Physical commerce isn’t going anywhere. The instant gratification and satisfaction that comes from search and discovery and interacting with goods and associates will always prevail over e-Commerce. The everyday shopping experience is changing, however, and retailers and mall owners that adapt to these changing preferences are the ones who will see continued success.
People like physical retail experiences because of the socialization that comes with real-time, real-life feedback, ostensibly impartial opinions on how something looks or works, and the unique impact a tactile relationship with a product can create (“so soft” comes to mind when shopping for clothing or even bedding). Additionally, there’s a reason that some immediate purchases, or even splurges, are called “retail therapy” — the experience of completing a purchase can be therapeutic in certain scenarios (replacing something that had a bad association in your mind, preparing for something you hope to come, etc.). Somehow clicking through on a web site doesn’t deliver that same satisfaction.
Compare that to the average consumer today. Their priority is efficiency. They’re happy to have a low-touch, self-serve experience so long as it works. Amazon’s creation of Amazon Go reinforces this exact sentiment. The new store is designed to completely eliminate checkout lines, enabling customers to complete their shopping trip with little interruption and almost no hesitation. Just as luxury shoppers want their expectations to be exceeded, everyday consumers expect the same thanks to today’s tech-enabled commerce. They want to be able to get themselves where they need to go, buy the products they want, and get on with their lives.
And yet, malls are still built on foot traffic and keeping people visiting, exploring and discovering, weekend after weekend. As such, we’re seeing really interesting additions to your traditional mall makeup to provide not just a shopping experience, but a day’s worth of activity, to keep people coming back, spending more and trying new things.
The rise of mixed use spaces is significant. We’ve seen gyms in malls for decades, but climbing walls and indoor playgrounds are new takes on that old standby. Any central hub for social interactions that’s in an indoor space offers advantages for consumers — free A/C, security, no re-applying sunscreen. Whatever it is that makes an individual’s life that much easier can be met with these spaces.
Tysons Corner in Washington, D.C. is a great example of mixed developments popping up around malls. An entire neighborhood is resurrecting around the Tysons Corner Shopping Center, inclusive of multiple transit stops, condos, outdoor spaces and hotels. Malls should start to take a page from Tysons’ book and evolve with the needs and preferences of their busy customers.
Personalization will take on a whole new meaning. We saw it emerge this past holiday season, with malls implementing highly interactive “Santa Experiences,” complete with iPads that help in-mall Santas personalize every experience by knowing a child’s name and wish list before they even sit down. In the very near future, customer profiles complete with your transaction history and preferences will be available at the touch of a button, enabling in-store associates to know your shoe size and favorite brands as soon as you set foot in the department.
Responsive design will leave the tech ecosystem and enter the physical world in the malls of the future. With the ability to “read” the time of day, day of the week, season and more, malls will be able to adjust everything indoors, from lighting to promotions, in order to “optimize” the physical customer experience — just as they’ve done to the online one for years. With digital “endless aisles” anything a customer might want can be sourced and solved for in their one visit.
One positive thing in all this change for malls is that greater store turnover is inevitable and it can actually drive shoppers to want to stop by more often. The “pop-up” mentality is real, and with short term leases, smaller selling spaces and even simple showrooms for virtual goods, malls are likely to see an influx of traffic with more dynamism in the mall environment.
Fewer, better malls will emerge in the future that provide a holistic experience that consumers actively want. Retailers and mall owners who refrain from altering their physical experiences will continue to decline, and the rapid evolution of in-store technologies might make it occur faster than previously anticipated.
Hongwei Liu is the CEO at Mappedin, where they are digitizing the indoors and helping people find their way. Six of the ten largest malls in Canada and two leading retail chains use Mappedin for customer wayfinding and managing spatial data. Formerly, Liu worked with brilliant people at BlackBerry's radio-frequency lab. Before that, he studied Electrical Engineering at the University of Waterloo. Liu has always loved technology, especially the web — as a source of knowledge, entertainment, productivity, outreach, and now as a way to make an impact. He is very interested in how web technology and brick-and-mortar will collide.