SHOPPING isn’t what it used to be. Prior to the Internet age, shopping meant going to the mall and buying stuff there. These days, a lot of people, especially the young, buy what they want online.

It makes sense as there are a lot of benefits to shopping online. The range of products is usually larger, the prices lower and items are delivered to your doorstep (often times the delivery is free). What’s there not to like?

It’s not surprising then that shopping malls are facing tough times. This is a situation that’s happening around the world, not just here. Experts say, one antidote to this problem is to position the mall as more of a social destination than merely a place to buy things.

Young people in particular are attracted to places where they can have a fun experience with their friends. They like to post selfies that can go viral on social media and attract lots of comments. Department stores aren’t exactly fertile ground for viral content. Mall management needs to think in terms of what types of experiences would generate the most social media buzz.

You can’t attract millennials through products alone. You have to tempt them with experiences worth sharing on social media. That means better food, entertainment and recreational options — things that they cannot experience online. Then of course, while they’re in the mall, they may just do some shopping.

Some malls in the US are already going heavily into this concept offering recreational amenities such as ice-skating, playgrounds, extreme sports games, yoga classes, exotic food tasting and various other activities that can only be experienced in person.

DIGITALLY-SAVVY MALL

It’s also crucial to enhance and extend the customer experience through digital means. One mall that’s leading the way on that is Mall of America in Minnesota. It’s the biggest shopping mall in the US in terms of number of retail outlets and floor space.

It has big anchor stores such as Macy’s and Nordstrom. But it also has unique feature attractions such as Nickelodeon Universe, an indoor theme park with several roller coaster rides and miniature golf course with 18-holes.

There’s also Sea Life Minnesota Aquarium where customers can travel through a 90-metre tunnel to view up to 4,500 live sea creatures.

A new attraction is FlyOver America which utilises cutting-edge virtual flight ride technology and involves special effects such as wind, scents, mist and moving seats to give the customer a real sensation of flying.

Mall of America is also the most digitally-savvy mall in the world. In 2013, it launched an initiative called ESP, which stands for Enhanced Service Portal, designed to facilitate smooth communication and engagement with guests through digital means but mainly through social media.

ESP is staffed by eight personnel, three of whom are on duty at all times during retail hours. The unit is located next to the mall’s phone operators and security department so that these departments can exchange information seamlessly.

The mall offers customer service through what it calls a “digital concierge”. It has signages all over the mall encouraging customers to ask questions, give feedback or register complaints digitally through text messaging, webchat and social media.

ESP team members respond to requests for information, reports of faulty facilities, complaints on parking and more.

Nothing seems too trivial for the team to respond to. This includes giving suggestions on where to eat and even making reservations for guests if they request it.

If customers are looking for a specific product, the team will check with the relevant store to see if the item is in stock.

Where possible, they can even ask the store to hold onto the item for the customer.

The team receives about 2,500 digital conversations per month and they try to respond to each message within 90 seconds.

They also operate in a digital command centre with several big-screen monitors on the wall which allows them to monitor all incoming communication as well as every mention of the mall on social media platforms such as Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and YouTube.

The mall has even geared itself up to know when people are posting stuff even if they don’t mention the mall’s name.

They do this through the use of a programme called Geofeedia, which displays on a map where people are inside the mall when they are on social media. A user’s location-based service on their smartphone has to be on in order for this to work. Shoppers can turn that off if they don’t want the mall to see what they’re posting.

While many big corporations these days closely monitor social media channels to respond to customer questions and complaints, Mall of America takes it a step further by proactively initiating conversations even when none is expected.

DIGITAL TRANSFORMATION

Whenever someone mentions Mall of America, ESP team members will engage them in some way. It could be a text reply or it could be a GIF or meme that’s appropriate.

To make the engagement more personalised rather than generic, team members will even take the trouble to quickly go through the person’s social media profile to gain a better understanding of who that person is so that they

can engage with him in a more meaningful way.

When marketing consultant Frederic Gonzalo travelled to Minneapolis to give a keynote speech at the Travel Bloggers Exchange (TBEXinMN), he posted a short video from Mall of America on his Instagram feed and was pleasantly surprised to see that the mall had actually responded to his post on the enormity of the mall.

“5.5 million square feet, this @MallofAmerica is huuuuuuge!” Gonzalo posted. Shortly, afterwards, the mall replied: “We quite agree, Frederic! Did you know that 7 Yankee Stadiums can fit inside the Mall?! We’re happy to have you visit for #TBEXinMN!”

If ESP team members notice some customers posting updates that indicate that they’re confused about something, they’ll jump into the conversation and offer some help.

And if someone tweets that they’re celebrating their birthday or anniversary, team members have the discretion to tweet back and surprise them with a gift voucher, movie pass or some other freebies. It’s an effective way to delight the customer.

ESP is also useful for security purposes. In monitoring social media chatter, the team sometimes notices things that require further investigation as well as celebrity appearances which could require some crowd control.

Minor infractions include posts of people smoking in the bathroom. Sometimes people even post pictures of items they’ve shoplifted, not realising that they’re actually giving themselves away.

A couple of years ago, ESP identified participants in a fight that occurred in one of the mall’s stores by analysing Geofeedia data about YouTube posts. The participants were later arrested.

Geofeedia is also useful for identifying celebrities in the mall, including those who don’t actively announce their presence.

The mall often doesn’t know about such visits until pictures by fans start surfacing on social media. That was how the mall discovered that Charlie Watts, the drummer for the Rolling Stones, was on its premises one summer.

It should be said that Mall of America’s ESP together with its digital concierge concept is the gold standard as far as digital transformation of a mall is concerned.

Not every mall owner will want to invest that much money and resources into setting up a digital nervous system for their mall. But they can certainly borrow some of the ideas from Mall of America and perhaps do a smaller scale version of it.

The basic idea is to make a visit to the mall a more experiential activity that goes beyond just shopping and to enhance the customer experience through social media.

The reality is that social media is a part of our everyday life. People are going to post stuff about their daily experiences, including when they’re about to visit a mall, when they’re in the mall and after they’ve left the mall.

With Mall of America, not only has it decided to be part of that conversation but it’s also turning such engagements into a memorable experience for its customers.

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