By Dennis Jones
On the face of it, Mall of America’s recent announcement that it had, at last, outfitted its 2.5 million acres of retail space with free Wi-Fi sounds like nothing more than a technical feat. An extraordinary one at that; it took over 70 plus miles of copper wire and 15,000 feet of optical fiber before shoppers could first log in into the network in late October. But the decision to outfit the country’s largest mall with Wi-Fi, just in time for the holiday shopping crush no less, represents another confirmation of the new, mobile-first shopping experience.
Of course, online shopping isn’t a new trend; 70% of consumers in the U.S. already shop online regularly. And it’s been over two years since online shopping overtook brick-and-mortar shopping as the top choice for American consumers. In other words, the virtual store, commanding more and more merchandise, has long laid siege on the traditional storefront. Retailers, in turn, have responded by shrinking their traditional storefronts. But the ubiquity of smartphones now changes shopping patterns in a unique way.
Why? Because smartphones are extremely useful at the pre-payment phase, when consumers are still comparison shopping and locating stores. Smartphones retain information about prior purchases and searches, like virtual concierges for shoppers, who now get access to loyalty programs, scanned codes and product recommendations. And when users enable location activity, retailers can even market directly on the basis of proximity to actual storefronts. So although online shopping first turned storefronts into showrooms, where consumers would come to “try on the clothes” before buying online, pervasive smartphone use reverses that trajectory. Now, shoppers research online and come to actual storefronts to buy.
By offering free Wi-Fi, Mall of America is not just rolling out another amenity, on top of the movies, events and giveaways it already uses to attract shoppers, but also facilitating this “reverse” showroom experience. Consumers now have unlimited access to virtual stores (for research) a stone’s throw away from the traditional storefront, where they will make their final purchase.