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Death of the Mall: Retail Brands Must Update Aging Approaches To Customer Experience Commentary

By Gemma Joyce on June 22nd 2017

Southdale Shopping Centre, Minnesota, was opened in 1956 with people in mind. The building, celebrated as the first ever shopping mall, was designed by Austrian-born Victor Gruen who wanted to bring a slice of Viennese culture to the United States.

Balconies were low so that customers could find stores on upper and lower floors. The entrances were expertly placed so that half of the customers would enter on the ground floor and half on the first. The parking lot was designed so that visitors could easily find their vehicles. As The Economist put it, “It was as though Orville and Wilbur Wright had not just discovered powered flight but had built a plane with tray tables and a duty-free service.”

As malls spread like wildfire across America, Gruen would come to hate the thing he created. The malls he had originally intended as a place for people to come together and to play an important role in civic life would cause damage to the urban high street, intensify a car-reliant culture and come to house, almost exclusively, large chains – not the second branches of downtown stores like when things first started.

But as footfall began to decline it wouldn’t be the sprawling parking lots and lack of art, entertainment and debate enjoyed over coffee in the atrium that would kill off the mall. The grim reaper came for them not with a scythe but with one-click purchases and next day delivery. Their name was E-commerce.


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As malls, built for a different time with different demands, steadily die out in the United States (as documented by the morbidly fascinating deadmalls.com and the work of Seph Lawless), it’s clear that commerce is changing rapidly and it is not going back anytime soon.

Where the pattern of the carpet, the neatness of the uniforms, the fragrance of the air and the gleaming material of the storefront sign were once the most important cues used to conjure the caliber of a brand in consumers’ minds, those sensory illusions must now be abbreviated to 140 characters and 2D product descriptors. None of this is new, of course, but to the slow moving behemoths of the retail industry adapting to the bewildering challenges of digital transformation will be no easy ride.

A reversal of power

In a mall, everything from the temperature of the store to the direction in which people queue to pay is regulated with a dedicated security guard ready to restore order when transgressions arise.

In the digital world, almost everything about a brand is up for negotiation with consumers. Customers are taking the lead on control of both the grounds in which transactions take place (both monetary and in communication) and the nature of those transactions (be they complaints, comments or praise). Where customers go, brands must follow. What customers demand, brands must provide. To be a customer-led organization is, now, to be a successful organization.

As “IRL” retail spaces become more problematic, the role of a robust digital presence has never been more important.

Opportunities and challenges

Authenticity (or, keeping the soul)

While translating an established brand that’s most recognizable for its distinctive in-store experiences into an online personality with its own style and voice can be a challenge, there are no end of examples of companies doing it successfully.

Brands must ensure that each new digital touch point maintains the essence of the company’s values – while the body of interaction may change, the soul can remain. Remaining authentic and avoiding click-bait-esque stunts, especially when competing for non-captive attention, is important. Perhaps a simple example of how not to do this is House of Frasers’ off-brand foray into emoji land last year.

“Consumer experience is your brand…All we’re trying to do is figure out how we can remain relevant for our audience today,” said David Greenfield of Adidas at last year’s Dots conference in Brighton. He described the “gruelling” but ultimately very rewarding work that goes into studying the now thousands of touch points individuals have with the brand and how to optimize them. This kind of attention to detail has seen Adidas continue as one of the most successful retail brands in the world.

customer experience

New ways to connect

We’re heading to a place where traditionally face-to-face interactions like returning a garment are negotiated purely digitally.

Online customer service provides a fast way to get increasingly impatient customers what they need, but it must be done promptlyGartner reports that the dissatisfaction from companies failing to respond can lead to a 15% churn rate for existing customers. Our report on social insights for the retail industry found that response rates varied incredibly between top retail brands on Twitter. As one of the reports’ creators James Lovejoy put it, “Recognizing that consumers’ attention wanes quickly after tweeting to businesses, brands that are responding faster are dramatically more likely to start conversations than their sluggish rivals.”

There’s far more to online interaction than customer service, of course. There are an incredible array of ways to connect with customers without blowing the bank. Whether it’s through adjusting prices based on data on how your customers are feeling or exploring virtual reality experiences that bring people into your world from their homes, there’s so much to play with.

Data, data, data

customer experience

Traditionally, shoppers’ behavior could be analyzed in a number of ways. Observation meant researchers could track movements around the store and which deals and displays were more attractive. Sales data could be compared across regions to see which products resonated in which areas. Focus groups captured people’s thoughts on different aspects of the brand.

Online interactions provide a wealth of new data sources for brands to take advantage of, from simple analyses on how web pages perform to finding out more about your audiences’ offline behavior and thinking in a far more unfiltered way than traditional research methods allow.

Social listening means you can understand what different parts of your audience want so you can deliver it to them. From understanding how people use your products to how you measure up to your competitors, there is a whole range of use cases a product like Brandwatch Analytics can provide. If you listen to your customers and give them what they want, you can’t lose.

Blending data of old and new can provide surprising insights on how your customers are behaving, and communicating them effectively with a platform like Vizia 2 can ensure the voice of the customer is present in decision-making at the highest levels.


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Personalization

Where a one-size-fits-all storefront was once all that brands had to attract customers of all demographics, the digital world allows for a much more personal approach.

Experiences don’t need to be tailored, by name, to a specific person, but making sure you’re targeting people with products and messages that are meaningful to them can build a stronger relationship that’s more likely to drive growth. With great data comes great potential for personalization – just don’t be creepy.

The survivors

Who will survive in an increasingly hostile environment where the old rules of retail are being bent and broken?

customer experienceEssentially, it’s those who embrace and innovate with digital.

As we’ve seen from Amazon’s recent purchase of Whole Foods, no industry is safe from the tide of digital-savvy newcomers who are equipped to address new challenges.

Whether it’s using digital research to inform in-store experiences that will delight and amaze, listening to customers on which products they want most, learning about your audience and the different groups within it or bossing social with your unique tone of voice, it’s brands that incorporate the digital world into their decision making that will triumph.

One thing hasn’t changed since Gruen’s first mall was built: listen to the people and create things for them and you can’t lose.


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Gemma Joyce

@GLJoyce

Gemma is the social data journalist heading up Brandwatch React. As well as being first with pop culture news, Gemma loves pizza, politics, and Angry Birds.