Mall owners under pressure to keep a hi-tech eye on shoppers

Falling sales put Hong Kong's mall operators under pressure to enlist satellite-tracking technology to judge which stores attract most traffic

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 26 February, 2014, 5:24am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 26 February, 2014, 5:47am

Hong Kong's mall operators are under pressure to use satellite-tracking technology to help boost traffic and rent revenue.

Getting shoppers through the door is crucial for landlords who charge premium prices for the best locations in malls, and tracking data could be a powerful tool when deciding on the best tenant mix.

Property consultants say Hong Kong landlords are not making much use of such aggregated data on shopper activity, but this is set to change as they seek to maximise rent revenues in the face of slowing retail sales.

[We will] keep an eye on how technology may be integrated with the mall
Swire Properties spokesman

When a smartphone user accessed the internet, the network operator could keep tabs on his or her exact location, and what websites they were viewing, explained Jonathan Ellis, chief executive of TheTMSWay, a software company that helps clients connect with consumers using their mobile devices.

This ability to track the movement of shoppers through their mall could provide a new way for owners to judge which storefronts attracted the most foot traffic, said Joe Lin, senior director of retail services at property consultancy CBRE. This data could help them decide on tenant mixes that could boost rental incomes.

Hong Kong's retail sales grew just 5.7 per cent year-on-year in December, an especially poor performance for the peak Christmas shopping period. Growth is expected to slow this year.

The prerequisite for landlords is that they must allow free wireless access to the internet.

Big mall operators such as Pacific Place and IFC already do, and the technology is gradually being adopted elsewhere by retailers facing an erosion of their revenue from online shopping.

At US$4,334 per square foot per annum, Hong Kong was the world's most expensive location for prime retail rents said Lin, and retailers were under pressure to come up with strategies to maximise sales to cover these high costs. "Tracking technology can be used to identify which entrance points attract the most customers and help them make these decisions," he said.

Based on the data that they are able to collect with the technology, retailers could make inventory changes or adjust the layouts of their stores.

Tom Gaffney, head of retail, for property consultancy Jones Lang LaSalle, said the technology was being used in the United States. American Eagle Outfitters and online shopping application Shopkick last month announced plans to launch an application to welcome shoppers when they entered stores and offer location-based deals.

It would have the added advantage of giving the store more data about its customers.

Gaffney said it remained to be seen how retailers or landlords put the data to use, and cautioned that privacy was a sensitive subject in the city.

A spokesman for Swire Properties, owner of Pacific Place, said it provided free Wi-fi hotspots where shoppers could access the internet on their mobile devices. But it did so as a value-added service rather than a method of collecting information on shoppers' behaviour.

While respecting customers' privacy and personal information, it would "keep an eye on future development trends on how technology may be integrated with the mall operation".

Maureen Fung Sau-yim, the general manager of Sun Hung Kai Properties' leasing department, said tracking data would not be a major tool assessing tenant mixes.

Direct feedback from tenants and customers and transaction records would play a bigger role.