Investing in the Future of Shopping

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Discounts. Shopping cart and cubes with percentWhat happens when you combine some of the largest and glitziest shopping malls in America – places like Copley Place in Boston, the Houston Galleria, the Stanford Shopping Center, the Westchester, and Tanger Outlet Centers – with tens of millions in investment capital in early stage digital shopping ventures? That is exactly what J. Skyler Fernandes is charged with figuring out as the head of Simon Venture Group, the new venture arm of Simon Property Group, the largest real estate investment trust in the US and the top owner of shopping malls.

A few months ago, I predicted in Street Fight that “2014 would be the year that hyperlocal goes indoors,” and “the battle will turn to reaching the shopper walking in the mall and right in front of the shelf.” Simon Venture Group is looking to invest $250,000 to $5 million per company in up to 50 companies over the next 5 years to do precisely that. Fernandes is presciently focusing on 5 areas for new investment, all of which are aimed to use the web to improve in-store shopping:

1. In-Store Data Analytics. It is ironic that data analytics for e-Commerce companies has far surpassed that of most retailers, with the exception of the largest retail chains like Macy’s and Walmart. Nomi, Euclid, RetailNext, Path Intelligence, MotionLoft and other companies are working to connect the cloud of purchase history and intent with individual bodies walking into and through stores, hoping to return some of the in-store shopping momentum that Amazon has captured.

2. Malls as Delivery Centers. With your nearby mall stocked full of inventory, why should Amazon and all of its partners be faster with next-day delivery? What about same-day, local delivery? In 2013, Simon invested in Deliv, a company which does same-day delivery from local malls, and is continuing to explore this arena.

3. The Internet of Things (IOT) in your Mall. One of my personal reasons for disliking retail shopping is how difficult it is to find your way around a large, crowded mall. Mobile devices offer the potential to change that, but the technology has to catch up to deliver more precise indoor location. Fernandes says we are still 12-24 months away from a good solution for in-store. Meanwhile, Simon recently invested in digital eyewear solution company Augmate to assist sales associates in finding you the right size and color from their shelves.

4. Building Mall Loyalty and In-Store Incentives. Retailers like ShopRite and Starbucks have done well with loyalty systems for frequent shoppers, but it is relatively rare for nearby stores to collaborate on loyalty programs. Traffic and sales in shopping malls tend to rise in step across stores, and Simon is looking for new solutions to break down data silos across stores and incentivize and reward frequent mall shoppers.

5. Improving Payment Technology. As with in-store data analytics, many mall retailers lack a complete solution linking register payments and inventory management systems, and are falling behind the best e-commerce companies. Mobile payments have been slow to come to the US, but Simon sees a better possibility for companies that link payments and a systemic retailer supply chain solution.

Corporate VCs have had uneven financial returns, but Simon is basing its new venture group on a study of best practices across successes like Google Ventures, Comcast Ventures, and Intel. One lesson is to keep the investing scope broad enough to cover adjacent sectors, and not limit deals to companies that are takeover targets or essentially outsourced business development. Simon has a window on the future of shopping, a great platform to help in-mall companies get established, and appropriate focus on ROI as its core metric of success. As the only corporate VC fund backed by a major shopping mall company, its investments should be of interest to Street Fight readers.

As for my other 2014 predictions, I also wrote that Street Fight would spin off a new site called Bar Fight. That prediction is still open.

Jason KleinJason E. Klein is the founder/CEO of On Grid Ventures LLC, and investment and advisory firm focused on the startup and reinvention of businesses capitalizing on digital and location-based technologies.  He is also the Chairman of Harvard Business School Alumni Angels of Greater New York. Follow him on twitter @JKNews.