Mall of America's opening in 1992 introduced consumers to its 520 retail stores, seven-acre amusement park, 49 restaurants and retractable roof. It also set a new amenity standard by which all future shopping centers would be compared. Along with parking spaces and public restrooms, shopping center basics now include high-end retailers, multiple dining areas, and a more engaging design.

Increasingly, as developers respond to consumers' growing desire for instant information, malls are taking advantage of another burgeoning amenity: free high-speed Internet access in the form of kiosks.

The newest shopping tool As FlatIron Crossing outside Denver opened its doors in August to thousands of eager shoppers, the buzz in the news and among consumers was about the mall's savvy approach to technology. FlatIron Crossing included a data-tracking computer, "eyes" that monitor shopper flow and help aid services, and the Wow Center, a nine-terminal kiosk offering free Internet access.

Kiosks such as the Wow Center offer more than just Internet access. They are dynamic multi-media components coming together in a familiar and entertaining setting - the shopping mall. And people love them. Huge high-definition plasma and television screens engage consumers from across the mall. These screens broadcast full television spots and cross-promotional information, reinforcing the brands and messages of mall retailers.

People use the Internet in these public spaces in much the same way as they do at work or at home. They send and receive e-mail, compare products and services, browse the Internet, research financial information, and check local news. Projections show that by 2004 there will be almost one million Internet kiosks in areas of public convenience.

Internet centers will serve as shopping partners for consumers, allowing them to type in a certain store, department or brand name, and hunt for a particular product. Search results will show that a specific brand of trousers a consumer wants to buy, for example, can be found at two stores in the mall. That consumer then might be able to print out a coupon for 10% off.

This technology also offers many benefits for brick-and-mortar retailers, who tend to fall into one of two categories: those tired of competing with online merchants, and those who don't have the technology to reach consumers beyond the confines of their stores.

Moreover, entertainment and Internet access, along with on-screen branded messages and advertising, can also be used to promote retailers, their partnerships and special events. The Internet also gives people the power to make better buying decisions in a place where they are most likely to do so - the retail shopping center.

Some public Internet access companies even offer malls a full complement of professional consulting and development services, ranging from strategic planning, online brand-building and e-commerce site-building to sponsorship development and content management. Those retailers turning to their mall owners for guidance in Internet strategy will find a whole host of opportunities in the Intertainment center.

A demanding future Today, people are using high-speed Internet access as a tool to improve shoppers' experiences and are presenting it as an entertaining and fun amenity. It's not unreasonable to believe that in just a couple of years shoppers will demand Internet access, just as they do with public telephones. And retailers and mall owners are destined to step up to the plate and provide it.