How Mall of America Is Innovating With Local Tech and Talking Robots

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With over 500 stores on its Bloomington, Minnesota, campus, Mall of America is the largest shopping mall in the United States and hosts over 40 million annual shoppers. In an era when brick-and-mortar stores have faced stiff challenges from e-commerce giants like Amazon, overseeing so many physical stores can seem like a liability.

But the marketing folks at MOA are combating these trends with some big bets on local technologies that mix digital and physical—equipping the in-person experience of mall shopping with some of the same comforts and informational advantages people feel they have when shopping online.  

Street Fight recently caught up with Sarah Townes, MOA’s marketing VP, to discuss the evolution of physical retail, where she’s placing her tech bets, and how location fits into the mix.

How much do you strategize with the different stores within the mall, and how much of your marketing is about the mall as a brand itself?

We develop our annual marketing plan based on our goals at Mall of America on the corporate side. But then we are also certainly looking at tenant goals, new tenants, and attractions that might be coming into the property.

We develop those long-term or annual objectives and strategies as well as that detailed marketing calendar around various campaigns and promotions. And then we partner very closely with our tenants on an ongoing basis and we have a variety of communication channels to do that in addition to just one-on-one visits. But they really help bring many of our campaigns to life, and we give them a variety of channels, not only our channel to our digital ecosystem but [also others], to really be able to highlight the major promotions and things that they have going on within their retail footprint.

How much of the digital data that you collect gets shared with the tenant companies? Tell me a little bit about that relationship. Because obviously you want to get as much business for all of the tenants, and their concern is a little bit more that they want to get business specifically for their own store. How do those objectives work together?

It’s really a collaborative relationship. Certain tenants are much more nimble and able to share a greater depth of data with us—and then we in turn will share more of that information back with them. So, it really is a collaboration and kind of a case-by-case basis. We do have some data that we are beginning to share with all of the tenants that we have on more of a generic basis. Kind of an aggregate.

A great example is being able to show them contextually what to anticipate for traffic levels. And so, we just do that on a scale of zero to one. Show them our busiest day, and what our historical data is, and what we project. And that just gives them some context, because for each tenant it’s just different what their traffic level is depending on the overall mall traffic. And there can be different events that they might have going on in stores, et cetera, that can also change what their traffic would be compared to the general mall traffic.   

Given that you aggregate data about lots of different stores, presumably you can figure out that, say, a Kohl’s customer is really interested also in Polo or something like that. How much work do you put into figuring out correlations between the kinds of people who go to similar stores.

Store synergy is something that we’re very passionate about calculating. We are starting to look at some new datasets that we think are going to give us some good information on that. But Wi-Fi data is not granular enough for that, so it really isn’t a good pool to leverage. And with the app data we have with our beacons, that’s a big step up—we’re just going to process and finalize it, and change it.

For users with our app, we’re going to have a pretty high level of confidence of the stores that they might be visiting. But our intent is, like you said, to find some store synergy—”If this guest likes that store they’re more likely to visit this store”—so that we can create kind of those just more generic customer profiles that can give guests more relevant recommendations.

Tell me a little bit about your “Pepper” host robots and the chatbots that power them. How do they work into your overall strategy and what other futuristic things are you thinking about?

With regard to Peppers, our Pepper experience, we have a newer solution that was created by SoftBank Robotics. In fact, we’re the first shopping mall to launch with this host solution and ultimately our chatbot is kind of the backend that fuels sort of the question and answer sessions that happen between Pepper and guests here onsite. So, the really cool thing about the chatbot that we have created and will continue to evolve over time is that it is not just a singular kind of messaging platform being leveraged.

We are really leveraging the chatbot across our entire digital ecosystem. It’s available on the website, it’s available in our mobile app, it’s available via Facebook Messenger.

But then Pepper becomes that physical manifestation of the chatbot. When guests are here onsite she has a variety of purposes. You can have fun with her. She can talk to you about specific things, events that are happening here at Mall of America.

In addition to that the Evergreen chatbot that is being created has information on store directories, location-based information. You know, “I’m near Zara; where is the nearest restroom?” Different recommendations around restaurants and things like that, and she continues or the chatbot continues to learn and evolve every day.

What are some of the big needs that you have that location data is solving and what are some creative kind of uses that you’ve seen some of the tenant stores use it for?

From our perspective they’re sort of geofencing competitive conquesting moreso from an outbound or acquisition perspective. And then, onsite it is really being able to communicate with guests who are here when we have big promotion events. It could be a flash sale happening or a big event that’s happening at our Rotunda Stage. Location-based technology enables us to be able to communicate with those guests in real-time to draw them to various things that are happening on this very massive property.

We have over 500 stores and attractions, and the guests are being bombarded with different messaging both from Mall of America as well as the stores, [and] all of them have their own mobile app for messaging campaigns. It could be a very negative user experience. And so, I think the concept is still intriguing, but we have to figure out how we would do that well and in partnership. And just the logistics in coordinating with all the tenants would make that very difficult.

We’re always looking to find a way to provide guests with the right information at the right time on their channel choice. It should feel like a service versus marketing. And so, using things like the chatbot and just enabling guests to find that information at their fingertips versus push. Certainly, push could be a great tip for some guests whether that’s text or an app, et cetera, but we’re very cautious of ensuring that it’s a positive experience for our guests.

Is the overriding thing to sort of make the guest experience as seamless as possible?

Absolutely. Everything that we do from a marketing perspective and from an investment point of view as it relates to IT and marketing around innovation is with the end-user in mind, and with that goal of enhancing guest experience. That is first and foremost at the top of our minds.

How important is attribution?

Attribution is a great measure if you can get at it, and we challenge ourselves and any partners that we work with to help us really determine that attribution ROI with any of our outbound campaigns. But we do have sort of that double challenge in that we’re drawing traffic to Mall of America and then within Mall of America there is over 520 different stores and destinations that they could choose to go to and we hope that they go to many when they’re here.

And without necessarily having that point-of-sale integration tied to all of the tenants, sometimes truly measuring that impact direct to store is very challenging for an entertainment destination such as MOA. But we are always looking at new partners and technologies to help us do that and certainly have different attribution partners in place for all of our digital marketing campaigns that we run.

Is there any kind of new stuff that you’re working on that you can share that would be particularly interesting?

I think one of the interesting things is our digital directory. We’ve got over a hundred digital directories in our property and so it’s really a neat blend of physical and digital. So, obviously when guests are shopping online there’s all sorts of information that people can get about those customers and it’s provided some great insight into what our guests are looking for on the property. What time of day? Does that vary by the location and the area of the mall itself? So, I think that that’s just kind of intriguing and a unique blend of physical and digital.

We just launched these directories in May 2017. And so, if they come up with some better dashboards and ways to slice and dice [all the better], but even at its onset it’s very unique to the industry to be able to have this much data about what customers are looking for within our property. 

David Hirschman is Street Fight’s co-founder and CEO. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.