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Remaking the Mall for the Digital Age


A Case Study of the Village of Rochester Hills
G. SCOTT AIKENS*
Abstract: This article explores how an investment in a mature social-media platform can help drive business for shopping centers. First, it describes the shopping center as a network-intensive entity amenable to the value provided by the Internet and social-media tools. Second, five steps are spelled out for developing a successful social platform: 1) put the tools in place; 2) focus on back-end analytics; 3) use the malls natural advantages to grow; 4) repeatedly focus on serving the malls customers; 5) align digital marketing and leasing. Shopping-center owners, developers, operators, In its favor, the land on which the shopping mall is located hosts a large variety of place-based shopping experiences. The retailers brands, through signage and storefronts, point to a variety of products and services. In this way, the land becomes a physical nexus through which retailers deploy their brands to connect consumers in a community with their goods. WilliamsSonomas storefront sign at the mall is not much different in function than a hyperlink version of their logo that takes a Web surfer to an e-commerce page displaying their dishes. Likewise, even as Williams-Sonoma has made an effective hyperlink out of their logo, the malls branded logo can become a hyperlink as well. The mall, like the retailer, can participate through this link in digitally fueled social networks created by the malls potential community of visitors. The savvy development of a computerpowered social platform can enable the mall to conjure some of the magic of the Apple Store. In this instance, magic is defined as the emotional experience the social platform center. Building Tomorrows Website/Social Platform A social network can engage the public in many ways, build trust and deepen the emotional investment of a growing public in the brand, and even stimulate the public to participate more actively. The key is to produce these outcomes so as to serve the underlying business drivers of the mall and its retail clients. First of all, a caveat is necessary. The ability of a retail center to unlock fervor depends on the affection for the place that already exists. The pre-existing level of affection for a place depends on a range of factors, such
* Vice President, Leasing, Robert B. Aikens & Associates, LLC
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marketers and leasing agents, as well as even municipal authorities and economic-development managers, should carefully consider how to enhance retail spending by effectively utilizing new Internet and social-media tools. Case in point: The Apple Store. Consumers pack these stores. One reason for this high popularity must be the Apple teams facility with computers and digital networks. Specifically, they know how to create fervor in the hearts and minds of Apples customers. When one walks into the store and looks at the latest iPad, one also holds in the minds eye an iTunes library, a YouTube collection and a Facebook wall. The innovative hardware plus the digital content allows the customer to have a strong emotional link to products. That translates into financial value as well, since the Apple Stores average sales per square foot is $6,050, according to Retail Sails, a New York-based research and consulting firm.1 It alone makes a mall more productive and increases its value. How, then, can the mall itself create this kind of fervor and harness it to best serve the goals of management? Networks and Enhanced Fervor for the Mall It is helpful to conceptually segment the mall or retaildevelopment environment into the most fundamental functions. Retailers sell products and services along with an experience through a variety of channelsin-store, online, catalogs, home television. Say that someone hosting a dinner party needs a new casserole dish. She can connect, for example, to WilliamsSonoma via an iPad in the kitchen, a desktop at work, a smart-phone in the car, or at a shop across town. The local store is but one channel through which WilliamsSonoma can sell that casserole dish.

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Rik Myslewski, Apple Retail Stores Most Productive in U.S. By Far, The Register (United Kingdom), November 13, 2012, retrieved January 29,

2013. (The amount is for the year ending in June 2012.)

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Figure 5-1 Home Page for the Village of Rochester Hills

Source: Robert B. Aikens and Associates

as physical design, tenant mix and the fit between these and the surrounding demographic. For the past several years, a social network has existed for the Village of Rochester Hills, located in metropolitan Detroit. This upscale lifestyle center in a large, prosperous suburban community, with its mainstreet design and attractive tenant mix, has taken on some of the character of its communitys downtown. Many people feel positively about the Village. Figure 5-1 shows the online home page for the shopping center.2 c) Steps to Dynamic Web Content The following five steps have worked well in developing a dynamic community through its Website as the Village of Rochester Hills: b)

1) Put the Tools in Place: The first requirement is to weave together a wide variety of tools to create a singular platform that is the voice of the shopping center. Some pieces of this are: a) a Website built on an open-source content management system (enabling the Web site to be highly adaptable and operated by non-technological personnel); creative integration of social-media tools such as Twitter and Facebook into the behavioral flow of the Web site; development of substantial interactive communities, apart from but connected to the Website, on leading social platforms such as Facebook;

thevorh.com

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Chart 5-1 Monthly Traffic to Website of The Village of Rochester Hills

Source: Google Analytics

Chart 5-2 Monthly Facebook Referrals to Website of The Village of Rochester Hills

Source: Google Analytics

d)

a clearly identifiable brand logo and matching style guide, used in tandem to represent the brand at all times across all platforms; and

e)

development of online sales relationships with leading online companies such as Facebook, as well as with local multi-platform media companies that may

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historically have been a newspaper, television or radio station. 2) Focus on Back-End Analytics: Analytics enable the malls interactive producer to understand precisely how each digital tool is used. First, the analytics provide tools to track growth. Chart 5-1, a screen shot of a Google Analytics graph, shows the growth between January 1, 2010 and December 27, 2012 in monthly visitor traffic to thevorh.com. Second, the analytics provide tools to monitor and manage how tools that facilitate engagement also drive reach. Chart 5-2, a screen shot of a Google Analytics graph, shows the growth between January 1, 2010 and December 27, 2012 in Facebook referrals to vorh.com. Observe how the growth in the use of Facebook as an engagement tool corresponds in the growth in overall Web traffic. Third, vehicular traffic counts, the variable under the landlords control that most directly drives the retailers sales volumes, must be integrated at the heart of the various analytic tools. This integration is critical to the social platforms potential to help optimize the performance of the mall. 3) Use the Malls Natural Advantages to Grow: Once digital tools and back-end analytics are deployed, a mall can amplify that which already differentiates it on behalf of the retailers channels. It is a place to see (i.e., content aggregator) and to be seen (i.e., community crossroads and convenor): Content Aggregator: Like the mall itself, the social network can be used to aggregate and share the styles and content developed by individual brands into a colorful symphony of signs pointing to desirable products and services. This is the malls built-in engine for converting its already existing fan base into a virtual community. Good brands are using the explosion in channels to pull multimedia entertainment value from the brand as well as from the products themselves. This is now one of the best ways to fight for the consumers attention in a world saturated by information. The mall can inexpensively enhance its role as an aggregator at the physical place, by sharing these various materials in the digital space on its own Website or Facebook wall. This is most effective when the network producers focus exclusively on content that reinforces the store at their mall, rather than other stores or the retailers other channels. Community Crossroads and Convenor: The malls role as a meeting place is also a generator for a virtual community. As the seasons change and people go about 4) Focus on the Malls Business Drivers: The social platform can, as it matures, become a power tool for increasing the use of the mall. Through general Internet posts and paid online advertising, large subsets of a robust online community will gladly be directed to content and to events that strike their fancy. One key is to know how to make offers that please enough people to turn them into a crowd. The Village tree lighting each November is an excellent case in point. As Chart 5-3 demonstrates, there can be a clear correlation between the web views and vehicular traffic for the event. Using the social platform for discounts and offers can create bigger shopping-center crowds as well as cause the public to perceive the website as seamlessly integrated with the activities at the property. In turn, this helps the virtual-physical world to build upon itself, making it a far more powerful marketing tool. Making offers that serve the goals of the mall is critical. Certain months at the start of spring, summer, fall and winter generate the highest sales volumes primarily because women are motivated to find creative new clothes to meet each new season. their daily lives, opportunities exist through the social platform to deepen the malls role in the community calendar. Among other initiatives, for example, the Village of Rochester Hills developed online photo contests for Easter and Halloween; a sweepstakes for the holiday season; and an ad campaign to drive traffic to a childrens camp and a moms group during the summer. Like the retailers, the mall can use inexpensive digital cameras and video recorders to capture content and share across their networks. A recent holiday flash-mob for the Village of Rochester Hills, for example, engaged a large audience. The YouTube video was played 1,600 times, and the post generated 316 Facebook likes, by some of the 20,000 people that came across the content over a three-day period. These small efforts extended the malls sense of place across the digital network. The mall can even help people in the larger community make themselves better known to one another by championing user-generated content (e.g., a recent giving initiative at the Village of Rochester Hills). During this initiative, community members wrote via social media about people who have inspired them. Several of these nominees received a holiday gift certificate to shop the Village, as well as broad community recognition for their good work with an article about them published in Rochester Patch, a local e-zine owned by AOL Time Warner.

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Chart 5-3 Website Traffic for the Week Prior to Tree Lighting vs. Vehicular Traffic on the Day of Tree Lighting

Source: Robert B. Aikens and Associates

Working with its retailers content, as well as its own original programming, the Village in 2012 strived to connect its social platform to substantial cross-media buys with online companies such as Facebook, as well as with television stations, newspapers and their associated online properties. The aim of the Villages 2012 Fall Fashion campaign was to spike traffic on behalf of womens soft-goods retailers during these most active and critical days in September and early October. conclusions are as yet speculative because Any 2012

strong social platform. Any impact on vehicular traffic can potentially translate into the higher sales volumes that are at the heart of the offer extended by agents to potential new tenants. The leasing team can also integrate the advantages offered by the social platform in their communication patterns. Most importantly, it enables real-time participation by all individuals in the malls successes in adding new shops and restaurants to the mix. For example, when additions are announced to the Villages tenant line-up, an article is posted on the blog. The link to the blog article is posted to the centers Facebook community of more than 16,000 members. The article is simultaneously summarized in a pithy message and sent via email and LinkedIn, with links, to the centers extended database of retail real-estate contacts. Furthermore, leasing agents should be trained to hunt for new retailers to add to the mix that will enrich the content and deepen the reach of the social platform. These retailers will, among other things, be high-quality media content into their own pushing robust

produced the first dataset. The busiest day during fall 2012, though, yielded 18% more vehicular cars than any single autumn day since 2006. Sales volumes for womens soft goods in September were 12% above those in 2011, driving the malls overall 8% gain. Activating a passionate following over time creates an ongoing opportunity to develop unique programming resulting in even more viewership. As part of its 2013 spring fashion campaign, for example, the Village posted an online casting call across its community seeking models for a fashion show. The Villages Facebook ad was viewed by over 12,000 members of its Facebook community. Nearly 10% of viewers clicked the ad to visit the Villages Website for more details on how to apply.
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networks, and will be effectively using social platforms in combination with the local stores to engage their consumers as a community. Whole Foods Market and Anthropologie, for example, aggressively nurture their own communities of fervent supporters. Popular local boutiques are often more tightly connected to their markets, and flexible on collaborative partnerships using digital tools. When compatible retailers join the tenant mix, the mall has an entirely new public to reach.

The post was also shared 64 times and generated 93 likes and 43 comments. Nearly 300 members of the public applied to model at the spring show. 5) Align Digital and Leasing: Agents leasing space in the mall will naturally benefit from the success of a
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For purposes of comparison, a local newspaper cited 0.1% as a successful click-through rate for their online ads.

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Likewise, the mall can facilitate the retailers efforts to expand its public. Today, shopping-center owners need every advantage possible to entice shoppers to their properties. The Village
G. Scott Aikens, Ph.D., is currently Vice President for Leasing at Robert B. Aikens & Associates, LLC. His business and educational background has revolved around the intersections of place-making, social media, real estate, and retail and entertainment. Since 2005, Mr. Aikens has been working in retail real estate at Robert B. Aikens & Associates, LLC, which owns and manages a number of retail properties. His primary focus is on the Village of Rochester Hills, a main-street lifestyle center in metropolitan Detroit. He is also increasingly engaged in finding new projects through acquisition, development and/or services contracts. From 1998 to 2002, Mr. Aikens worked on local digital content strategy at NPR/PBS affiliate KQED in Northern California. Among other achievements, he initiated the multi-platform project (TV, Radio and Interactive) at KQED that evolved into Quest, a $7.3 million program that explores science and nature in the Bay Area. From 1997 through 1998, Mr. Aikens worked as a researcher at the University of Cambridge under a grant from the UK Economic and Social Research Council. This followed four years at the university in which he pursued and earned his Ph.D. thesis, which focused on the impact of the Internet on local democracy. Archives from online debates he ran in the U.S. Senate and gubernatorial races in Minnesota in 1994 and 1996 provided the data for his Ph.D. For further information related to this article, please contact Mr. Aikens at: gscott@rbaikens.com.

of Rochester Hills case study showed how bridging the virtual and physical worlds can make a difference.

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