Calling In A Mall Stampede

I am all for anything that speeds up the traffic at shopping malls. Not that I am the fastest walker in the food court, mind you. There are loads of septuagenarians speed-walking their way to health in those boat-sized, super-white striders (where do they find sneakers that big? That white?) who blow back my thinning hair as they whisk by. But here in SUV-America, where the cars, the serving sizes, and the butts come super-sized, I sometimes feel like a ferret winding his way through the walk of the elephants. Put a double-wide stroller in front of one of these Human SUVs and you might as well just put yourself in park and dial up American Eagle direct to get those cargo shorts you came for in the first place.

I know I am being intolerant and mean. So?

But you can imagine my excitement when I heard that NearbyNow CEO Scott Dunlap can initiate a mall stampede with a flick of his location-based mobile marketing system. Last December in a trial at one test mall, users opted into an SMS messaging system that could alert them to sales in the mall. "We ran a Blue Light special for the next 20 people who bought something at Foot Locker," Dunlap recalls. "We sent a stampede. Salespeople saw people running." The management asked him not to do that anymore. "We realized you shouldn't blast it out to all 2,000 users."



Two thousand SMS opt-ins at one mall at one time? That is the kind of scale Dunlap says he is already seeing in his four-month-old mobile program. primarily is a Web-based marketing system allied with 118 malls that puts store inventory online and lets users find and reserve items before they get to the shops. NearbyNow is partnered with the likes of Westfield and other mall chains to mobilize this service in venue. Signage at the malls (the food courts work best, NATURALLY) prompts users to opt in. Customers can do an item search and get back locations for the product and even coupons. Looking up sales in the mall is the real killer app here, Dunlap says. They were surprised to find that "85% of searches are around sales," he says.

All according to the shopping season, NearbyNow is seeing about 1,000 users a day opting in at most malls. Dunlap estimates that 6% to 12% of the foot traffic is opting in when the signage is prominent. Users will look for a category of item and get back inventory or sale information, and then specific vendors might offer a sale on a related item in a follow-up text message. Dunlap limits the follow-up messages to two per hour and the system only contacts users up to an hour after their last activity. About 15% of users elect to opt in to regular text messages from the mall, usually a Friday notice of upcoming sales.

Patterns already are emerging, like the difference between "hunters" and "browsers." More likely male, the "hunters" are after specific items and tend to prefer the Web site where they can reserve an item ahead of time and get in and out. "Browsers" skew female and like the act of shopping, so they consult the SMS platform and look for sales. There are also regional differences. The texting platform is very popular in the Midwest, California and Eastern urban locales, but "I can't get Floridians to text message to save their lives," says Dunlap, and shoppers from Texas and Tennessee prefer the Web site.

Like a lot of mobile marketing, using the platform to get people into the store is only one piece of this. It is the feedback and the real-time monitoring of tastes that is invaluable to a lot of retailers. Between the Web site requests and the SMS queries you can see where the trends are, and even act on them immediately. If you see clusters of people in a mall searching for shoes, it is technically feasible to send notices of a sale at one of the anchor stores on the spot.

Dunlap says that the offers that work best are two-for-ones and giveaways. "10% off isn't going to do it," he finds, but the right offer can literally steer traffic to a store. As a test one day, he went to one of the partner malls and watched as he called in to his crew to drop an offer for a $25 iTunes gift certificate to the first set of buyers to a nearby store. "I could see 300 people stop in their tracks and start running to the store" as they got their sale message by SMS, he said.

He better not let me get my hands on this thing, because I would be ruthlessly targeting sale offers to the walking Escalades in front of me pushing triplets while sipping their smoothie. I'd laser target a 2-for-1 offer from Cinnabon to their cell and watch the smoothies fly as they high-tailed it to the food court. SUVs actually get up to speed pretty quickly if you put in the right fuel.

Okay, I am being intolerant and mean. So?

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