We pulled into your typical American shopping mall this afternoon. It was shocking.
My world is, obviously, different than the average consumer. I spend my time looking at how disruptive digital technology is for business, and how brands can better leverage it to connect with their customers. The news that I read would have you believe that this is the end of retail as we have known it. That people are abandoning everything that we knew about the shopping experience, and replacing it with online services. Amazon now has a higher market capitalization than Walmart. We're going to see Fast Company cover more and more stories that feature photo essays of abandoned shopping malls. All of us sit at home, tap our screens and our goods are delivered in a couple of hours, with near-perfect customer service (no lines, no hassles, no pushy sales associates). How can the stores and malls compete in a digital world, where the best prices are a search away and nearly all businesses are able to sell something to anyone, anywhere in the world?
With that, I am a retail rat.
It's in my blood. My father owned a store. As a child, my weekends were spent hopping from store to store. When I was younger, I just assumed that my father was visiting with some friends and taking me along for the ride, so that we could spend some quality time together. As I got older, I realized that my dad was visiting these stores to figure out a better way to merchandise, or work with his fellow merchants to have stronger buying power. I was, literally, brought up in the retail environment. It is a part of who I am, and I still have a hard time passing by a pharmacy, and not going in to see how the front of the store is currently merchandised against the dispensary, and what new brands are being brought to the customer's attention. In that, I'm not a huge consumer. I just love the smell of retail in the morning. Still, it's hard to imagine a strong future for that sector when you see, feel and engage in e-commerce.
Don't believe the hype.
It's a Thursday afternoon. People should be working in this suburban area. We decided to take a break from our summer vacation at the beach, and head over to the local mall. We'll enjoy the air conditioning, walk around a little bit, and grab some dinner. It turns out, that the mall that we're visiting is 2,700,000 square feet with over 300 retailers. The physical infrastructure is book-ended by the big department stores. I'm anticipating a ghost town on a Thursday afternoon. It took close to ten minutes just to approach the space, due to traffic. Finding a parking spot was next-to-impossible. The humming and buzzing of people (and yes, they were carrying lots and lots of bags) reminded me of Times Square in New York City at night. An attempt to find an open device in the Apple store to fiddle with was futile. Some stations had a line-up of people waiting. It wasn't just Apple. Even random stores in strange corners had some people moving about.
It was so busy that it gave me a headache.
Of course, the problem with this scenario is that while people may still be going to shopping malls, their connectedness provides them with the power to research the best prices, shop later or buy items online from retailers they may prefer (for a myriad of reasons). There is a ton of data to support the notion that physical retail is challenged in a digital age. There is an equal amount of data to support the idea that pure-play digital brands have seen substantive opportunity in going with brick and mortar support. Although what I experienced is a classic case of something I call the Market of One, it was stunning to see. The hustle and bustle and the ringing of cash registers. Seeing young people (yes... millennials) hardly being able to handle the amount of bags that they were carrying... it felt like everything I've thought about digital was off... not as realistic as it felt from the cushy corner of my laptop.
Shopping malls are social experiences. Not just shopping experiences.
Shopping online isn't social. It's transactional. Yes, there are social components that make it more transactional, and it can create more loyalty, but the impetuous of digital is transactional. Shopping malls are a social experience. Yes, there must be transactions, but consumers spend time at the shopping mall to explore, to be around other people, to experience. You don't go to Amazon over the beach (some go to the beach and shop on Amazon at the same time). Many go to the mall over the beach. Especially on this hot summer day. Shopping malls are an experience. You may hate shopping. You may not like shopping malls. You may dread the traffic, the parking and the other slants that we always lay out in support of e-commerce, but our experience is not everyone's experience. Maybe this, particular, shopping mall is doing everything right. Personally, I highly doubt it. It was a place where different cultures, races, genders and ages all come together. Nobody looked miserable. They were all there for an experience... and it felt like they found it.
Maybe shopping malls will soon become the new shopping (again)?