Are mall shoppers hungry for in-stock data?

Source: App Store/Simon Properties Group
Jun 27, 2022

Mall operator Simon Property Group is testing a search tool that lets shoppers see what’s in stock in stores inside the mall.

The platform, called Simon Search, is being tested at 29 Simon-owned retail centers across the U.S. with a broader rollout planned for later this year. The search tool is accessible on the Simon app, on property websites and through digital directories at the malls.

About 25 retailers are participating at launch, including Anthropologie, Athleta, J.Crew, J.C. Penney and Old Navy. For retailers, the expected payback is boosting store traffic and conversion rates.

Simon research found that 87 percent of shoppers desired such a search tool, with 75 percent saying they would use it on a regular or frequent basis.

Enna Allen, Simon VP of brand management, told WWD the search tool is tailored for “that customer who walks into a center looking for something pretty specific.”

Simon Search also mimics the online shopping discovery experience in helping shoppers find out what’s new at the mall. Ms. Allen said, “We’re getting the data directly from the retailers. We’re not out there finding it in some obscure place on the internet. It’s updated every single day.”

Retailers from Target to Lululemon and Dick’s Sporting Goods have added the ability to check in-stock availability to their websites to support in-store pickup, as well as to reserve items, a feature not available via Simon Search.

EnVista’s “2020 Supply Chain Survey” that came out in August 2020 found 67 percent of consumers indicate that inventory visibility across stores, online and mobile is an important service to offer.

SML’s January “State of Retail Insight Report: Better Serving Customers Through Technology” found 43 percent of U.S. and U.K. retailers listing enhanced stock level visibility as a priority. Twenty-four percent cited an unclear view of inventory as their biggest concern, with 21 percent also claiming that it takes too long to locate items in-store.

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS: How much appeal will an inventory check tool such as Simon Search offer to mall shoppers? Is the need overvalued? Do retailers still have a ways to go in offering inventory visibility?

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29 Comments on "Are mall shoppers hungry for in-stock data?"

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Neil Saunders

This is a useful tool for shoppers, allowing them to ensure things they want are available before they visit. The main issue here is ensuring that the data are accurate and up-to-date. There is nothing worse than making a special visit on the basis of things being in-stock only to get there and find out they’re unavailable. The only other downside is that if things are out of stock, people may elect to go to a destination that isn’t a Simon property!

Doug Garnett

Fully agree. This is potentially a very useful tool. Whether it can be maintained at the level needed so that customers find it useful is an open question.

At this point, we have plenty of examples of online inventories which are good and those which are hopelessly out of date.

My core question, though, is whether customers would go to the shopping center app to check inventory. We’ve been training them for decades to expect the store to hold that information. And, to be honest, most shopping centers don’t carry that kind of validity in customer minds. Will be interesting to see what happens.

Mark Ryski

This tool could have great appeal, but it could also contribute to a terrible shopping experience if the inventory data is not accurate. I applaud Simon for undertaking value-added services like this, however online inventory accuracy has been a challenge for many retailers, and so synchronizing inventory data with the mall operator could prove to be very challenging. As noted, some retailers have continued to struggle with getting their inventory visibility correct, and so getting their own house in order should be their top priority.

Dave Bruno

Color me skeptical. I just don’t know how many people really want to search in-stock positions across an entire mall. Maybe it’s me, but I always thought what made malls work with so many similar stores located literally right next door to each other was the uniqueness of their assortments. Malls are designed to foster the social side of shopping coupled with the joy of discovery from store to store. I am not sure how many people have highly targeted shopping lists in mind before they head to an expansive mall. I’ll be happy to eat crow if Simon proves me wrong, but I just don’t see widespread appeal for this program.

Georganne Bender

I’m with you, Dave. I go to the mall to shop, if I need absolute in-stock info I’ll order online.

Dave Bruno

Thanks, Georganne! Although, the early BrainTrust results indicate we may be the outliers with this opinion! I am honestly surprised so many people are bullish on this idea…

Georganne Bender

I’ll take it!

Georganne Bender

87 percent of how many shoppers? The ones who don’t realize that in-stock information is already on the retailer’s website? I feel like we are just throwing things against the wall to see what sticks.

I would much rather see mall operators focus on improving the shopper experience; bring back the events and entertainment that were mall staples long before the pandemic. A trip to the mall should be more than just an easy opportunity to visit many stores in one place.

Ken Morris

We need realtime retail data for this to be successful. The expectation of most shoppers will be that the item availability will be in real time, so getting data directly from retailers will be key. Unfortunately, that data will still not be real time for most retailers. Almost all POS systems in the mall are offline for inventory and only synchronize at end of day. So, in order for this to work, there needs be a large safety stock component. This is what shoppers want, so it will happen as retailers move POS to the cloud.  The effort will be worth it, because the increase in shopper engagement—especially at the physical store and mall level—should be significant. And Simon owns the print and digital signage in the malls to spotlight the app on site.

Al McClain

Right, Ken. This data is only being updated daily, and a lot can change in a day.

Steve Montgomery

An accurate in-stock tool is definitely a plus. Many stores have such tools but the issue is accuracy. Going to a store and finding they are out of stock on an item you went there for is not good. Checking the store’s app and finding that it indicates they have several of the item and then going there and finding they are out of it is something that makes the consumer very unhappy, especially when they ask a clerk and are told “yea, I know, it happens a lot.”

Christine Russo

This is another great example of bringing experiences that the customer has grown accustomed to online into a brick-and-mortar shopping experience. Retailers should not resist doing this.

Karen S. Herman

Simon Search is a great tool for the digital-first shopper. This shopper most likely has already web-roomed for the products that they are looking to buy in-store and an exclusive digital tool, like Simon Search, can really help in the last stages of the discovery process. Most important for retailers on the app is that their store inventory be up-to-date and well organized. This is an excellent opportunity to gain customer loyalty.

Dion Kenney
5 months 5 days ago

There’s nothing as frustrating as looking for a specific product and finding it out of stock. If shoppers know an item is in stock, they are more likely to buy it local. This is potentially a game changer for brick and mortar retail.

Gwen Morrison

This would be useful to shoppers in a couple ways. For a pre-planned purchase, it assures shoppers the item is there and helps justify the trip (given the price of fuel, shoppers may think twice.) A “reserve this item” feature would be valuable in this scenario. For an impulse apparel purchase, shoppers often discover something they like, but in the wrong size. Being in the store (in the dressing room) with this search tool would be efficient. They might even add “suggested accessories” as this becomes further developed.

David Weinand

I see this as very difficult to execute and a very narrow use case. Retailers will prioritize inventory availability functions on their own apps first and that, I’ve seen, is a big enough challenge. I’ve been to plenty of retailers that claim that the location has an item in stock and it does not. Also, it will depend on the retailers that participate. If retailers that offer similar items all join in, there is some value to the consumer (e.g. black t-shirts). If not, I would think a consumer would just go to that individual retailer’s app to look for what they need.

Bob Phibbs

Mall operators are hungry to get a piece of the e-commerce business and show value and I applaud them for effort. But like any app, it can be implying a reality that just isn’t there. The merchandise could be on someone’s back in a fitting room, not put back in the right space, etc. And opening a mall app before a brand app, well I just don’t know who would do that. E-commerce is e-commerce, trying to shoehorn the availability found online into stores just seems like a fool’s errand if it is not 100 percent accurate to the consumer.

Ryan Mathews

Not a fan. The tool benefits consumers who know exactly what they want, so why wouldn’t those shoppers just buy online? And, assuming they would still go to the mall to get something they could get – probably for less – delivered to their home, what happens when the system fails, input data is incorrect, and/or the “match” sells in the time it takes the consumer to go from the screen to the store? As to the last question, most retailers have a way to go tracking inventory for themselves, let alone for their customers.

Gene Detroyer

It is an excellent idea for shoppers. If the store doesn’t have what they are looking for, they can save a trip or try another store.

However the big downside is, with the inventory updated “every single day,” will the item still be there when the shopper arrives? As online, inventory updates must be in real-time.

Lee Peterson

This seems belated. It would’ve been great if Simon and others offered BOPIS for any mall store during the pandemic, which would’ve been more helpful/profitable for both parties than this — I was surprised it was so rarely done or even attempted. Regarding this venture: I’m pretty sure there’s more than one way to find out inventory, the other methods are already being used including simple phone calls so, to me, it feels like a very 1990s idea that should have been done in the 1990s rather than the expansion, expansion, expansion that happened.

Brandon Rael

Trust and transparency are key between the retailer and consumer. All shoppers are becoming accustomed to retailers and brands providing visibility into inventory availability. One of the more friction-filled experiences this may solve is customers going to the store expecting to find their favorite item and leaving empty-handed, or being pushed to buy the item online.

It will all come down to execution for this inventory check solution to work between Simon Search and the retailers they serve. Inventory accuracy and providing this visibility to customers has become a key customer experience differentiator. If the information is inaccurate, it will only lead to further frustrations for customers who may have gone out of their way for these items.

Rich Kizer

It is a plus if you know that the item you are interested is is in stock. The minus is that impulse purchases, the items discovered from a visit, may have a critical downfall. The goal: attract them with the desired item in stock, and try to get them to come to the store.

Brian Delp
5 months 5 days ago

Although customers answered they will use it, I’m not sure they actually will. Not all locations of these retailers are within Simon properties, and if customers are truly looking for something specific, I would think they’d go directly to say Anthropologie’s website to check stock. Further, I wonder if there are any concerns with sharing data with Simon considering they have investments in some retailers.

Mark Price

The need to understand available inventory of a particular item is essential to the fundamental promise of physical retail — same-day purchase of a desired item. While online retailers are working through same-day delivery, the supply chain issues remain substantial.

Retail offers consumers the ability to touch and try on items, but only if those items are in stock in the right size. Consumers can verify that information through Simon’s tool. However the ability to reserve items is a critical part of the value proposition and should not be discounted.

Peter Charness

Note first that there’s a difference between shopping and buying. For buying, BOPIS on the retailer’s website with accurate data is probably the right answer. For shopping, skip this and focus on an AR shopping experience. I don’t think this will be worthwhile until RFID is widespread. My last experience of this type of need was with a big box DIY store. The in-stock solution at my selected store gave me an aisle number that was wrong, for an item that the store staff told me wasn’t even carried at that retailer.

Roland Gossage
5 months 5 days ago

Many retailer now allow you to shop by store on their sites and apps and this is a logical extension. The important aspect of this will be near real-time inventory and alerts which in my mind will be the biggest hurdle. If it tells me that it is there, and I get there and it is not, it will have the opposite effect. Also, for locations that have poor in-stock inventory they will also drive traffic away.

Craig Sundstrom

My prediction is that people will make use of it, but (often) ignore the results; that is to say, even if something is shown as out-of-stock people will check anyway, “just to be sure” (the bigger problem will be false positives — if that’s the term — leading to disappointment).

So I would predict the usefulness of this is paradoxical terms: often used, but yet not really “useful.”