It wasn’t long ago that mall operators operated as little more than glorified landlords, wooing leading retailers to their lofty digs and getting out of the way. But in a world disrupted by Amazon.com and its long tail of rivals, mall operators are feeling the trickle-down effect of falling foot traffic at many brick-and-mortar brands they host.
Westfield Corp., which manages $32 billion in assets spanning 35 shopping centers in the U.S. and U.K., is seeking to improve its fortunes with digital signs, sensors and analytics that can help provide personalized recommendations, according to CIO Denise Taylor. Taylor, who joined the company in 2015, says adding new digital technologies and brand partners will redefine the consumer experience, buoying prospects for both Westfield and its roughly 6,400 retailers.
It’s a bold but necessary gambit. Retail kings J.C. Penney, RadioShack, Macy’s and Sears have all closed more than 100 stores in 2017, leaving some serious square footage in U.S. malls. Showrooming, in which consumers browse in stores only to purchase merchandise online, often on the spot, continues to haunt big brands. And consumers who once eschewed ordering apparel online are now doing so in droves, as sizing and 3D visualization technologies improve.
Betting big on new brands, tech
To counter the closure of retailers crushed by ecommerce, mall operators have been luring different kinds of retail partners, including fine-dining restaurants, gym chains and entertainment concepts, such as bowling and miniature golf. Believing such services will make its mall more inviting destinations, Westfield hosts an Equinox gym, movie theater and fine-dining options in its flagship Century City, Calif., location. It is also turning to digital technologies to draw tech-savvy millennials and others.
Westfield Century City now includes smart parking. The service, which relies on cameras and sensors to identify consumers by their license plates, enables shoppers to pay for parking via their iPhone or Android smartphone without stopping at a station, Taylor says.
The company implemented WiFi-powered digital networks to allow consumers to browse information about the locations they choose to visit. In 2016, Westfield inked a deal with ANC to deploy 5,000 square feet of LED throughout the Westfield World Trade Center Complex. The digital media network features an LED display measuring 280 feet long to deliver advertising from such major brands as Ford, Sephora and Sennheiser.
Westfield stepped up its digital network play in March, rolling out 450 eye-level digital media screens at 17 flagship retail destinations, including New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco, that customize advertisements for passersby in real-time. The screens and software track the number of individuals passing in front of them and use crowd analytics to determine the demographic of viewers in close proximity, Taylor says. Combined with such data points as emotional response, body language and dwell time, the technologies can provide more targeted advertising to certain cohorts.
Taylor says that data captured through these screens is anonymous, though she noted that opt-in agreements could enable Westfield to provide more targeted consumer experiences. Westfield is rolling out a new Salesforce.com customer relationship management system and building a data lake to better tap the terabytes of data its digital tools collect on the millions of consumers who frequent its malls each year.
Taylor detailed the following scenario: Beacons in the digital media screens will help Westfield know that a certain customer is in a corner of the mall in Century City. Harnessing data the consumer has generated at brands, as well as their foot traffic in the mall, Westfield might send a push notification to a customer’s mobile phone recommending that they stop by its Javier’s restaurant in Century City after they buy a sweater that is on sale at Bloomingdale’s nearby. Westfield is still working out the operational details of such services, however Taylor stressed that it will be available to customers on an opt-in basis, potentially via the Westfield application available via Apple’s App Store and Google Play.
Coddling the retailers is the key
The biggest barrier for this isn’t technology. Westfield doesn’t yet have loads of data on specific customers; retailers, of course, do. If Westfield can buddy up with retailers to share data it will be able to make highly specific and targeted offers. This will be a tricky proposition as retailers are notoriously reluctant to share customer data. But Taylor, who admits asking retailers to share data represents a huge shift in Westfield’s approach, remains optimistic.
“We are now talking with retailers about creating engagement with consumers,” Taylor says. “Ultimately, that’s the end vision that we’d like to get to. It reflects a true partnership, a true value to the retailers and the highest value to consumers.”
You’d think the notion that retailers and mall operators would share data about customer patterns might sound like desperation borne of fears over Amazon.com’s seemingly relentless takeover across the retail landscape. But Taylor insists this isn’t so, noting that Westfield, which hosts Amazon.com pop-up stores in its locations, considers the ecommerce king a valued partner. She says that research shows that as much as people are shopping online they are still going to brick-and-mortar retailers to touch and feel products, spend a day out with the family, catch an event and go to a restaurant.
The key, Taylor says, is ensuring that Westfield experiences are customizable and adaptable based on different consumer demographics. “Whether you’re a millennial, a married, middle-aged couple, or a retired widow, we all consume differently,” Taylor says. “Some go [to malls] for one thing, others make it a destination. We have to be flexible and agile to deliver really customizable experiences.”