Will Tech Bring Back Mall Shoppers?

Danielle Beurteaux

Malls are staying put, but they’re going mobile to lure back shoppers. There’s a new raft of in-mall technology companies that are creating applications that do everything from alert shoppers of discounts to adjust lighting levels.

But will technology be enough to bring enough shoppers and their spending dollars to revive mall retail?

Some malls, mostly high-end, are doing quite well. But there are many properties that are struggling.

Mall companies are funding some of these innovations themselves. Westfield Corp., which owns malls around the world, launched its Westfield Labs to create technologies that can bridge the gap between online and in-real-life (IRL) shopping. One of the company’s initiatives, called Bespoke, opened at a location in San Francisco last year. It’s basically a combination of every new wave, digital economy business: there are pop-up stores, co-working spaces, and demo and event spaces.

For shoppers

To lure and create a more seamless digital/IRL shopping experience, malls are turning to technology like mapping and beacons. Some are piloting technology, similar to what is already used at some airports, to help drivers find empty parking spaces, eliminating the dreaded loop around the parking lot or up the parking ramp, or to help shoppers navigate inside the mall itself – a distinct change from the founding philosophy of the mall experience that getting shoppers lost was a good way to get them to spend more. Beacon technology, which uses smartphones to push notifications, is seen by some as the best tool for capturing shoppers’ dollars – and their data. The interesting use of beacons in the mall environment is that retailers are collaborating for a more holistic shopping experience. For example, shoppers can choose where to spend reward discounts.

For retailers

Mall owners and retailers are taking a page from the e-tailing playbook: the new mall experience is all about analytics. They’re looking to gather data on how many shoppers are coming to their properties and when, and  how and where they’re spending their time and money. This tech is using Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, and cellphone signals to track shoppers. The collected info even provides intel on how shoppers respond to in-mall advertising and stores’ window displays. It also can help create a path as shoppers visit different stores.

However, privacy issues – whether shoppers are happy with this all-or-nothing data collection approach in exchange for, say, a coupon – could make consumers reluctant to enable this tech on their smartphones. Also, since many of these technologies rely on smartphone ownership and apps, shoppers will have to a) own a smartphone (only 68% of Americans do, according to Pew, although they tend to be younger and high-earners, the types of people many malls would like to attract), and b) download and engage with a variety of apps.

For how malls might develop into technological behemoths, look to Asia. Malls in China are already using many of these technologies and attempting to create shopping experiences that are unique to the brick-and-mortar experience. But whether a robot has the taste and styling chops to recommend clothing purchases is another question.

For more about navigating the fine line between giving shoppers personalized experiences and infringing on their privacy, see Live Businesses Deliver a Personal Customer Experience Without Losing Trust.

Danielle Beurteaux

About Danielle Beurteaux

Danielle Beurteaux is a New York–based writer who covers business, technology, and philanthropy. Her work has appeared in The New York Times and on Popular Mechanics, CNN, and Institutional Investor's Alpha, among other outlets.