Breaking Retail Real Estate - An Interview with ATYPICAL's Sarah Malcom

Real estate has a reputation for being a little old-fashioned. Sarah Malcom is trying to turn it upside down.

Hello Sarah! Tell us a little about yourself.

I am the Co-President at ATYPICAL, an award-winning agency, which services some of the most influential and impactful companies in the commercial real estate industry. My primary focus is growing the company, guiding our team and cultivating ideas that are unconventional, creative and innovative. We’re known for being risk takers. We embrace the ideas that are unconventional, the ones that scare us the most. By pushing the envelope and taking risks, we give our clients the opportunity to tell their story in new and interesting ways.

How did you get your start in retail real estate business? 

My career started off in retail at Macy’s and Saks Off Fifth, I wanted to understand the other side of the industry. But the reality is that I have always had very deep family roots in real estate so I would say I was destined to embrace this path and merge my past experience with my current passion for commercial real estate. 

I led digital at ICSC for 6 years and focused on innovating within the association. We worked closely with the retail real estate industry so they could update their systems and incorporate digital into their businesses.  

I’m beyond passionate about this industry, and being at ATYPICAL, I thrive on bringing marketing and innovation to this very traditional industry. It’s exciting to watch a company that had one way of doing things for years and years and then having the ability to breathe new life into their business. It’s truly an honor. But the best part are the people I have met and become friends with. Relationships are everything for me which is why I am so passionate about this industry.

What do you see as the most important factors shaping the market today and over the next several years? 

The shift has happened and is happening everyday. We have seen massive store closures, an uptick in same day delivery, and e-commerce competition continuing to increase. At the same time you see e-tailers branching out to brick-and-mortar and traditional mall retailers like Sephora expanding into neighborhood shopping centers. It’s truly an interesting time for our industry where people are really starting to think differently. There is so much opportunity to innovate and explore digital and experiential opportunities. 

Ultimately, it’s the owners responsibility to drive traffic to their properties and history shows that was not a priority in the past. It has to be a priority now and the good news is there are ways to make that happen. 

Speaking to what we do, utilizing digital marketing is a huge part of the equation and merging that digital experience into physical retail is key. 

"Ultimately, it’s the owners responsibility to drive traffic to their properties and history shows that was not a priority in the past. It has to be a priority now and the good news is there are ways to make that happen."

What have you changed your mind about in regards to retail real estate in the last year or two? 

I am not sure I have changed my mind about the industry. I saw this coming back in 2010 when digital started to make its way into the world. Retail Real Estate is not going anywhere, let me just say that. And I have to say, my last haircut I got online didn’t work out so well. But as a shopper I want a reason to get up and go buy something in person.

As a mom first, I want something to do with my family, and once I am there I will spend money. I still don’t understand why malls don’t have an option for fully supervised kid events, while I go see a movie with my husband. The YMCA has an option to give parents a much needed date night but why is this option not in a mall? We have come far as an industry but not far enough. And it’s not an easy “ask” to think differently but you must bring in folks who have a fresh perspective. 

What’s your goal with your agency Atypical? 

We’re about agility. We respect every brand that has different needs and goals. We provide the opportunity to utilize our top-to-bottom off-site marketing team, managing every aspect of the client’s journey, or we can work with your existing team, adding in support and skill sets where needed all while getting results. 

Our clients call us extremely innovative and fun. Our top priority is delivering a high level of customer service and care. The highest compliment is being called a pleasure to work with and winning recommendations. After all, we’re not unique, we are ATYPICAL.

"The highest compliment is being called a pleasure to work with and winning recommendations."

Tell us about the strangest/craziest/most interesting thing you’ve ever seen in your career in the CRE/retail real estate space. 

Wow, the craziest moment for me was developing the ICSC app and deciding we should try out a beacon(a small bluetooth radio transmitter) campaign at the RECon event in Las Vegas. This was years ago when no one was using beacons or even knew what those were. I wanted to create an opportunity to make the app more intelligent and timely as you went through the conference.

A day before the conf we were prepared to host the event with over 35,000 retail real estate professionals with a killer app. We updated some code for the beacon and the app just stopped working. I almost died. Kidding aside I was ready to give my left kidney to fix this issue. Being innovative is not easy and you have to break stuff to get where you need to be. Well we broke it for sure. We fixed it right away but had to submit to apple to approve the changes and make it available for release. That process usually took up to 2 weeks back then. We reached out to anyone we knew and anyone who had a close contact at apple to approve this less than 24 hours before the event started. Long story short we made it happen, I had some new grey hair, the app worked and we got a 40% engagement which was really exciting. We also won a few awards for this effort.

Colin Belyea

Colin is ARetailSpace's Head of Growth, and write on real estate, PropTech, and travel.