The Smart Mall – Next Generation Retail

Are you ready for the Smart Mall? Smart Malls will combine retailtainment and technology to deliver a new and improved shopping experience. They are a response to the growing popularity of online shopping and falling high street sales. In addition to visitor attractions, Smart Malls will use your smartphone to drive in-store sales by providing new services such as way finding navigation, notifications, offers, loyalty rewards, and updates in return for information about where you go and how you shop.

Proponents say the Smart Mall will be successful because everyone wins. The consumer enjoys a more interactive and customer-focused visit while store owners benefit from a wealth of data that enables them to choreograph promotions more effectively. In addition, Smart Mall technology will be used to control the environment and atmosphere, co-ordinate stock and delivery systems as well as improve security. Much of the technology is driven by Wireless Mesh Networks (WMN), networks that can connect and control information from a variety of electronic devices, including smartphones.

It sounds fantastic and exciting but what are the hurdles?  What are the disadvantages?

Retail Competitive Advantage – Any new, prestigious retail venue will attract shoppers but, long term, competitive advantage is more difficult to measure. The retailer will probably want to use the mall’s internal network for promotions etc. However, retailers can already communicate with shoppers directly using their own brand apps. This also applies to data capture and analysis. Plus any thoughts of restricting network access to the mall’s own internal network will only frustrate shoppers.

Complex Integration – Every outlet will have a proprietary retail system so it may require considerable engineering to integrate it with a Smart Mall platform. But even if a Smart Mall system is independent of the retailer system, the retailer may not wish to share sensitive sales and consumer behaviour information, not just with the Smart Mall, but with competitors within the mall and beyond.

Shopper Privacy – How organisations capture, analyse and share customer personal information is under increasing scrutiny. People are also becoming more aware of their rights. As a result, there are questions about what information will be captured and how it will be used. How secure are the systems? Who will have access to the system? Are shoppers and tourists being profiled? Will it capture information from smart devices used by children such as phones and toys? What role will facial recognition and biometric data play? Even if a Smart Mall secures what it considers to be appropriate consents from shoppers, will these consents be acceptable under the data privacy and information security standards of other countries?

Cost – It is expensive so its an option that won’t be open to every retailer. Smart Mall development could also impact on other independent retailers. When shopping malls first appeared many years ago, city planners assured high street businesses that malls would have no impact on their trade. Despite objections, the malls were built and many family-owned stores had to close. It is ironic that we appear to have come full circle today with shoppers flocking to high streets filled with the sort of colour and variety only small shops and artisan cafes can offer. Don’t get me wrong, shopping malls – smart or otherwise – are a great idea but when they are placed close to neighbouring independent stores they attract business for everyone. One of my favourite malls, for example, is Victoria Square in Belfast which integrates well with the surrounding streets and shops.  

As far as Smart Mall technology is concerned, let’s define two types – number crunching tech (analytics etc.) and content tech (images, video, graphics etc.). If we accept that retailing is all about delivering a positive and unforgettable customer experience, it is critical that smart outlets use content tech to repeat and reflect that positive customer journey on the devices that shoppers use. As in the bazaars, souks and markets of the past, the mall is a place where people gather. It is a community hub. So, in addition to amazing spectacles, Smart Malls should also think about creating rich interactive physical and digital content, for all generations, that not only reflects the life of the Smart Mall but the nation, city and community it celebrates. It’s not just about the numbers.

One model for such a platform is the Digital Media Management hub. It’s used by media and entertainment networks the world over to integrate platforms and to enable creative content producers and analysts to work together to manage multiple content channels and harvest the data they produce. The model is also more future-proof because, even if the number crunching tech changes (and it will), the desire for great content won’t. It is this that drives people to make purchases. Smart Malls are ideally placed to take advantage of Digital Media Management platforms because they are, in effect, narrowcasters – entertainment and communications centres for a captured audience. Embracing media network technology, tools and skills will require mall managers to step outside the traditional role of the landlord and service provider but it seems to me that this process has already started with the introduction of smart devices and mesh networks.

Today, my retail outlet is on my phone. I can go there browse and purchase products I want and have them delivered direct to my home. What’s missing, is the human touch. This is the huge advantage that every mall and shop has over online shopping. Using content driven technology to amplify this narrative will mean that I can experience the life of the outlet at any time increasing my desire to return and re-experience the real thing. In other words, Smart Malls and outlets have an opportunity to combine the best of both worlds and win.