Goodbye briefcase, hello iPad: How tablet computers are transforming the retail business


Milton V. Peterson, left, and Taylor O. Chess of the Peterson Cos. use tablets to make presentations to clients at last week’s Las Vegas convention. Says Peterson, “I take it everywhere now.” (Marlene Karas/For Capital Business)

LAS VEGAS — The iPad has reached beyond the early adopters, the techies and the uber-hip.

In fact, it has reached the hands of Milton V. Peterson.

Peterson is a legend in Washington real estate, having founded a company that went on to build millions of square feet and create a not-small fortune for his family. But he is in his 70s and in philosophy, style and demeanor, he is old school.

But at the International Council of Shopping Centers conference in Las Vegas, there Peterson was, sitting in the Peterson Cos. booth, his thick fingers scrolling through site plans of his prized National Harbor development, background information on people he would be meeting with and photos of his children and grandchildren.

“I am still learning some things on it,” he said. “But I take it with me everywhere now.”

His team is certainly on board.

“We’d pay $25,000 for printing and set up and all of that, and the day after Vegas, it’s out of date” said Taylor O. Chess, Peterson Cos. senior vice president for retail. With the iPad, he said, “we can update it immediately; it’s constantly live.”

He pulls up the master plan for National Harbor, and then scrolls through the leasing plan for its retail spaces.

“No one wants to carry stuff home. Everybody says, ‘Hey when you get back, e-mail it to me.’ But while you and I are talking, let me e-mail it to you right now. You’ve got it. We’re done.”

The Peterson Cos. is by no means alone in moving the marketing materials, maps, plans and data from the paper fliers and posters that have long been the hallmark of real estate conferences like ICSC to their tablet computers, the most popular of which is the iPad. Although paper handouts and fliers can still be had in many cases, the technology has changed the practices of attendees in some important ways as they fly around the convention pitching their wares.

First, the tablets allow for much less paper to lug from the airport to the hotel to the convention center, in bulging briefcases and cardboard boxes. Bill Miller, director of retail leasing for D.C.-based Transwestern Retail, is an ICSC veteran known to haul materials on his many projects around the convention and then to after-hours receptions. This year he was using a tablet by Motorola to show off the high ceilings he was pitching in 70,000 square feet of space he was looking to lease at 650 Massachusetts Ave. NW.

Second, marketing a project with video or multimedia no longer requires shuffling to a television or computer screen. For a client concerned about whether a site is easy to access from the road, a broker can create a simulated driving experience. For a project that isn’t built yet, a computer animation can show it rise from the ground.

Third, real-time information — traffic data, stock prices, news headlines — can be added to the experience immediately.

Jodie W. McLean, president and chief investment officer for Edens & Avant, the South Carolina-based retail developer, propped up her iPad at ICSC to play a flashy, polished video the company recently produced to explain its vision for developing the Capital City Market in Northeast Washington into a unique shopping experience akin to the Meatpacking District in New York. Images of the market from the early days of Washington flash across the screen, interspersed with bright colorful photos of outdoor markets across the world. A narrator’s voice and snappy music play in the background.

“It’s kind of hard to show that on a static piece of paper,” McLean explained. She said the device could also help her address questions or concerns in a meeting on the spot; if a a retailer were concerned about competition near an Edens project, for instance, McLean says, she can bring up a map and show exactly where the competitors are.

“If I want to see where every surrounding Target is, the pins just drop down from the sky,” she said.

Ultimately she thinks owners of commercial real estate will use it for much more, not only for marketing but for property management.

“I don’t think that we as an industry have begun to see all the uses of this as a business application,” she said.

At the booth for CityCenter DC, the downtown real estate project by Hines, five iPads wrapped in monogrammed leather “CityCenter” covers lay on the greeting tables, ready for leasing agents to pick up and give digital walk-throughs to visitors.

It’s not an accident that the devices were so clearly on display. The functions of the iPad aside, Amy C. Rice, Hines project manager, said the device’s design itself was something with which CityCenter wanted to be associated.

“It mimics the fact that it’s a great project,” Rice said about her iPad and CityCenter. “You look at it and it’s very clean-lined and very modern. Then you look at the project, and it’s very clean-lined and very modern.”

Jonathan O'Connell has covered land use and development in the Washington area for more than five years.
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