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WestShore Plaza tries new social networking strategies, including free Wi-Fi

TAMPA — WestShore Plaza is now equipped with free Wi-Fi service that also empowers stores to text-message coupons and ads to prospective customers while they shop.

Following the launch Thursday, WestShore merchants now have a mall Web site, Facebook page and Twitter account to fill with coupon offers and the capability to text them to cell phones.

It's a different twist in the arms race among malls and retailers trying to figure how to use social media to boost business without coming across as lame.

Most Tampa Bay malls have Wi-Fi, but usually shoppers pay to use it. They also offer Web sites equipped with downloadable coupons and links to make reservations in mall restaurants. Web sites for the three Westfield malls locally are linked to nearbynow.com, which enables customers to communicate directly with stores via e-mail and even have products held for pickup. Retail chains such as PacSun, Victoria's Secret, Beall's, JCPenney and Lane Bryant have all tried to get shopper consent — with mixed results — to have coupon offers text-messaged to them over cell phones.

Now a shopper surfing the Web on a smart phone or toting a laptop to the food court would first see the mall's Web page.

"The difference is we can connect the store with the customer while they are shopping," said Jeff Harper, a Columbus, Ohio, relocation services consultant who launched eProximiti LLC with his father, Ivan. "We put promotions in front of shoppers inside the mall where 70 percent of purchasing decisions are made."

The Harpers signed a deal to serve 19 malls owned by Glimcher Realty Trust.

The firm is paying Glimcher the equivalent of a marketing sponsorship to get up and running, while charging retailers $50 to $150 for ads. WestShore was the second mall wired after Glimcher's Polaris Mall in Columbus went online last month. The hot spot at West­Shore covers only the mall food court, but more coverage is coming, plus a blog for stores with staffers willing to chat with customers.

About half of the Columbus shoppers check into the site from home, and about a quarter are inside the mall. Only one in eight signs up to receive coupons.

So far only 13 stores participate at WestShore. Most of the deals promoted are widely available elsewhere. Most mall chains prefer to tackle social media on a national basis and are reluctant to give local store managers authority to manage offers and customize messages to local conditions. But several chains have told the Harpers they would attract chains' attention if they can get in a few dozen malls.

The Harpers, who have a condo on Anna Maria Island near Bradenton, developed eProximiti in the Tampa Bay area. Two years ago, they installed wireless Internet antennae to overcome spotty service in the Manatee County island community. Now it's wired in 600 hotel rooms on Bradenton Beach. They added surfbradentonbeach.com as the landing page and sold ads to beach businesses and restaurants.

"This all started with us just toying around, but it was profitable within a year. We found 90 percent of our hits came from within 15 miles of the beach," Jeff Harper said. "Our hope is to be in 30 malls within a year."

Mark Albright can be reached at albright@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8252.

WestShore Plaza tries new social networking strategies, including free Wi-Fi 07/16/09 [Last modified: Friday, July 17, 2009 1:39pm]

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