Will Apps Help Convince Shoppers to Revisit the Mall?

December 13, 2015, 4:00 PM UTC
Photo: Courtesy of Westfield

This place has got everything,” muses Joliet “Jake” Blues as he and his Blues Brother, Elwood, barrel through a shopping mall (with police in hot pursuit) in the classic 1980 film. Mall operators wish more of today’s consumers felt that way. But painful parking lots and aging amenities have only helped accelerate the shift toward online shopping.

Westfield, an Australian company that owns about 40 shopping centers and malls in the U.S., has developed a mobile application that tells you if parking spots are available and where. It’s just one of several technologies that the operator is testing in London and Australia, with a view toward an eventual rollout in the U.S., where the company operates upscale properties, such as Westfield Century City in Los Angeles and Valley Fair in San Jose.

An app might seem like a minor improvement to some. But it illustrates the effort that mall developers like Westfield, Simon Property Group, and General Growth Properties are making to stay relevant at a time when foot traffic in older malls is declining. Brick-and-mortar sales in the U.S. dropped 8% in November and December 2014 vs. the year prior, according to RetailNext. It expects a similar decline in 2015.

“We’re very passionate about parking lots,” says Kevin McKenzie, Westfield’s chief digital officer. “We do nothing but think about solving friction the consumer has with getting in and out of our shopping centers and transacting with our retail partners.”

The app is the work of Westfield Labs, an in-house incubator the company launched in Silicon Valley in 2012. The team of 70 is also testing license-plate-scanning technology for ticketed parking and what it calls a “searchable mall,” which allows a customer to look for an item in all stores in a shopping center.

Westfield is agnostic to how its tenants’ customers shop, so long as they do.“We’re a marketplace,” McKenzie says. “We’re in the business of driving transactions, offline or online.”

A version of this article appears in the December 15, 2015 issue of Fortune with the headline “Shop Till You …”

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