Beginning this week, shoppers at Tysons Corner Center with the right app may see a welcome message pop up on their smartphones as they walk into the mall.
An hour into their shopping spree, they are likely to receive another text message, this time asking if they’d like their purchases delivered to their home.
And if they have questions along the way — does Nordstrom offer gift wrapping or when does California Pizza Kitchen open — they can get instant answers via text messaging.
The property is one of a handful of shopping centers around the country experimenting with mobile apps and Bluetooth technology to communicate with customers as they move through the mall.
“We can help them get to the American Girl store or make a dinner reservation or say, ‘By the way, Zara is having a 25 percent off sale on shoes,’” said Bob Maurer, senior marketing manager for Macerich, which owns the mall.
Earlier this year, Tysons Corner Center began offering a virtual concierge service that allows customers to text guest services with questions and requests. Thousands of queries have streamed in, and mall executives say the service has been so well-received that they are rolling out phase two just in time for the holiday season. Nearly 40,000 people have already downloaded the Tysons Corner Center app, allowing the mall to have direct conversations — and receive instant feedback — with its shoppers.
“There are a lot of practical uses, but the most frequently asked question is, ‘Where are your bathrooms?’” Maurer said.
Mobile apps and in-store technology, long the purview of coupon companies and discounters such as Target, are increasingly being adopted by higher-end brands and shopping centers.
Ugg this month opened its first high-tech store at the Tysons Galleria, where it uses the same wireless sensors that are in E-Z Passes to help shoppers customize boots and find related products on large in-store touch screens. At Burberry’s new outpost at CityCenterDC, which opened in August, company iPads are available for online shopping. And at Inspirato, a luxury vacation company with a new “experience center” at the Tysons Galleria, passersby can use a number of on-site computers and touch screens to browse lodges in Jackson Hole, Wyo., or chateaus in Bordeaux, France.
A number of other high-end brands, including Gucci, Michael Kors and Ralph Lauren, have partnered with MicroStrategy, a Tysons Corner-based data analytics company, in recent years to create customized apps to help retailers keep track of where — and how — customers are shopping.
“Incorporating technology into shopping centers is of paramount importance for a lot of owners and developers right now,” said Jesse Tron, a spokesman for the International Council of Shopping Centers. “You are seeing retailers become far more innovative now than in any holiday season past.”
This holiday season could be a crucial one for retailers as they hope to make up for ho-hum sales earlier in the year. Sales are expected to rise 4.1 percent to $616.9 billion nationally this holiday season, compared to an average growth rate of 2.9 percent over the past 10 years, according to data from the National Retail Federation.
Although online sales are expected to grow as much as 11 percent this year to $105 billion, they continue to account for less than 7 percent of overall retail sales nationally, according to the Census Bureau.
The vast majority of purchases continue to be rung up in brick-and-mortar stores, but retailers say the line between online shopping and in-store browsing is increasingly becoming blurred as customers research products online before making an in-store purchase, or vice versa.
“For retailers, it’s very, very imperative that [your store and your Web site] are connected and speaking to one another,” Tron said. “The driving concept for a lot of large centers and developers has become creating an in-store experience for the consumer.”
That has been the case at Burberry, which began a digital transformation eight years ago under the leadership of then-chief executive Angela Ahrendts. (Ahrendts now oversees retail and online sales at Apple.)
Today, many of the company’s stores, including the new location at CityCenterDC, come equipped with digital screens, video walls and iPads to allow customers to place online orders directly from the store. Burberry executives say the technology allows customers to access a broader swath of inventory than what’s in the store and to customize coats and accessories to their liking.
It seems to be working: More than 25 percent of Burberry’s online sales now come through in-store company iPads.
“We know that our customers are likely to use both Burberry.com and store visits when researching and ultimately making a purchase,” a company spokesperson said in an e-mail. “As a result, we concentrate on making the brand consistent and seamless as they move between the digital and the physical worlds.”
The earliest mobile shopping technology tended to focus on offering discounts: Apps such as RetailMeNot and Target’s Cartwheel have carved out a niche offering 10 percent off certain items or free shipping offers. But as technology has become more widespread and inexpensive, analysts say more and more niche brands are experimenting with smartphone and tablet capabilities.
“The commonality among all of these luxury brands is that they’re trying to understand their customer better,” said Jonathan Goldberg, director of strategic customer relations at MicroStrategy.
Eva Burns does not fancy herself a particularly high-tech shopper. But when the mother of three could only find robes in gray at the Ugg store earlier this month, she instinctively pulled out her smartphone.
“I wanted to see what other colors it came in,” said Burns, who was visiting from Harrisonburg, Va. She tried to load the Ugg Web site on her phone, but it didn’t work.
Instead, a store employee suggested an alternative: She could browse the company’s full line using one of four in-store digital screens.
Less than a minute later, Burns was scrolling through pink and lilac robes on a touch screen. It was the first time she had used in-store technology.
“I can read the reviews and look for different colors,” she said. “And I can look things up myself instead of having someone else do it for me.”
Ugg Australia, the maker of the ubiquitous winter boot, is hoping its first high-tech concept store, which opened two weeks ago at the Tysons Galleria, will catch on. The 2,100-square-foot location doubles as an innovation lab where Ugg can test ideas and approaches before rolling them out company-wide.
Instead of a traditional cash register, employees help customers place orders using handheld mobile devices.
“We find that the D.C. consumer is very tech-savvy,” said Dave Powers, president of omni-channel for Deckers Outdoor Corp., the California-based company that owns Ugg. “It’s a good opportunity for us to test some of our digital capabilities.”
With the help of radio-frequency identification technology, the store’s touch screens offer suggestions based on what shoppers are holding in their hands or trying on their feet. In addition to size and color options, the screens will also display style tips and videos related to a particular item.
“We think it’s going to be a great way for customers to get a more complete shopping experience,” said Charlie Miller of Control Group, the firm behind Ugg’s new in-store technology. “By making all of this information — which is typically only accessible online — available to them, we can create a much more holistic shopping experience.”
The challenge, Miller said, is making the process as seamless as possible. Customers shouldn’t have to feel like they’re doing extra work by using a touch screen or mobile app.
“The technology should do its role without the customer even realizing it,” Miller said.“We see this as the first step in a new retail experience that’s powered by technology.”
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