Retail

Shopping Malls Freshen Up With Chatbots

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Whether customers shop at a mall once a week or once a year, it’s safe to say that most would probably find a visit to the Mall of America a bit overwhelming, especially if they’ve brought the whole family along, and especially if it’s Christmas time.

The mall is so big that the first challenge will be deciding where to park so that no one is walking across the entire property to reach the store they want to visit. That becomes even more complicated when every member of the family wants to go to a different part of the mall.

Once inside, the best-laid plans of mice and men inevitably go awry. The kids make a beeline for the rides; the teens head for the movie theater and Mom and Dad are pulled in different directions based on what’s on their holiday shopping lists. What if there were a better way to map this out?

The mall has introduced a holiday chatbot to answer that pain point. Customers can ask the bot questions on Mall of America’s website, mobile app or Facebook page — or simply ask Alexa — to plan ahead for their trip. Then, while shopping, they can use it to learn about deals and events, ask directions or brainstorm ideas for gifts when they’re drawing a blank.

This isn’t the first shopping mall chatbot to make its debut. Mall of America had one last holiday season too. But the mall isn’t limiting itself to just the holidays. Why serve only the one-time customer who is here today and gone in January, when there are loyal customers coming through the doors on a regular basis, whose business is much stickier for the stores that can earn it?

What’s true in eCommerce holds true in brick and mortar, in this case. Holiday shoppers are attracted by deals and discounts, or simply by sheer force of necessity. It doesn’t matter how good their experience is; they won’t be back until next year.

Instead of just helping the once-a-year holiday shopper navigate an unfamiliar environment, Mall of America’s new mall chatbot will continue to enhance the experience for frequent shoppers beyond December by pushing them off their beaten paths to drive discovery.

After all, frequent shoppers have their established routes. They likely park in the same area every visit, enter through the same doors and visit the same stores. They are on a mission, or simply on auto-pilot. Mall of America is now turning to chatbots to derail shoppers from those well-worn retail routes.

Merchants within the mall provided promotional content for the bot to deliver, with opportunities to expand and diversify that content as the bot becomes more refined.

Could this shopping technology work for other, smaller malls? Seems like it could be worth a shot. More than 200 Simon Malls are trying out a chatbot concierge capability, enabling customers to chat with the mall via Facebook Messenger. The chatbot rolled out in August.

The bot can help shoppers find an ATM or restroom, browse restaurants in the shopping center or answer specific questions by routing queries to mall representatives — with mixed results, depending on how quickly those representatives see and respond to the questions.

Some customers have waited hours for a response, in which time they were surely able to locate the merchandise they wanted simply by wandering around.

The experience was similar with discount codes the bot delivered for individual stores. In some cases, the cashier entered the code only to receive an “invalid code” notice.

Still, it’s early days yet for this application of chatbot technology, so hopefully the experience can only get better — and hopefully that can happen before shoppers give up on mall chatbots, or it will all have been for naught.

Analysts remarked that any additional convenience, comfort and value that malls can deliver to customers can only help them in the face of declining sales and foot traffic. And customers who tried the Simon shopping assistant said that in-person promo codes could motivate them to do less shopping online and more at brick-and-mortar avenues.

The demand is there. Time will tell if the tech will deliver.

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