Back to all episodes

The future of retail is digital, with VIA Outlets' Jasper de Jong

April 14, 2024 / 23:23 / E52

Talk to an expert

about something you heard on this episode

Contact an expert
Outlet shopping centers aren't the first industry you'd think of for being on the forefront of digital transformation. But Jasper de Jong, Group Director for Digital and Media at VIA Outlets, shares why it's more important than you'd think for this business to switch to a composable ecosystem. Learn how Jasper set the strategy for transformation within VIA Outlets, how he got buy-in, and what he sees as the key drivers of digital growth for the retail industry as a whole, and for the outlet shopping business specifically, to maintain a competitive edge. 

01:02 Introduction to VIA Outlets
02:02 The (digital) customer journey of an outlet shopping center visitor
03:01 Digital differentiation strategy for VIA Outlets
06:55 The role of data 
08:00 Key drivers for going composable
12:58 What does Jasper wish he'd known before he started?
15:40 Selling in composable to stakeholders
21:20 Advice for others starting a digital transformation 

Jasmin: How do you drive digital transformation in an industry that centers around physical experiences? Today's guest has some ideas. Jasper de Jong, Group Director for Digital Media at VIA Outlets, shares his advice on creating a composable strategy to build the future of retail. Even if nobody knows for sure exactly what that's going to look like, learn the key pillars of a long-term transformation strategy, how to get buy-in and budget from stakeholders, and how to empower your people to build capabilities for the future. You're listening to People Changing Enterprises. I'm your host, Jasmin Guthmann, and please enjoy this episode with Jasper de Jong.

Jasper: My name is Jasper de Jong. I work for VIA Outlets as the Group Director for Digital and Media. VIA Outlets is redefining the outlet shopping experience for digital marketing and media in Europe. We own 11 shopping outlet centers in Europe, in nine markets.

And we are 100% owned by APG, a Dutch pension fund. We have actually existed for 10 years now with three investors. And what we do is the three Rs: remodeling, re-merchandising, and remarketing. We build them up to a premium level.

And initially, it was the idea that they were going to sell it again, it's quite an interesting model to make money. We would start buying more and more. Now we've got 11, and the idea is to grow in the future. We are trying to expand in the coming years and are in there for the long run.

Jasmin: What would you say is a typical customer journey for VIA Outlets, and how does digital play into that?

Jasper: I think there's no typical customer journey. What we see is that we've got multiple types of guests. We've got people coming as bargain hunters who want to profit. Then we've got fashion lovers interested in the fashion brands. Families with kids-- we've got different types of guests and a lot of tourism as well. Currently, we're embarking on a customer journey program for this very reason—not just to better define our preferred customer journey but also to ascertain if our website truly serves as the optimal means of capturing our customers' attention.
A lot has been done, I think, very well over the years. We built a completely new website for 11 centers and for corporate, but we still have a lot of questions because it's a tough one nowadays.

Jasmin: How are you looking to differentiate yourselves from the competition? How do you gain a competitive edge using digital?

Jasper: So we've got a lot of competitors. Of course, we've got different companies who are doing similar stuff to what we do as a fashion outlet. We also have competitors in the local city centers and shopping malls.

There are different variations. What I think makes us different is that we try to build a day out. We are more of a destination area. You've got 150 stores and 250 brands in one nice village. There's something for the kids. You've got good food. In some areas, they've even got a cinema in it.

It's a destination area where people spend roughly three to four hours. It's not like you go in, you buy something, you go out. We try to extend the dwell time in our centers to keep people there as long as possible because the longer they stay, the more they spend in the end.
That's the end goal, of course. We've got really good destinations where you can buy products. There are big brands, and flagship stores. Our challenge was how to build this in a digital world. We're not going to rebuild the entire center online, but we want to have a way to bring it closer to each other.

So what we try to do is get specific brand pages. We show the actual store in that local center within the specific brand pages. For every center, we did a shoot of every brand store. If you go online, you go to a certain brand; you have a brand experience. You get information on the brand, an immersive feeling, and at the bottom, you see the actual store, how it looks, and how the center looks, to bring it closer beyond an offline world.

We also tried to incorporate a lot of video elements. You see how beautiful our centers are on the homepage and different pages, even in a digital world, because we don't have many brands with an online store. We have physical stores; we have to bring people to the center. That's where they need to be. So that's our main goal with digital, because a lot of the time, it's the first connection people start searching for a brand, we pop up, and then I think the website is the first step to understanding what our premium fashion outlets in that specific market are all about.
Our digital transformation ultimately aims to create an experience that goes beyond the product because the product is not just the clothing. The product is the destination of our center. It's a destination of food, fun, a day out, excitement, etcetera. Another important aspect is focusing on customer retention.

We've implemented a loyalty program and have seen that our loyal guests, our fashion club members, spend more and come more frequently to the centers. It's an ongoing process. You have to collect data. I think fashion, in general, heavily relies on ad campaigns showing brands and products.

This is what we have, next to the fact that we are a destination. People start searching, maybe for shoes or a new sweater, and that's how customers work. And then you have to pop up in ads. I think you need to create a large audience to generate profit. You need to know what your restrictions are on the data and first-party data. It is way more important than it was five years ago.

Jasmin: Absolutely. I think data is one of the core pieces for any business out there, but then probably the other bit is technology as a whole, right? It's great if you own the data, but now, if you don't have the technology that helps you leverage it and tailor it to your customers' needs, what good will it do for you?

Is that part of the thinking that led you to your digital transformation strategy?

Jasper: When I came to VIA, I think we were at a good base but had a level of one-size-fits-all, one-to-all communication. I think we had to move to the next level. And to do this, you need to have a platform. That's why we built a website. Also, a strategy behind it is to become more people-focused. In the end, I made a people-based marketing strategy. A lifetime focus, data-driven audience modeling, etc. The data was the key to building this. If you don't have the data, you don't have the systems, you don't have the platforms, you are not able to use this data because then the data in itself doesn't do anything. It's how you work as a marketer, use your system, and connect the data. I think that's one of the key things. We're working on it currently, and it's not an easy step because you've got a lot of data sources, and you can put them all in one data hub, and then you can look at it, and then nothing happens.

Jasmin: So true. Is that sort of one of the points that led you down a path of going composable?

Jasper: I think, for me, one of the reasons to go composable was flexibility. Because you don't know how the business will evolve over the years. We are currently running one of our centers in the Netherlands as an e-commerce solution with a third-party partner to find out if it is working. Is e-commerce the next step in premium fashion outlets? You need to be flexible if we want to incorporate this into the normal structure we have in VIA because now it's currently a separate project. It's not running connected to a system we have, like the website; it's separate. You have to be ready. How can we incorporate it if we say, "Hey, we want to scale it up, or we want to move it to the next stage," etc.? And the other one is you have to think about economies of scale. We want to replace a lot of legacy systems. We said, "Okay, let's start from scratch." You want to be flexible for the future. You want to build for the future. In that sense, you have to be competitive and strengthen your core. So what I mean with this is that you have to scale your ecosystem and look at your business model. Reimagine your business model. The other one is how to create a value chain. How can you make your money? And that is more like building for the future. That's a big building block. If you strengthen your core, it's more like how to reconnect with your customers and how to rebuild your organization. So, if there are many elements, you have to transition. And then you have to be flexible and steer towards a certain direction. You hope you're going in the right direction, but you don't know what five years from now will look like. So, I think that the composable part is helpful. If, say, after three years, okay, we made a decision, and it was good for the first three years, but maybe for the next three years, we need a better or different setup. And if you do this with composable, I think it's helpful. It's easier because it's API first; it's microservices. And based on that, you can remove them. I really believe that as players, they focus on key things that they're really good at. So it can be like Contentstack on a CMS, or it's a payment solution, etc. If you have this, then you can choose what fits best to your organization. It's the flexibility. We want to add e-commerce. We tried, and we will add e-commerce solutions to it. You do the payment models, etc. You build it up. It's connected. It's possible. Easier to update. I think it's easier to add stuff and replace certain microservices. I think those are the big benefits of having a composable setup.

Jasmin: Yeah, it makes total sense. I love that you said add or remove because many times, people only talk about the add. And then you add, and you add, and you add, and you add up and end up in a similarly desperate situation because nobody knows how things actually go together, and nobody dares to touch it because nobody knows what the implications might be. But that also is the beauty. You can add or remove a component if you don't need one anymore. Where are you at in your digital transformation process at VIA Outlets?

Jasper: If you look at our five-year roadmap, I think we're now in year two to three. So, almost halfway through, it's going well. It's a lot of work because you're touching so many elements in our organization. So it's not only digital but also change management. You have to rebuild your organization so that people start thinking differently, how you reconnect with your customers on your loyalty program, and how you start communicating with them, marketing automation. So there's, I think we've still got a lot to do. We need to focus on more personalization. That's the next step. Make the website more personal. We need to integrate more data. We have to get people to focus on the right stuff you need, architectural changes, and more measurements. We need to be consistent and better visualize stuff because, in general, people like visualization instead of all the numbers. And then, based on that, you can do attribution and focus more on the brands, how to bring those alive, and make better decisions. Better segmentation, next best actions, testing, forecasting, I think you can name it. There's so much stuff we still need to do, and probably we will continue to do, change, and look into, But currently, I think the biggest struggle is to get the entire organization moving in that direction. So it's the agility, the internal alignment because we've got 11 centers and nine markets and have an operational team in those markets. So, we need to look into the right resources. Are they the ones willing to move in that direction and have the right capability? We need to train them. We need to update. If you look at these kinds of things, there's so much work to do. And then I think that's the nice part of it there because otherwise, it gets boring. And then you sit at home doing nothing. It's evolving maybe quicker than we can follow it, but you have to choose the right stuff and the right moment, focus on it, make it work, and then go to the next step.

Jasmin: Absolutely. What would you have done differently if you had known before you started?

Jasper: We've got seasonality. You want to fix stuff before a certain peak moment. So, if I could have done something differently, I would have started a little bit earlier at my RFI, my RFP finding the right partner, but it's also sometimes the nature of the organization because you get your budget at a certain moment. So we did it quite quickly. I would have liked to have more time. And I think time is always the issue in these kinds of things. So, until now, I have the feeling we made the right decisions with the right partners doing the right stuff. But it's more like we need more than 365, 700 days, or something in a year. And then that's not how it works. I know. But it would be helpful.

Jasmin: I hear you. Any surprises, like things that were a lot harder than you anticipated or a lot easier.

Jasper: I think the change management had to get everybody. People say, yeah, we know what's coming, and you make them aware of stuff and tell them this will happen at a certain moment. You need to be ready for it. Make sure you are prepared. And then you see a lot of people are still in a day-to-day job, which is really important because those are the ones making the sales. So people are looking two to four weeks ahead instead of six months ahead. And I think that's the difficult one. So operating on a more like a six to eight months timeline ahead, getting everyone in the same moment. This is the moment we will shut down the old website. For example, we start moving into the new one. We have to build it up. So be aware, be prepared. And that, I think that's the biggest struggle to get everybody aligned in these kinds of things. In the end, it works, but it takes so much effort.

Jasmin: So true. And so many people on this podcast have said something similar. It's like the one thing they wish they had done more of because the tech is the easier part. People who have to use it are the hardest part.

Jasper: Yeah. Tech is not the solution. Tech is a carrier. It's helpful, but it's the people who have to do the legwork, and sometimes it's an addition to your normal day-to-day job; it's a lot of additional work. And maybe people underestimate it. Maybe I underestimated it as well because you have an idea of what it will bring and what it will do and the impact, but it's so massive because you've got a legacy system, legacy data, legacy information, and you need to start building it up to a certain moment. Its nature is challenging.

Jasmin: Challenging. Yeah. How did you go about selling composable to your stakeholders?

Jasper: I think it went rather easily in that sense. You have to explain, okay, so we are a company, and our solution is that we have to be flexible in any way because now we've got 11 centers, but it could be that in two years, we've got 14 centers or we sell some. So, we need to be flexible and scale up. They understand scalability because it's the nature of our business. We grow, we expand, or we sell a certain center, and then we've got 10 instead of 11. In that sense, we need to be more flexible on the website because, say, look at us as Lego. It's like the building blocks. So you have to make a foundation that we have to run for nowadays, but you have to be ready for the future. You added a block on top of it, and I think that was one of the eye-openers to be more flexible for us. That was an easy one. You have to explain to them what your strategy is. What do you want to achieve as a bigger picture? And this is one of the elements in it and quite easy. Speak in tangible language to them because they're not in the details. They're not into the real digital. They don't want to be. So my CEO is a really smart guy, the COO as well, but they don't want to know the details. They want to say, okay, what's the leverage? What's the business case? What will it bring for the company? What is the best solution? And that's helpful. And in the end, it's always to give the line up front and it makes it easier. So explain what are the key elements and never surprise your manager.

Jasmin: That's a good one. Yeah. Managers usually don't like surprises unless they have a dollar sign attached to them and are free. Can you share what the key elements were for you that you aligned with your leadership team when you started that transformation? We talked about flexibility. We talked about scalability.

Jasper: Yeah.

Jasmin: What else?

Jasper: Return on investment. There were some elements in our previous website we could not maintain anymore. It was becoming a monster of a platform. We had 11 websites, and I wanted to drill down from a unified platform. I had a unified platform strategy. I wanted to find something in one that goes to all 11. I wanted to have people spend more time on the right stuff, making the communication right, etc., instead of updating a website. If one person updates the website on a certain brand, it should be there for 11. It should be automated. Translation should be in there. We've got a lot of offers. Every center has three or four languages. So it comes in 33 or 44 different variations. My solution was to get economy of scale and get easier views. So we built, for example, on top of Contentstack, an offer. It's a four-stage approach. You upload an image of the offer, let's say it's a sweater, price, etc., etc. And that ultimately translates into the right languages. You can publish it immediately in the right languages. And the next phase on that one is, for example, that we want to give access to the brands that get an approval process instead of them sending an email to us. I was only thinking about how to get economy of scale and save time because time is money. Instead of adding more people, I wanted to have the same amount of people, doing the right stuff. And I think that's one of the key things in taking a business case. And in the end, everybody knows you have to have a website. It will have to be renewed after three to five years because it can't be maintained. And the structure is not good for the future, etc. But if you spend such a huge amount of money, there must be a certain business case around it. I don't get a million euros, for example, Hey, have fun, spend it how you like. No, that's not how the world works. Those are the things that you need to take into account. What are the advantages there? What will it bring for the future? I think we need to look into how to save money, to do better.

Jasmin: And that's such a great point that you're making there because so many times that is overlooked. Everybody just looks at, hey, how can we cut costs? But very few people look at, hey, how can we save a lot of money downstream if we invest a little bit right now, and then it will save us a ton of money later, basically. And that is the sort of the high level view you need to convince your leadership team or your board or whatever.

Jasper: But I think that's related to your strategy. If you have a solid strategy for five years ahead, minimum, and you know what to do every year and you know what you need to focus on as the first steps. Then it's quite easy to convince people because I can already align almost for the next three years, which would be roughly the cost to do something. So I mentioned, don't surprise them, just inform them, make them aware.

Jasmin: Yeah. You provide them with a safety reality, right? Hey, Jasper knows what he's doing. He's given us a roadmap that is not just right now but in five years. And everybody knows that the numbers you put in years three, four, and five are probably going to change by the time you get there, but that's fair because nobody knows what it's going to look like in three years, and they know that you giving them a crutch to walk on makes them feel so much more comfortable in the overall approach. I can totally see that. What advice would you give others looking to go composable and maybe wondering how to do what you've done and what you've started?

Jasper: Make a solid plan for your digital transformation. What are your steps in time that you want to do and take the time. Don't try to do everything at once. Try to focus. And I think that's the nice thing about composable. Build your base blocks first, and then start expanding. I think it literally gives businesses a lot of opportunities. It's really to identify these are the hundreds of best ideas, etc. But what are the best 10? What are the ones that you should focus on? And being intentionally focused on those 10 is also a significant management challenge because you need to get everybody aligned on this. And it's the core of your analytical challenge or your change management challenge, which digital things you need to optimize, which objectives you need to take into the next step, and how to understand your interconnectedness of the digital experience to the rest of the business because you're not doing it alone. Digital is not alone. It's connected to the wider organization you're in. And that's the big challenge you have to face. Your team, the digital people, and the entire organization around you must have the same view of the future.

Jasmin: Thanks for listening to People Changing Enterprises. This show is brought to you by ContentStack, the leading composable digital experience platform for enterprises. Got a question or suggestion? Email us at If you like the show, please leave us a rating or review on Apple podcasts. We'll be back next week with a new episode, helping you make your mark.

Share on

Related episodes

Startup spirit in a traditional industry: Unleashing innovation at Banco Itaú with Priscila Bezerra

Creating change is hard. Creating change inside a traditional bank? That's a whole other level of hard. Today's guest is Priscila Bezerra, Head of Martech and Digital Acquisition at Banco Itaú. In this episode, she unveils the secrets behind instituting change inside a century-old banking institution with over 100,000 employees.Priscila shares invaluable lessons on embracing a startup mindset, taking calculated risks, and identifying strategic starting points in a composable transformation journey. Hear her advice from a four-year transformative journey that is helping to redefine traditional banking. This episode is a masterclass in innovation and change management.Timestamps:01:16 The challenges of innovation in a century-old bank04:25 Building the martech foundation at Banco Itaú06:03 Deciding where to start with composable: Overcoming cultural and operational hurdles11:37 The Importance of "the people part" in technology transformation18:00 Creating a startup mentality in a traditional bank21:24 How the perception of martech has shifted inside the business, four years later24:49 The importance of preserving the "startup" mindset after initial successes28:52 Advice on maintaining personal motivation and choosing your battles

Efficiency unleashed: Leveraging better goal-setting and AI, with Earth Reiser (Topgolf Callaway Brands)

Earth Reiser, Director of Strategy and Innovation at Topgolf Callaway Brands, offers advice on goal-setting, the importance of having a strategic vision as a business, and how to bridge the gap between this vision and actionable objectives. She also shares why she's excited about the rise of Artificial Intelligence (AI), discussing how she leverages it in her work today, and its potential for increasing organizational efficiency.01:06 The Importance of clear goals 04:06 The balance between top-down and bottom-up goal setting06:09 The power of sharing goals 07:51 The promise and opportunity of AI11:12 Examples of using AI in professional settings

Ask better questions: The art of data analytics with Topgolf Callaway Brands’ Earth Reiser

Earth Reiser, the Director of Strategy and Innovation at Topgolf Callaway Brands, offers advice for navigating the murky waters of customer data and analytics, and how brands need to be mindful of customers' desire for privacy. She discusses the implications of the increasing call for privacy across various platforms, and why it's important to gather and use data ethically for decision making. Earth also offers advice on marketing analytics, and the art of asking the right questions when using data, without collecting data for its own sake.

Customer-centric composable transformation, with Topgolf Callway Brands' Earth Reiser

Earth Reiser, the Director of Strategy and Innovation at Topgolf Callaway Brands shares insights on the company's transformation journey. Earth shares how Topgolf Callaway Brands restructured its technology and business model around empowering its employees and customers. She provides advice on bridging the gap between business and technology, balancing a north star vision with the necessity for flexibility, and building a strong composable strategy. Listen in to learn why a monolithic structure isn't always a bad thing, how to help companies embrace change, and why a 'one size fits all' approach isn't right for every organization.01:25 The Topgolf Callaway journey to transformation 05:22 How the brand decided to go composable08:01 How the company aims to serve the modern golfer not just today, but in the future09:33 The importance of flexibility in business11:36 How to embrace change13:59 Advice for companies looking to go composable