The way we shop was changing long before COVID-19 was a household word. As more of our purchases move online, physical retailers started leveraging in-person experiences as a way to offer shoppers something more than they could get shopping in an app or web browser. Creating an in-store experience was only part of the equation. Large malls and shopping centers were also increasingly offering amenities and events to entice consumers to shop in-person. Now though, the pandemic has thrown these experiential investments into doubt as the coronavirus has made people avoid close quarters and wary of shared spaces.
The pioneer of the experiential shopping strategy is the Mall of America. This famous mecca of brick and mortar commerce was built in 1992 on the former site of the Metropolitan Stadium, where the Vikings and Twins played before they moved to the Metrodome. The size of the building is hard to comprehend without seeing it in person, the roughly 4,870,000 square feet floorplate is big enough to fit seven Yankee Stadiums inside. Besides the 520 store locations, the mall features a theme park, five roller coasters, a mini-golf course, and an aquarium.
So, how does a mall built around experience see the future of retail? We spoke with Jill Renslow, Senior Vice President of Marketing at Mall of America. “Experience has always been our secret sauce,” she told me, “it has gotten us where we are, and we are not about to give up now.” She thinks malls will still be the intersection between retail, entertainment, and dining—something that she believes will remain important long after this disruptive virus is nothing more than a distant, bad memory.
Renslow did admit that the digital relationship between the consumer and retailers has grown. For example, the need for curbside pick-up has shifted many more retailers to a “buy online, pick-up in-store” method. Mall of America has created a seamless curbside pick-up experience for retailers and their customers, but all curbside pick-ups must be coordinated directly between the retailer and guest. Renslow said that she sees a tremendous opportunity for shopping centers to provide the important service of connecting all of the retailers together. “Eventually we want to be able to be the universal shopping cart for all of our retailers,” she said.
The same digital technology that has helped stores connect with their customers is also allowing shopping centers like Mall of America better serve their tenants. “When we get feedback from the shoppers we want to be able to include our tenants in that loop,” Renslow said. This has helped stores keep customer satisfaction high and gives them important insights into how that can further improve their offerings.
Tom McGee, president of the trade group International Council of Shopping Centers (ICSC), explains that one of the major shifts in consumer behavior has been how much “shopping” is done. “Shoppers are more efficient, people tend to come to the store knowing what they want,” McGee said, “the upside of this is that there seems to be more money spent for each trip.” The trend of shorter, more deliberate shopping is a result of the fear of contracting the coronavirus and therefore will likely not be a lasting one. Even during the pandemic, there are opportunities to encourage shopping. The Mall of America has positioned its Amazon lockers inside the main area of the mall to give stores an opportunity to get in front of more shoppers.
As part of its commitment to help tenants in these hard times, The Mall of America has deployed a state-of-the-art suite of technology solutions, which recently won them ICSC’s MAXI award for innovation. Renslow said that communication technologies like Mallcomm have completely changed the way that they collaborate with their tenants. She emphasized that it was important for both tenants and landlords to collaborate so that shopping centers can really create an experience that can’t be found online.
The Mall of America has been aggressive in expanding the way it connects with its tenants. From helping them navigate their pandemic assistance documents to being an early proponent for remaining closed on Thanksgiving day since 2015, giving that time back for tenant employees to share with their family and friends, the team has spent a lot of time understanding their vision and refining their messaging. “My biggest suggestion to other malls is to be bold and try new things,” Renslow said. “You know some initiatives won’t catch on and some tech won’t work the way you expect it to, but you still have to try. As an industry, we don’t have an option to do nothing.
PROPMODO WEBINAR Rebuilding Retail How shopping centers can streamline operations and regain consumer confidence
Join us for a webinar on Rebuilding Retail at Sept 15 at 1:00 PM Eastern, 10:00 AM Pacific where we will talk to Renslow, McGee and others about how retail real estate is adapting to the challenges posed by the pandemic.