Since Nebraska Crossing Outlets' inception, its developers have been promising visitors a high-tech, mobile shopping experience. This week, the Gretna mall installed “iBeacons” throughout the shopping center to provide that experience.
The small, Bluetooth-enabled broadcasting devices will allow shoppers who have downloaded the latest version of Nebraska Crossing's free mobile application — “Nex” — to receive push notifications, including promotions and discounts, once they enter the 350,000-square-foot shopping center. The latest version of the Nex app also includes the “Carfinder” feature, which uses a separate GPS system to guide visitors to their car once they've finished shopping.
The iBeacon is an Apple technology that allows communication between beacons and mobile devices. The “beacons recognize when your phone is nearby and then send data to the phone in the form of a pop-up coupon” or other offer, said Daniel Newman, the founder of Roximity, a Denver-based manufacturer of the devices, which is providing Nebraska Crossing with iBeacons and their software.
More than 100 iBeacons were installed this week.
“We've got the outlet covered,” said Brian Smith, chief digital officer at OTB Destination, the mall's developer. The sensors are “on the kiosks and the exteriors of the storefronts,” Smith said.
The new technology has raised concerns about consumer privacy and data collection, but their presence, so far, is few and far between. Only a handful of retailers, including Apple stores and some Macy's stores, have installed them. And for the sensors to work, consumers must opt into the iBeacon platform.
Nebraska Crossing may be one of the first malls in the nation to employ the technology, which senses and transmits information to a mobile app that's been configured to receive iBeacon messages.
Mall visitors who want to receive iBeacon alerts must download the latest version of the Nex app on their iPhone, which is expected to be available Friday or Saturday, open the app when they enter the mall and enable their smartphone's Bluetooth function.
“It's a voluntary opt-in,” Smith said.
The Nex app is available in the App store at iTunes; an Android version is expected to launch next month.
“Shoppers who have downloaded the Nebraska Crossing Outlets app will be welcomed upon arrival at the center and receive store-specific deals as well as information on the latest merchandise arrivals, promotions and personalized recommendations,” said Rod Yates, head of OTB Destination, the center's developer.
New technologies that connect consumers and retailers are “something that is first and foremost on the minds of developers and mall owners,” said Jesse Tron, a spokesman for the International Council of Shopping Centers.
Real-time offers, made possible by devices such as iBeacon enable retailers to “hit shoppers who opt-in with offers that are going on right now,” Tron said.
In turn, the iBeacons will be able to collect information on shopper traffic, the length of time visitors spend at the shopping center and the stores they visit.
“This is not a personal thing. The iBeacon doesn't know it's you,” said Smith. “It just knows that there's an iPhone out there with the Nex app. And we'll use that data to create a better shopping experience.”
In addition, more than a dozen of the outlet retailers will participate in in-store tests of iBeacon's technology. Inside those stores, the iBeacons will “sense” your presence or location within a store. If you're looking at men's sweaters, for example, you might receive a digital coupon good for 10 percent off men's sweaters, Smith said.
Omaha-based Borsheims plans to use iBeacon technology at Borsheims Boutique, its Gretna outlet store.
“We are excited to be a part of such cutting-edge retail technology,” said Adrienne Fay, Borsheims' spokeswoman. “Connecting with our customers at the micro location level ... is an invaluable opportunity to offer them more personalized offers.”
Other retailers are expected to announce their participation later, Smith said.
The first version of the Nex mobile app, which did not include the iBeacon feature, was quietly released late last month. Yates and the mall's majority owner, Frank Krejci of Omaha's Century Development, didn't advertise the mobile app on their website, Facebook page or TV ads.
The low-key launch was intentional, Smith said.
The first version largely mirrored the center's website, nexoutlets.com. It allowed consumers to sign up for email alerts, and included a list of stores, a map and an assortment of digital coupons. But the interactive functions that send “push notifications” and guide shoppers to and from the parking lot were absent.
The first priority, said Smith, was making sure the shopping center's highly visible and largest digital components, which include the 45-foot-tall marching pylons along Interstate 80 and Highway 31, digital signage and 12 interactive kiosks, were running smoothly.
The second version of the Nex app will mark “your” parking spot using GPS coordinates, eliminating the need to traipse through the lot for 15 minutes or press the alarm button on the key fob in hopes of locating the car.
“That would be great,” said Patti Hintz-Podliska, of Norfolk, Neb., who's visited Nebraska Crossing twice since it opened last month. “It would be a great safety feature also.”
(A Dutch study of 115 male and female shoppers found that “50 percent had suffered 'some' to 'quite frequent' problems retracing their cars.”)
The mall's $112 million price tag includes a $12 million technology investment and partnerships with CenturyLink, Salesforce.com, Nanonation, StyleSeek and Roximity. The five companies are responsible for creating the mall's state-of-the-art technology platform.
About 150,000 people have registered at nexoutlets.com. But as of this week, only 19,000 people had downloaded the mobile app. The update will have the iBeacon and Carfinder features and an interactive map similar to the mall's interactive kiosks.
Checks with a few mall visitors revealed most were not aware of the app's existence. Judith Finney of Fremont, Neb., was relying on email alerts she had received from Nebraska Crossing Outlets to scope out deals. “I signed up on their website,” Finney said.
Amy Kennedy of Glenwood, Iowa, who was visiting the mall with her mother, a resident of Lincoln — “It's the halfway mark” — was relying on in-house coupons that some stores were handing out at the door. At the Coach Factory store, a sales clerk handed paper “Valid Today Only” coupons to anyone crossing the store's threshold.
The mall management office was selling $5 paper coupon books, containing more than 30 coupons. The same coupons are available free to anyone who registers at nexoutlets.com, Yates said.
What no one seemed to be using was the Nex app.
Smith said that will likely change when the second version appears in the next few days and Nebraska Crossing begins to more heavily promote the app.
When told of the app's availability, some visitors said they planned to download it. Others, such as Finney, said she'll continue to rely on email promotions from retailers to guide her shopping. “I don't have a smartphone.”
iBeacons may be the latest innovation, but for retailers to ring up sales, “you have to reach all kinds of consumers,” said retail expert Tron. And that means providing not just push notifications but paper coupons. “You have to be on all platforms.”