Turning Crisis into Opportunity
In the age of e-tail, innovative thinking is helping some retailers profit from the new selling paradigm.
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Clixnmortar used the crisis mall retailers face to generate not only an opportunity, but a new shopping paradigm, revolving initially around teenagers and bar code scanners.

We are told with what is approaching nails-on-blackboard frequency that the number of people using the Internet doubles every hundred days. Dot coms owned, or at least rented, the lion's share of the too-ample advertising space at the Superbowl. And the letter "e," determinedly lower-case, makes all the difference in the world.

So why couldn't I find an Internet connection in Terminal 2 of Pearson International Airport?

Toronto is hardly a cultural or business backwater. Its airport connects with the rest of the world. The Bell Mobility pay phones are modern, with digital displays and slots for your credit card of choice. They just don't have RJ11 sockets into which to plug a phone cord. The peripatetic businessperson needing to keep in touch will encounter only frustration--or at least this one did. After walking the length of both floors of the terminal, I was forced to talk my way into an airline premium-class lounge so I could find a connection. My quest got me to thinking, though.

These are interesting times. They're times of crisis: Markets are changing, even in old, stable industries. How people buy things is changing; witness the Internet, at least as a promise. And, of course, how people sell things is changing as well.

Crisis is good. Crisis shakes things up. It forces you to ask if there might be another way to do things that would make more sense in these uncertain times. It makes you turn your situation over, look at it upside down and backwards, to see if perhaps a different perspective will turn the crisis into an opportunity.

Shopping centers are among the many brick-and-mortar businesses in crisis. Those retail complexes and the glistening, come-hither stores within them are expensive to maintain, making it hard to compete with volume retailers. And the threat of the Internet doesn't do much for mall morale: Serving as walk-through catalogues where would-be shoppers can choose items, price-shop and buy online isn't a very promising business plan.

What's needed is some creative thinking. Enter Clixnmortar.com, a young, venturesome subsidiary of the Simon Property Group, the largest owner of shopping malls in the U.S. Clixnmortar used the crisis that mall retailers face to generate not only an opportunity, but a new shopping paradigm, revolving initially around teenagers and bar code scanners.

Malls are many teens' natural environments. They're where they hang out with friends and cruise the stores in search of the latest and hottest. But though teens can look as if they're always shopping, they often are not the ultimate buyers of the goods they need or want; that task falls to their parents and relatives. How, then, might a mall like Atlanta's Gwinnett Mall or Mall of Georgia keep those purchases in its retailers' stores?

Simple: Buy a bunch of hip-looking handheld devices that will scan UPC bar codes. Loan them to teens at the mall for free, requiring only that they deposit a student or other ID to borrow one. Let the teens roam the mall to their hearts' content, "zapping" any item they can't live without, or maybe just are interested in. When they're done roaming for the day, have them bring it back to the kiosk, where the data they've recorded is synced into a computer.

A teen's wish list on paper might be agonizingly precise--after all, it's not just fleece vests or cross-training shoes that are "in" this week, but a specific brand and model, and likely even color. Then again, that list might not be specific--mind reading has always been a useful skill for coexisting with a young adult. Clixnmortar's FastFrog system solves that problem. The data transferred into the computer is specific as to brand, model, size, color--and, not so coincidentally, as to which store in the mall stocks that item.

The scanned data can be uploaded to one or more personalized wish lists that are kept at the FastFrog.com Web site. From there they can be printed, or with a password can be accessed on the Web. Through these wish lists, a teen can alert an adult buyer about his needs and desires, and the adult can take that list into the stores where the items were scanned and buy them--quickly, with minimal hassle and with the certainty that they won't have to make another trip to the mall to return any of the items. Or he can order them online, from those same mall retailers.

The Zapsticks are actually CS2000 handheld bar code scanners from Symbol Technologies, which has made its mark selling customized and ruggedized devices for use in vertical markets. Retailing hasn't really been its niche--until now.

Palm Handhelds
Clixnmortar is also working on an adult version of the same approach, called YourSherpa. It uses a different device, Symbol's SPT1740, a Palm handheld that's been ruggedized and equipped with a bar code scanner. Rather than needing to be synchronized to download scanned information, the handhelds will be connected to Clixnmortar servers via a wireless local area network (LAN). Shoppers who leave a credit card number, set up an account and borrow a YourSherpa unit will be able to wander the mall's stores, saving a scanned record of items they're interested in. Later, they can revisit that list, deciding what to purchase and whether to have the purchases assembled for mall pickup or wrapped and shipped to one or an array of destinations.

There's lots of new technology coming to market. Xybernaut, for example, recently announced it had patented a "transferable core"--essentially, a portable computer that can be moved from one "enclosure," such as a desktop computer, to another, be it a laptop or portable phone or car dashboard or multimedia sales presentation unit. Wireless LANs have just been speeded up to 11-megabits-per-second throughput, which means they can now deliver speeds close to those of wired LANs. Bluetooth, a chip that will deliver a new short-range wireless Personal Area Network, is promised shortly. And as quickly as new hardware and transports are rolled out, software vendors are extending their products to the new platforms.

But as the Simon undertakings suggest, the answer to your competitive challenge need not be new technology, but merely a new integration of existing tools to add value or create opportunities. What's required, in other words, may be nothing more than a different way of thinking about your business.

At Pearson International Airport, for example, Bell Mobility and the airport need not bear the cost of replacing those pay phones with data-enabled ones. How about a per-minute wireless LAN service based on rented PC cards? Or inviting a vendor to place kiosks offering credit card-based public Internet access?

One thing's for sure, though. There will be Internet access at the Toronto Airport's Terminal 2. The availability of the technology and the power of the marketplace guarantee it. The only question there, as in so many evolving markets, is who'll profit from making it happen.

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