Malls combine online, in-store shopping

| Thursday, Oct. 18, 2007

Monroeville and Westmoreland malls have a new service for customers that blends online with in-store shopping.

Looking for a new sweater• Go to the Web sites " " or " " and search for "women's sweaters."

Monroeville Mall's site, for example, turns up hundreds of sweaters at stores such as J. Jill, Forever 21 or Delia's.

Specific product searches can be done at Web sites, powered by Los Altos, Calif.-based NearbyNow Inc. Every list of search results includes a map of the mall, pinpointed with store locations.

Business trends expert Roger Selbert of Santa Monica, Calif., said Circuit City, CompUSA, Wal-Mart, Best Buy and other top retailers already allow customers to buy online, then pick up their purchases at stores.

While he was unfamiliar with NearbyNow, Selbert said services that combine Internet and in-store retailing will become common. "As familiar as people are becoming with shopping online, they still want to shop in stores," he said.

Mall shoppers can ask via e-mail whether an item is available in a certain size and color, and get a reply within 10 minutes. They also can reserve items for purchase and pickup later, and print coupons.

"Shoppers can basically shop the mall before they get here," said Dawn Gnieski, marketing director at Westmoreland Mall, with 160 retailers in Greensburg. "It will be a nice service for the holidays."

NearbyNow, founded two years ago, had four malls "searchable" during last year's holiday season. As of Wednesday, the company had 194 malls online, and another 400 are expected to be added next year.

"That will cover two-thirds of the enclosed shopping centers in the United States," said Dan Steinman, NearbyNow's vice president for customer relations and one of its founders.

Surveys indicate 45 percent of retail business involves an online search, followed by a store purchase, he said.

CBL & Associates Properties, which owns the Monroeville and Westmoreland malls, is extending the online search service to all 76 of its retail centers.

Here's how the service works: NearbyNow arranges with large retailers to feed images and details on their stock at individual mall stores to the Web sites. The retailers update the information, typically every 48 hours.

Initially, NearbyNow requires that all retailers join in, even small kiosks, though that may fall to about 75 to 80 percent active participation later. Stores that don't provide product images appear at the bottom of search results.

Once a query about an item's availability is received, the company's call center in Oklahoma phones the store if it's during operating hours and sends an immediate answer to the customer.

If the item isn't in stock, the store can suggest another color or something similar. Or the customer may be referred to the retailer's Web site.

Steinman said shoppers can search for mall products and sales on their cell phones. Locally, that's done by sending a text message to MON for Monroeville or WM for Westmoreland to NearbyNow's number, which is 632729.

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