The mall and its uncertain future in the era of digital transformation has been a topic of conversation for the better part of the last five years.
Is the mall dying? Does the mall have a future? Does anyone still need the mall?
The questions have swirled, and few have predicted a profitable future for most malls, which have been largely written off as relics of the retail past. According to estimates, 25 percent of America’s roughly 1,000 malls will close over the next three to five years — a process accelerated, but not created, by the pandemic.
But the Mall of America is not most malls. The largest mall in the United States by size, the 5.6 million-square-foot space is home to two hotels, a 7-acre theme park, 500-plus retailers, a medical center, schools and even a COVID-19 vaccination site in operation at present. With all that going on and so much planned, the Mall of America is something of a species unto itself, Executive Vice President Jill Renslow told PYMNTS.
“Even though the mall is in our name as the Mall of America, we are so much more than that,” Renslow said. “We really look at how to diversify our property. … [there are] even development opportunities as we look to expand. Because being 5.5 million square feet isn’t big enough. We want to contribute and bring new experiences to our guests.”
That isn’t to say the last year hasn’t been a setback or a difficult period for Mall of America or its merchants. Renslow said she still remembers the precise day in 2020 when the entire world “turned upside down.” March 18 was the day management knew the mall would be shutting down, without much idea as to how long that period would last. It was incredibly difficult and a time period that required tremendous collaboration and communication between the mall and its extremely large roster of tenants. While communication is always important, it was even more so during the past year as the mall had to make sure all the changes were coming across in a timely manner.
“The desired end result for all of us was the same,” she said. “We wanted to get reopened. We wanted to be successful in the long run, which meant we had to be creative in the short term of what that would look like. We focused on our digital tenant hub for communication that allows our tenants to be able to either from a web browser or through an app be able to be connected with us. And so, we can put out communication in a timely matter no matter what it is.”
Connecting MOA To Digital Technology
Leveraging a digital platform encourages thinking more directly about how its consumers and retailers can be connected, she said. eCommerce efforts are largely merchants’ own doing and creation in house, a reality that means larger merchants have the edge when rolling out services like buy online, pick up instore (BOPIS) or curbside and other digital upgrades.
Ideally, Mall of America would like to find a way to level that playing field by offering a single digital platform through which their merchants can easily hook into offering those digital upgrades to their consumers, she said. That’s an improvement for small retailers, but also for larger ones because a more unified digital experience for consumers is ultimately a better one.
Given the choice, the typical consumer going to the mall to pick up items from a few stores will prefer to make a single stop and see all their orders from the mall loaded into their trunk at once than having to stop at five separate storefronts to complete their shopping journey that day.
It’s why leveraging digital and its connection to its massive merchant base is so firmly “on the roadmap” for Mall of America going forward, she said. Finding a way to “unify that shopping cart” means a guest experience that is even smoother and more seamless.
And for all the ink spilled on malls big and small, and speculation on how they can save themselves from the coming digital apocalypse, Renslow said the answer is surprisingly simple. Do new things with the technology at hand; be willing to experiment. Consumers are going to change and are changing already, and the mall can see that today as consumers start to return. Instead of trying to fight a change that can’t be stopped, malls can change themselves by getting more connected and more interestingly experimental.
“Take risks, try new things,” she said. “Don’t be afraid to fail. When you fail, you’re pushing yourself, your team, your company, to try new things. And no matter what happens, you’re going to learn from it. And it just makes you stronger. Consumers are looking for that — they’re expecting change, they’re expecting new things. I really think the future of retail, especially in the brick-and-mortar space, has so much opportunity, and we really look forward to the months and years ahead.”