ACROSS: You recently introduced your “Digital Mall” project in Germany. How digital is the shopping experience in shopping malls really and what digital technology could benefit shopping center operators in the future?
SEBASTIAN BAUMANN: The digitalization of the bricks-and-mortar trade is in full swing. The biggest challenge is seamlessly merging the online and offline channels. This is precisely the background for our “Digital Mall” pilot project.
Purchases in bricks-and-mortar shops nowadays are heavily influenced by the digital world. It is thus imperative that consumers can always view the amount of a given good in stock in a shop online in real time. Granted—it’s early days, but I am convinced that things will move quickly in this regard.
Increasing digitalization also becomes apparent when you bear in mind that more and more online concepts are opening bricks-and-mortar shops to give their brands a home. Good examples are Cyberport, AboutYou, and mymuesli. In addition, there is a strong trend towards the use of digital solutions in services.
In our Future Labs, for example, we have developed various tools that support customer orientation. Interactive wayfinding systems, indoor navigation with beacon technology, and customer support through live video chats are just a few examples gradually being rolled out in more and more centers.
In the field of entertainment, too, we are developing modern offerings such as digital playgrounds with Kinect and augmented reality technology and the extremely popular selfie photo box with green-screen technology. These things are not yet rolled out in all centers, but we are well on our way to implementing a variety of solutions in our centers.
ACROSS: What new features and digital services are you currently working on in ECE’s Future Labs?
BAUMANN: We basically analyze our customers’ entire customer journey and look for innovative services and technologies to improve the shopping experience sustainably.
It starts right with their arrival in the parking garage, where, in addition to the existing tools Easy to Park and Car Finder, we have developed further solutions designed to provide customers more convenience and service.
Wayfinding in centers is a big issue. Our innovative 3D guidance systems provide great service benefits and we continue to develop them further. In order to serve our customers’ information needs better, we have introduced live video chats in our InfoGates. Here, too, we are currently hard at work on further development options.
We are also developing solutions in order to continue to meet the ever-growing needs of our customers as regards entertainment. We are currently analyzing the multisensory installations we have piloted in Aquis Plaza Aachen for approaches that can be adapted to other centers.
The success of digital children’s play areas and the selfie photo box also encouraged us to work even harder on the topic of kids entertainment. We want to offer families even more such features in centers in the future. We will therefore, among other things, develop the selfie boxes further and we also want to raise the kids playgrounds to a new level.
Finally, the Digital Mall offers numerous interesting expansion permutations. The real work for the launch has only just begun.
ACROSS: Apropos retail technology: Digitalization is a growing issue for major brands and chains. How can shopping center operators support retailers in implementing digital technologies and benefit from them themselves?
BAUMANN: Retail technology is a huge topic. Amazon Go and its so-called “Just Walk Out Technology,” which allows customers to just take the desired products in the store off the shelf and leave without “checking out,” shows the direction Big Data-driven retailers are thinking in.
The example of Rebecca Minkoff’s store in SoHo in New York also shows very clearly what the future of retail stores may look like. On a large “digital wall,” customers can get information on the store’s assortment when they walk in or just order a coffee, which is then promptly brought over.
Digital mirrors in the dressing rooms enable customers to order products in different sizes and colors directly to the fitting room or to check-out from there. To be sure, much of this is still in the pilot stage, but it makes it clear what direction things are developing in.
As center operators, we have only a limited role in retailers’ shops, of course, but we will offer more and more digital platforms and services like the “Digital Mall” in order to offer our tenants added digital value in our centers.
ACROSS: You recently hosted the 1st ECE Innovator (Innovationsschmiede)—an event meant to link operators and tenants better in terms of innovation and digitalization. What insights and experiences did it provide?
BAUMANN: The Innovator was an excellent platform to connect us even better with our tenants as regards digitalization and innovation. While we have long-standing close relationships with our tenants in all relevant areas, from leasing to daily operations, this was not yet the case in the fields of digitalization and innovation management.
This format gave us the opportunity to discuss interesting ideas on how we can gain more personal contact with our center visitors through new services that are even more individualized for each customer. In this context, we also presented a first prototype of the “Digital Mall” and got valuable feedback for further development.
I am convinced that more exciting joint projects with our tenants will arise from this collaboration and that these will help us to meet the challenges of the digital age better.