in a different way before the influence of computers and the Internet. I’m always amazed and enthusiastic about the work that young designers can create on their own these days, and I envy the range of programs at their fingertips. On the other hand, the fact that we had to do so much by hand when I was their age [meant] you naturally collaborated with so many other designers and craftsmen to get anything done, and that led to career opportunities opening up in a more organic way.

You now run your own design consultancy, Exultant Brands. What’s the significance of that name?

It’s at the heart of what I learned from retail: the hard work that goes into creating such spaces every day requires people to be enthusiastic, positive, engaging and intuitive – to trust their gut – while understanding all aspects of the business, being open to change, aware of influences from all sides, remaining focused on the bottom line and delivering a winning experience every day. And then do it all over again the next day, never resting on your laurels.

Part of your work with retailers is seeking the most effective ways to integrate digital technology into their spaces. What’s working best?

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The first wave of in-store technology was really about replacing analog systems with digital ones, where sometimes the biggest negative effect was that while the medium was modern, the content didn’t quite deliver against expectations.

The second wave tried to mix a sense of empowering the consumer to use digital to explore on their own, while at the same time offering unheard of levels of customization, all the while ignoring the operational investment required to deliver on that promise.

We’re starting to see the edges of solutions that blend the purely physical and digital experiences more seamlessly, and with a bit more subtlety, and that’s the kind of control that customers respond to. Not all shopping is “mission shopping” – it’s not all about efficiency, all of the time – but people do expect to be able to flip between digital and physical interactions more easily.

What are some of the challenges and obstacles retailers face in keeping pace with the ongoing tech evolution?

Right now, concerns over privacy law, AI profiling and data collection impose some real limits on how interactive a digital experience can intuitively be, but that is evolving quickly. In addition, COVID-19 has pushed up app adoption rates by a decade, specifically in older audiences that were expected to resist over the long term.

No More Easy-Peasy

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Corduo shares his thoughts on how COVID-19 and how pandemic restrictions might play out in retail spaces over the longer run:

“I find it interesting that the speculation on what our future holds is split into two halves that are running side-by-side: the idea that retail is dead, malls are over and urban living has seen its peak on the one hand, while on the other, COVID-19 has shown us how important the ability to meet up, socialize and experience things in person is to our well-being.

I’ll echo what many have said for years – the era of ‘easy’ retail is over. As digital convenience continues to broaden what we’re willing to buy or experience online, and as it becomes more integrated into our day-to-day lives, it also means that we’ll be looking for the reasons to experience things ourselves to be better executed and have deeper dimension and complexity.

This goes beyond the question, ‘What do we want from retail?’ The same thoughtfulness and flexibility that’s expected from the future of the office, transportation, campuses, mixed-use projects, et cetera.”

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