Mall developer insisting on tech for merchant tenants

The dictatorial approach may be the only way to save the mall

mall image
Credit: Mall At Short Hills

Like newspapers, paper checks, drive-in movies and landlines, shopping malls are rapidly moving to the land of the quaint. It's possible that some will survive and even flourish, but that will require rapid technological advancements, plus far more customer service than most mall stores can handle.

But one brand-new mall in New York City is showing that it understands the problem. The Westfield World Trade Center mall in lower Manhattan, which opened on Aug. 16, requires that all tenants demonstrate that their stores will overflow with mobile and interactive features. I hate to embrace a dictatorial approach, but that's the only way to save the mall.

Not only do stores need to wire up individually, they need to interact with one another. Real-time inventory must be a mall-wide concept, not an individual store approach. There may be 22 apparel stores throughout the complex, but if only one has the shirt in the color and size I want, I need the mall's system to tell me that — as opposed to visiting the site of every apparel store one at a time.

Readers of this column know that saving the mall is a frequent theme, from overall modernization to resourceful use of mobile to even using IoT parking lighting to help shoppers find — and pay for — spaces. But this Manhattan mall, with tenants including Apple, Bose, Dior, Kit and Ace, Kate Spade, Stuart Weitzman, Cole Haan, Under Armour, John Varvatos and Sephora, is promising to take things further.

Malls have historically been collections of distinct stores. Gift cards were all only good in select stores. Returns were store-based. Even payment methods accepted ranged all over the place. Envision a mall where every store had NFC enabled so that you could literally leave your wallet in your car and pay for anything and everything in any store with your phone.

From a merchant's loss-prevention perspective, what if a shoplifter caught and banned from any store would instantly be banned from every store, with every video camera instantly told the face — and every Wi-Fi the phone's ID — to look for.

My favorite, though, is that integrated inventory. Gone would be the days when someone had to walk in and out of a dozen stores to see if they had a specific item. A few clicks on the mall's app would reveal all. This would encourage merchants to keep their inventory complete and accurate. It would also work as a marketing tool. Just as Google became the great equalizer for small merchants in e-commerce, some tiny gift shop could get the sale because it had exactly what you want. That beats being talked into something not quite right by a savvy Macy's sales associate.

"We used to think technology was a threat, but it’s actually an advantage," said Westfield U.S. CEO William Hecht in this profile. "Malls have shifted to become more exciting places to be by focusing on technology. The investments are in major cities."

Ultimately, it is going to be up to merchants to decide how enthusiastically they are going to use these technologies. But Westfield's policy and attitude — embrace technology and function as part of an integrated community or go bankrupt some other mall — is a wonderful step in the right direction.

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