Can mobile save the mall? Yes, but not how you think

It's not about bringing customers into the mall. It's about giving them reasons to come all the time — and not wanting to leave.

mall image
Credit: Mall At Short Hills

In a world where shopping malls are losing customers by the escalator-load to more convenient and deeper-inventoried digital options, one mall in a lightly populated Nebraska town is making some impressive progress in getting its shoppers to stick around.

That mall, the Nebraska Crossing Outlets, is using mobile marketing to not only pull shoppers back to the buildings, but also to sharply increase how much they buy once there. According to an intriguing piece in Stores Magazine, the mall boasts some compelling stats. After viewing a mobile offer, about 60% of shoppers visit the mall within four hours. That's an even more impressive number given that store officials are quite broad in how far people can be and still be considered local to the mall. "We have 4 million people in our trade area," the story quoted Rod Yates, a mall developer, saying, who "can drive to our center in 2.5 hours or less."

If the area is so sparsely populated that a 150-minute drive is considered local, that four-hour response time is outstanding. Then again, if shoppers see a promo and choose to not react for several hours, they probably are never going to.

Another powerful stat: Memorial Day 2015 flash sales increased average transaction amounts by 165%. That's a bit more difficult of a comparison to make persuasively. Almost any big sale is going to sharply increase store revenue. The question here is, How much did mobile marketing improve those results?

But Yates was quoted as saying two rather interesting thoughts. The first was about mall staffing: "We view our outlet center as a laboratory, and we can experiment with many different actions relating to technology and data mining. Next-generation malls have technologists and data scientists as part of the mall staffing."

The second thought, which directly relates, is a paraphrase: "Tron disagrees with those who believe the rise of e-commerce will slow down traditional bricks-and-mortar retail. 'What gets lost is that bricks-and-mortar is still at the center of the multichannel journey. Over 90 percent of sales occur in a physical location — only about 7 percent occur online. It’s a really nice facilitator of physical shopping.'"

It's hard to know where to start with such an utterance. First, shopping malls are nice facilitators of physical shopping? In the same way that food is a nice facilitator of eating or that cars are a nice facilitator of driving? More to the point, though, this is a popular and incredibly dangerous retail technology attitude. It looks at the fact that most sales still occur in-store and concludes that in-store is doing fine. By doing that and ignoring the plunging share of dollar that in-store delivers is nicely naive. It's akin to looking at the fact that magstripe purchases are still dominant in the U.S. and concluding that magstripe is a good place for long-term investment.

Using mobile ads — especially personalized messages — is a commendable way to slow losses and to eek more life out of a mall. But it only works if it's a temporary measure to buy time while you prepare to deploy the real answer. And nowhere is that real answer needed more than in sparsely populated areas where people can no longer afford to make a trip to the mall an almost all-day affair.

At a practical level, all commerce is about shoppers obtaining goods or services that they want/need. (If a retail marketer is good, all "wants" will morph into perceived "needs.") And digital commerce — especially with same-day delivery — offers a wealth of purchase options (inventory), speed and convenience that no in-store facility can match.

Fortunately for retailers, shopping does in fact not exist in an emotionless practical and logical reality. It's a social interaction with friends, a fun experience, and it's entertaining. That needs to be the focus. Queue-busting, for example, is a mobile technique that makes the mall less about standing in lines. That directly improves the in-store experience.

In-store needs to leverage what it can deliver that no digital commerce site can. Associates must boost customer-service talents. Environmental controls must be superb. Bookstores need to highlight talks with authors, kitchen equipment stores must do round-the-clock demos and tastings, toy stores must offer banks of well-trained customer playmates, clothing stores must push custom-tailoring and personalized consulting, etc. Makeup demos, gift-wrapping, people helping to carry groceries around the building and to waiting cars, etc.

Malls are looking to technology to automate the sales process. That is perfectly playing into the hands of Amazon. Use technology to boost the experience. Systems, for example, that identify shoppers (courtesy of mobile signals and retail apps) as they move through the mall can signal (message?) associates of who is coming and their purchase history and personal profile. If associates are properly trained, that will translate into well-informed and highly personal interactions.

Shopping malls need not melt away. And Yates' idea of having "technologists and data scientists" on a mall's staff is a good one. But only if those coders-extraordinaire are used properly. It's not about bringing customers into the mall. It's about giving them reasons to come all the time — and not wanting to leave. Amazon is all about efficiency. Click in, get your item and one-click yourself away. A good shopping experience online is a really fast one. Malls need to be about fun and enjoyment. Otherwise, you might as well unplug your frozen yogurt machines now.

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