Retailtainment as a strategy

How Mall of America is going beyond bricks-and-mortar
Bruce Horovitz

Mall of America seems to be on a mission to reinvent itself by getting bigger and more audacious in its ambitions to entertain visitors. The 520-store mall, which opened 27 years ago, is evolving into an entertainment hub in part by hosting more than 400 events annually. It also has an indoor amusement park, an outdoor skating rink and plans to build an indoor water park.

But is there a point where a super-sized mall loses its shopping credibility even as it attempts to amass entertainment credibility? Jill Renslow, senior vice president of marketing and business development for the mall, discussed the mall’s future with STORES contributing writer Bruce Horovitz.

How is Mall of America changing the retail game?

We are not scared to take risks. We are always looking at ways to bring first-to-market concepts. Pop-ups are a huge trend and they bring traffic. Pop-ups give online brands an opportunity to engage with customers in a way they can’t do online. Pop-ups like Casper Mattress and Peloton bikes connected with customers through brand experience and now have permanent stores in Mall of America.

How is Mall of America interacting with Amazon?

We started several years ago by installing Amazon lockers, so that Amazon’s online shoppers would have a reason to come inside our property. That’s now in its third year. For about one and a half years, Amazon’s Treasure Truck has been stopping at the north entrance of the mall for its Prime users. The Treasure Truck offers users a discounted daily deal, which could be food or electronics or anything. But you can’t just walk up and purchase something. You have to arrange that through Amazon’s app. Most recently, we partnered with Amazon in the GH Lab.

GH Lab started out as a concept to bring the magazine [Good Housekeeping] to life in a bricks-and-mortar concept. It was a three-month pop-up during the holiday season. Some 40 different brands set up different vignettes. There was a living room and bedroom and kitchen, so consumers could immerse themselves in the brands. We didn’t want to worry about inventory control, so we brought Amazon on board as an experimental retailer.

The GH Lab integrated Amazon’s SmileCodes. Shoppers made purchases simply by opening the Amazon app and toggling through to the camera and snapping an image. They could make transactions right in the store or just add to their cart and finish later at home.

It really showed that you can bring the online experience to a store and reduce the retail pain points of waiting in long lines or carrying around shopping bags. People could see and test products hands-free. We’re now in discussions with Amazon about what’s next.

What’s next?

We’re taking the learnings from the GH Lab, for sure. Customers really appreciate the seamlessness. But you never want technology to lead your direction. You want technology to be invisible in anything you do. The question is: How can purpose and vision drive where we are going as an organization? It can’t be just about SmileCodes. The conversation can’t be too technological in nature. It’s really about behaviors and positive energy with guests.

What we learned is that you can have a balance in a bricks-and-mortar store of human connection and the use of technology.

Who is Mall of America’s biggest competitor?

That has to be online shopping. The currency of time becomes more valuable. This forces us to be more creative in how we look at the currency of time and make certain that when customers are here, they can navigate and find what they need quicker and enjoy the time they spend here.

We have a digital concierge who will help you with just about anything. You can connect with us on social media or text us and we will help you with anything you need. It’s real humans who you are interacting with, too. Maybe you need to know the right restaurant to eat at or a great gift idea for your 12-year-old nephew. We will respond within one minute of every request.

We have integrated an artificial intelligence chatbot to help with things like hours of operation. But online shopping will always win in convenience, so we have to do things to differentiate ourselves to not only be competitive, but to add additional value.

Such as?

Such as Skate the Star. This might sound crazy in Minneapolis, but in December we launched our first outdoor skate rink. Unlike other mall skating rinks, we don’t charge people to skate. If they bring their own skates, they skate for free. Or for a $5 donation to the Boys and Girls Club, they can rent skates. The ice rink has been so successful, we’ve extended it through President’s Day.

What else attracts mall visitors?

We’re working on a plan for a water park to go in the skating rink’s location. The water park would be permanent. We have a water park on our sister property in Canada. We’re discussing it right now with the city of Bloomington. It would be a gated attraction, but it will feel more like a resort getaway.

What’s a recent mall attraction or promotion that flopped?

When you take risks it’s not always a success. Some events don’t deliver as we expect, but we always learn something. Over the holidays we had one exhibit with augmented reality that was linked to photo ops. There were big nostalgic toys like Barbie cars or Viewfinders and guests got to take photos with these, but it was very difficult to deploy the AR technology on flat surfaces. Putting the film on these components made it difficult for the app to read it accurately. It was cumbersome — and we learned from it. If we did it again, we’d make adjustments.

How important are tourists to Mall of America?

About 40 percent of our guests are tourists. We have the benefit of no sales tax on clothes and shoes, and we focus on that key message. We work closely with convention and visitors bureaus. Shopping is the No. 1 leisure activity for tourists.

How does Generation Z impact Mall of America?

They are critical for our future. They prefer social media and shopping online, but 75 percent say they still shop at bricks-and-mortar stores.

What will Mall of America look like 10 years from now?

We’ll definitely be larger. Our hope is to have a water park operating long before then. There will probably be an additional hotel. We currently have 800 hotel rooms on the site. We are thinking about activations for e-gaming activities for video gamers at the mall. I envision more coffee shops and maybe a yoga studio. Whatever we do, it will be about fulfilling the original family vision — think about the experiences, not the size. Lots of retailtainment.

So many brands are mixing retail and entertainment. Like Candytopia, which will open in the mall this spring. Sure, it has a retail element, but it’s also a candy museum with lots of photo ops.

Bruce Horovitz, a freelance writer, is a former USA Today marketing reporter and Los Angeles Times marketing columnist.