UK's first smart mall blazes a trail for physical retail

Caroline Bullock
Mall

"The trouble with Camberley is that it has never had much of a USP," says the local council's economic lead, Sam Marshall.

"Retailers and shoppers tend to go to successful towns nearby."

Things could be about to change. A £110m investment from Surrey Heath Council is transforming the town's indoor shopping centre, The Square, into the UK's first 5G-enabled mall.

Drawing inspiration from Shanghai's Lujiazui L+Mall - the world's first 5G retail centre - it promises a world where an app directs you to the nearest promotion and a drone delivers your purchase. Huawei's 5G network will power the data-rich innovation aiming to give people reason to visit when many malls are losing footfall.

"To date, 5G's deployment has effectively come down to relieving the [network] capacity crunch of 4G with the real game-changer still to come," says Prof Rahim Tafazolli, director of the University of Surrey's 5G Innovation Centre, a project partner.

"We want to modernise the environment and give the best experience to shoppers and attract the most cutting-edge retailers by seeing how far we can push the boundaries of retail; there will be innovation we haven't even thought of yet."

It is an ambitious vision but one that in the 460,000 sq ft centre's current guise, on a wet Friday lunchtime with mood and footfall muted by the coronavirus outbreak, takes some imagination. A discarded sleeping bag and mask-clad pensioner bookend the main entrance, while inside, staff in House of Fraser and Timpson heavily outnumber customers.

Camberley may be on the cusp of reinvention, but others won't be so lucky. This quarter, Intu, the owner of the UK's largest indoor shopping centres, reported heavy losses, taking it to the brink. Far from a gimmick, could a digital makeover be the key to the traditional mall's survival? "Shopping centres are going through an identity crisis," admits Kevin White, from property consultancy and project partner Montagu Evans, citing how income from big brands on long leases has been lost to CVAs and rent cuts.

"Private investors see them as too risky and less funding has affected the quality; many are dated and have reached the end of their useful lives.

"A smart mall is part of the overall solution but it won't save them all."

Of course, having the world's first dedicated 5G research centre on the doorstep also helps though project partners see the concept as a scalable template to be adopted nationally, even globally. Augmented reality is the big enabler, expected to transform many of the centre's shops into a physical and virtual hybrid simply through downloading an app. Here, tapping a phone over a product's barcode will trigger an overlay of digital content that can reveal the entire provenance of the supply chain for checking ethical credentials or ingredient detail.

Meanwhile, shops with fewer physical products can give the customer access to thousands more. Scanning a brand's mobile app over a pair of trainers will pull up video data of multiple colour and fabric variants ready to be purchased in-app.

"It's like squashing the range you would otherwise get in Selfridges into something the size of Clinton cards but still with the ability to pick something up [in store] and have that physical interaction with the assistant," says Alex Barter, of emerging technology specialist B4G, a project partner.

He envisages inventory being stored in larger out of town warehouses and, in the near future, dispatched by drone to the customer's house, a fulfilment method that is expected to cut carbon emissions and the inefficiency of "last leg" distribution between warehouses and retail outlets.

"A secondary benefit is not needing a car to carry purchases home so travel can lean on public transport more. You're breaking the shop down into two parts; the [stock] out the back is put out of town and the fulfilment happens separate to the purchase, more efficient better use of space."

Once static adverts on a billboard can be AI-driven and equipped with a webcam trained to respond to physical clues such as a human face and transport passing shoppers to virtual worlds from a beach to a catwalk. In a similar vein, a smart mirror, featuring a hidden digital screen equipped with a camera can scan the person standing in front of it and superimpose outfits and style over the top - a powerful tool to connect people to brands.

"Retailers need to think about how they can really personalise the shop experience and create an environment of try before you buy where the shopper really inhabits that world," says Prof James Bennett at Royal Holloway University of London and research partner.

"Our own research shows that 85-90pc of people who have experienced augmented reality want to see more of this stuff; they're excited by technologies and the possibility to reimagine the ordinary in magical ways, but penetration rates are still low and what is missing a lot of the time is compelling content."

While those who want a tech-free mooch can opt out of receiving notifications, the aim is to replicate online speed and precision with embedded navigation, steering people not just to specific stores but specific racks within them. "It's digital transformation but in other ways it's getting back to the essence of why the indoor shopping centre was popular in the first place," says Bennett.

"When they were first invented, they were somewhere that people wanted to hang out and with this approach they are once again set to offer an experience and be a destination."