December 26, 2000, 9:55 AM

Mall operators are bringing clicks to bricks

P Few predict that online shopping will ever replace the joys or agonies of mall shopping. But some big mall operators are hedging their bets by offering an online experience at the mall.

Last month, Chicago-based General Growth Properties Inc., which operates 136 malls in 37 states, unveiled its MallibuDirect project which will place web kiosks in malls. Shoppers at the mall will use the kiosks to access General Growth’s Mallibu.com site, which will feature such retailers as Art.com, AutoMallRewards.com, Kozyhome.com, Hirelink.com and eHobbies.com, along with seven others, as well as mall stores’ sites. “We’re trying to bridge the gap between traditional retail and the digital marketplace,” says Charlie Graves, senior vice president of General Growth.

MallibuDirect is an outgrowth of General Growth Properties’ efforts to help its tenant merchants go online with Mallibu.com. General expanded Mallibu.com to feature online retailers not typically found in the retail mall tenant mix as well as those who do not have a real-world presence. MallibuDirect launched in August at Stonebriar Center in Frisco, Tex., and RiverTown Crossings Mall in Grandville, Mich. IBM Corp. developed the kiosks and Cisco Systems developed the bandwidth capabilities to connect to the Internet. MallibuDirect has six computer workstations with touch screens throughout the two malls.

But some believe that the real world and the virtual world don’t comfortably mix. “Theoretically, it makes sense to put products and brands you don’t have in the mall, but people go to the mall to shop in the stores, ”says Will Ander, a partner at McMillan/Doolittle, Chicago, retail consulting firm.

General Growth is not alone in its push for web development. Other efforts to bring e commerce into malls include an online surf station at Westcor’s FlatIron Crossing mall in Dallas and an online wish list and personal shopping service at two Georgia malls owned by Simon Properties.

FlatIron Crossing launched an Internet access center in August. Working with BigFatWow!, a Dallas-based company that provides the kiosk service, the mall installed a Wow Center, which gives shoppers T1 web access, two 27-inch television screens and five 42-inch displays with HDTV capabilities. Customer service staff help shoppers use the system to view news, entertainment and sports, search the web via sponsor Goto.com, access mall information or the mall web site and enter specific URLs to access email or web sites.

Last November, Simon Property Group Inc., the largest mall owner in the U.S. with 256 properties, launched its Clixnmortar.com subsidiary to develop electronic commerce applications for mall merchants. Clixnmortar.com is operating its teen-oriented FastFrog.com service at Simon’s Gwinnett Place and Mall of Georgia in Atlanta. Kids use a handheld scanning device to store information, such as pricing, sizing and store locations, for items they want. They download information from the device to mall computers and create a wish list web page that parents and others can access from home. Parents can print the list and go to the mall or shop online through the Fastfrog.com site, which features links to mall stores. So far, more than 12,000 users have wished for close to $4 million in goods, says Shannon Haslund, vice president of operations at Clixnmortar.com. Clixnmortar.com also launched a service targeting time-constrained shoppers, called Yoursherpa.com, which also used a scanner for shoppers to pick out items. Consumers pay for items at a kiosk; the mall stores wrap and ship the items.

Although Clixnmortar.com has not expanded the two Internet-related services beyond Atlanta, it plans to add a feature called Found.com that will allow shoppers to search for out-of-stock items at the mall locations and choose to have goods delivered or ready for pickup. Using an online-connected kiosk to order an item that is out of stock at the mall and have it shipped home is a viable option for mixing mall merchants with online shopping strategies, Ander says.

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