Commentary

Mobilizing The Mall Crawl

Imagine if you will a smart phone application that locates your current position in the shopping mall, searches for the item you want, and then directs you to the nearest store with your target in stock. Now, imagine if competing retailers knew from your search and eventual destination, where you were headed next and could send you ads keyed to the path you were taking. A competitor could poach you with a special discount, so you might buy those Adidas shoes from Foot Locker instead of the original destination. The mall could turn into an exciting place, where shop keeps actually vie for your business in real time.

Something like that may be evolving at NearbyNow, which lets user find in-stock items at 200 malls from the Web, and has been playing with its mobile implementation over the past year. According to CEO Scott Dunlap, company strategists have learned a lot about how people want to use phones during the shopping experience, and they are shaping new programs accordingly. In an earlier iteration, mallers would do SMS searches of inventory in a mall and get notices of nearby deals while shopping. NearbyNow has pulled back on this program, since it worked well only in certain malls. A more popular use of SMS has been the "mobile claim check." Before going to the mall, shoppers check the NearbyNow site to see if an item is in stock. They can reserve the product online and have a mobile claim check sent to their phone via SMS.

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Dunlap says the claim check feature is very popular with women aged 35 and up, and it works very well when the SMS includes not only the name and location of the store but also the name of a saleperson to contact in the shop. This level of personalization seems to be very important to the consumer. In most cases, these are women buying the item the same day, and they like the clarity of knowing who in the store to ask for. Before including the saleperson's first name in the mobile claim checks, only 15% of the online reserves asked for the SMS service, but with that feature 40% now do, he says.

The other big surprise for Dunlap was the increased use of smart phones to access the main NearbyNow Web site from within the mall. Even without a mobile-specific destination, people were accessing the site anyway. Dunlap is planning a mobile-centric site that will include maps of the mall and a directory. Apparently, the location of the nearest bathroom is among the most searched items.

Dunlap says that the off-mobile prompts are the biggest drivers so far. Pushing people from the Web to mobile claim checks or triggering an SMS relationship from in-mall signage are working best. A poster or kiosk with a perfume or sneaker ad can provide a short code exchange that shows where the items are in the mall or even provide a coupon.

While off-phone prompts are the biggest drivers now, Dunlap says the iPhone and smart phones clearly are changing the game. "We totally backed into this. The iPhone browser just kept popping up." And so an iPhone-specific NearbyNow application is coming. Dunlap says that iPhone users are looking to use their device anywhere and everywhere. They are looking for ways of complementing the shopping experience with a mobile Web connection. "If you give them the opportunity to search the mall, they will use it," he says. Better still, the demographics are stellar for retail, since both iPhone and smart phone owners have more discretionary income. Retailers tell Dunlap, "If I have people with iPhones walking in the door, it is going to be a good quarter."

Ultimately, a real-time in-mall mobile system like this can turn the tables on the shopping experience. Once retailers know you are in venue, with money to burn and with specific needs, then let the games begin. You are not shopping anymore; you are filtering RFPs from potential suppliers. With personalization comes great power.

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