A Vision Of The Future Mall: Four Innovation Scenarios

I remember going to the mall in Orange County with my best friend’s mom. We would happily tag along for the ride where she would purchase one item from Macy’s only to return it the next week. It was our after school ritual. We would then eat hamburgers at Red Robin or orange chicken at Panda Express.

The mall of the past was a place you hung out when you were bored – the place where you found a cute top at Wet Seal or rented an oversized suit for prom. Or maybe you enjoyed tinkering in one of those stores that displayed innovative consumer grade tech gadgets such as headphones, a lounge chair with a massager built in, or the newest Palm Pilot.

In Orange County – a suburb in California – the mall was our Facebook.

The mall was a big part of my life growing up because that was simply the thing to do.

The mall was a key part of many people’s lives back in the day, but it’s not anymore. Ordering something online – even at the risk of it not fitting – is preferable over having to physically go to the mall. With city traffic increasing, the thought of fighting commuters and freeway congestion compared with one-click ordering while you watch Milk Bar’s Christina Tosi episode of “Chef’s Table” on Netflix; you can’t compare these scenarios. One is hard and one is easy. I will go with easy every time.

People used to find community at the mall. It was the “town square.” Now it is not. Today people are convening at places like the crossfit gym or meet-ups at coffee shops and bars. And to be frank, teenagers are now sitting on the internet, everywhere.

The reason I’m talking about how teenagers and people spend their time is I recently read a new report from Westfield that illustrates their predictions for the mall of the future, 2028.

There is an imperative that brands create rich, relevant and personalized customer experiences – and the role of the retail space in this effort is a much debated topic.

Here’s my main issue with the mall; it is a mass-experience tailored for no one. This is a problem in the face of a time where customers now get personalized real-time experiences from other places. Take Amazon, Spotify or Uber. Or from the sharing economy examples include a professional chef that comes to the customer’s home to cook for a small group of friends, a handmade piece of furniture for your baby’s new room, or even a private kayaking tour in Maui from a local who knows the history.

But when we think about the mall is it simply a waste of space now?

Well not exactly.

The Future Mall: Micro-Cities Combining Entertainment, Wellness, Learning and Personalized Product-Matching

The advantage the mall has is it’s a large piece of real estate. It’s not productive to simply use this real estate as a place to display dusty inventory.

What’s the missed opportunity we could move on faster than we are? The opportunity for customer experience innovation is to use the mall as a place to connect people and create engaging experiences.

I was reading Singularity University cofounder and futurist Peter Diamandis’ newsletter and his team’s analysis of Westfield’s futurist vision of their mall (the year 2028). Claire Adair wrote, “Westfield’s designs for such high-tech ‘micro-cities’ could unlock vast new potential for retail over the next decade — combining entertainment, wellness, learning, and personalized product-matching to meet consumers’ evolving demands and imaginations.”

When you think of today’s mall you don’t think of such a high tech micro city.

What would the mall look like if it provided the same speed, relevance and personalization as Netflix, Amazon or Spotify?

The mall is moving at a snail’s pace to catch up with the user experiences of these companies – retail spaces still hang on, empty and trying to maintain relevance. Westfield’s vision is one that actually plays a vital role in society – connecting people, adding value to their lives, educating them, and even feeding them.

For this to happen there would need to be a governing body to connect the many retailers who simply rent space from the mall. One body would have to plan the experience at the mall rather than simply rent to the highest bidding chain.

You’re Relevant, Or You’re Not

Pamela Danziger in her recent article “4 Models Of the Shopping Mall of the Future said, “The way to find that ‘never looked better’ future for malls is to reimagine and reengineer malls and shopping centers as ‘Consumer Engagement Spaces.”

Engagement is not the word that comes to mind for most of us when we think of the mall. Customers today walk around the mall but they are not engaged. They often walk with their head down engaged on their smartphones.

U.S. mall vacancy rates through the first quarter of 2018 are at the highest level since the end of 2012.

Danziger said, “The now outmoded idea of malls as places for retailers to push out product offerings into a mass market must be replaced by a pull-marketing approach where the mall is designed around the needs and interests of an increasingly diverse consumer market, often segmented by age, ethnicity and locality.”

Dazinger’s point is smart. The mall must be designed around the needs and interests of an increasingly diverse consumer market, often segmented by age, ethnicity and locality.  Today that is a totally different approach than what we’ve seen in the past. This is an actual strategy, not simply a business model. This would require a high level strategist to design an experience of the mall, and change the financial model of simply renting to the highest bidding chain.

This future view makes the mall a main street where people gather rather than just a large impersonal space where large retail chains sell goods.

I looked at Westfield’s future vision of the mall (the year 2028) and provided commentary on four of the areas outlined in the report.

1. The Use Of AI And Machine Learning, Digital Pathways And Drones

According to the report walkways will fuse with artificial intelligence. The concept shows customers walking along digital pathways, while drones fly above delivering purchases. Eye scanners recalling information on entry about a visitor’s previous purchases will offer personalized short cuts around the center.

The power of machine learning is the technology can learn the habits of the consumers – following their footsteps – learning consumer behavior and altering itself in real-time. At one time I interviewed a Microsoft executive who shared a story about how they were working on a technology with facial recognition; a customer enters a store and the store’s machine learning remembers the face (like an AI powered facial recognition CRM) and serves up suggestions to that customer automatically.

Privacy is of course a concern here. Do people want the mall to scan their eyes and access private information? Perhaps if the customer is arriving with a friend they don’t want their friend to know their past purchases – or be served up similar products while at the mall. And if it’s a customer’s first time at the mall this would not work without third party data. The eye scanner or facial recognition technology would need to know other third parties where the customer spent money. When we discuss third parties and customer data the conversation gets a little dicey. Everyone is still a little hungover from the Facebook Cambridge Analytica molotov cocktail.

The report talked about drones flying above to deliver items. My view is if drones are already helping self-driving cars navigate, it’s likely drones themselves can be good drivers.

My opinion is that drones must be quiet and thin as not to cause disturbances, with accurate direction so as not to get into a drone accident. Will the drone simply pick up the product the customer buys and immediately fly it to their house? Does someone need to be home to receive the drone’s delivery? Can the drone be shot down mid-route?

One other question is whether the consumer wants to receive expensive products via drone. Perhaps it’s not inconvenient for the customer to simply take the product home with them. If I purchased something expensive I would not necessarily want a drone flying it home, but rather I would take it with me.

2. Wellness At The Mall Called “Betterment Zones”

The concept shows a network of waterways that will flow throughout the center, along with a “betterment zone” which will offer visitors mindfulness workshops. Prevalent greenery featuring hanging sensory gardens will flow indoors and outdoors.

Highly populated areas such as the airport are stressful. Malls are stressful. They are not places people go for wellness. However if someone is staying all day, they can both find the right outfit and then–when that experience is hectic–destress with another experience right after. I’m always amazed how people get massages in a chair at the airport or even at the local grocery store when people and noise are encircling them. But with a mall you have a large enough space that the customer can get a treatment without having to receive the treatment in front of everyone else. I am a big fan of self-care and I personally get massage and facials. I cook at home because it is much healthier than eating out (for me personally). So if I could do this while getting a dress for an upcoming speaking gig in one day I would be happy. I must not be the only person to feel this way.

3. Reading Rooms Which Offer Shoppers Access To Every Book Ever Written

I think this trend is not about the books per say, but more about the trend that malls can be a place for education – for workshops – for speakers – and community activities. The mall is a large space, large enough to host a conference, a meet-up, a training or similar educational items.

4. Farms Allow Consumers To Pick Their Own Produce

I already told you I like to eat healthy, local organic food when I can. The mall or even the airport generally has the opposite of that – so I avoid eating there and I am guilty of packing smelly, healthy snacks on airplanes. Sorry guys. In all seriousness, today there is a large trend toward healthy eating – people like fresh food – and malls can be a place to not only purchase food but learn how to cook it. Grocery stores are now providing an antiquated way of selling food. The food is not fresh – not as fresh as directly from the farmer. Perhaps the mall will become a more avant-garde grocery store in the future.

The mall can certainly earn a place in people’s lives, but the mall needs a strategy for the entire mall – rather than simply providing disconnected retail experiences sold to the highest bidder. Westfield is simply one business. Perhaps a governing body will form helping malls across the world innovate. Only time will tell if we can expect that future valuable micro-city from the mall of the future. And my daughter, like me, will spend her time at the mall – but not to shop at Wet Seal or eat Orange Chicken.

Blake Morgan is a keynote speaker, customer experience futurist and author. Sign up for her weekly customer experience newsletter here.

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