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Mall Owner Uses Net for Sales News

Mall operator Taubman Centers Inc. is using the Internet to drive customers to its retail tenants.

In less than a year, Taubman's 29 Web sites for the 30 malls it owns and manages nationwide attracted 350,000 registered users. These consumers signed up to receive weekly news of sales and other events at their favorite mall stores.

“It's not a revenue strategy for us at all,” said Carol Gies, vice president of marketing and center planning at Taubman, Bloomfield Hills, MI. “It is what we call a sustainability strategy, which is providing a service and giving our customers and tenants a reason to be at a Taubman mall.”

Using local in-center and holiday advertising, direct mail, a promotion with America Online and a targeted sweepstakes with iWon.com, Taubman last year drove customers to its Web sites.

The iWon.com relationship seems to work for Taubman. Instead of a sweep across the general Web universe, iWon.com is targeting consumers who live in ZIP codes around Taubman malls.

A similar deal with AOL has worked as well. While logging on, the portal serves pop-up ads to consumers living near the Taubman malls. Clicking on the pop-up takes the AOL user to the relevant mall Web site's registration page.

In the last quarter of 2001, Taubman Web sites received 800,000 daily unique visitors and 5 million page views.

Sharing a common back end but sporting different looks, the sites bear names like shopdolphinmall.com, shopshorthills.com, shopstoneridge.com and shopsunvalley.com.

Visitors are asked to register for an online bulletin. But to receive that e-mail, they have to choose up to 20 of their favorite stores at the mall. The bulletin contains news of sales, new product arrivals, contests, in-store events and promotions.

Also, consumers can sign up for a gift-giving reminder e-mail service and a personal wish list.

“The challenge for shopping centers is that they can't promote tenants individually because they'd have 150 tenants to promote, so the Web site really overcame that challenge, which allows us to promote a specific tenant's store on a repeated basis,” Gies said. “So it allows us to do something we've never done before.

“The flip side,” she said, “is it allows us to serve our customers because it allows us to absolutely target specific stores that the customers are interested in.”

Emboldened by the response to its online efforts, Taubman later this year will debut an e-mail bulletin for teens — a key audience for malls seeking to stem dwindling visits. Gies has conducted focus groups in five cities.

Other changes this year include an online polling feature to gauge how consumers navigate and use the sites. The sites' template will be redesigned, too. And Taubman will lift elements from local ad campaigns for each of the malls to avoid a generic, cookie-cutter look for the sites.

Consumer feedback shaped Taubman's online strategy. About two years ago, the real estate investment trust conducted 36 focus groups nationwide.

The findings were surprising. Time-pressed shoppers wanted to check their local mall's Web site before heading over. And they preferred online news of sales over e-commerce functionality.

Taubman contacted its 4,000 retail tenants to participate in this program. Ninety percent agreed, including Stride Rite, Bloomingdale's, Macy's, Nordstrom and Saks Fifth Avenue.

Every week and sometimes more often, 29 Taubman tenant coordinators each troll an assigned mall to collect information on sales, offers, new merchandise and promotions at individual stores. This information is uploaded on the individual mall's site and e-mailed to registered users.

“What's interesting is, a lot of the consumers told us that they didn't want an HTML e-mail,” Gies said. “They felt it took so long to download, and they just want a 'Tell me what's on sale and be out of my e-mail box.' So, we're going to give a choice and keep ASCII text and roll HTML out in late summer.”

Though it is easy to inform consumers of retailer news, it is frustrating that Taubman has little way to know whether the online bulletin or coupons included indeed did goad consumers to visit the malls.

“We can track the number of coupons redeemed from our retailers, but the difficulty we have, in terms of dollars and cents, is that we have no POS tracking,” Gies said. “In other words, we can't tell you if [goods or services worth] $10 or $1 million were sold at a particular retailer.”

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