Convenience has emerged as the marketing mantra for the twenty-first century and the Internet the most effective medium for reaching consumers, who are increasingly doing comparative shopping online, as well as making direct purchases.

Last year the Internet drove nearly $300 billion in spending, nearly two-thirds of which occurred offline as a result of online research, according to findings of the American Interactive Consumer Survey by Milwaukee-based Dieringer Research Group. The survey, which looked at online and offline spending of 3,000 U.S. adults for the 12-month period beginning July 1, 2005, indicates that consumers who do online research end up spending at least $1.70 offline for every dollar spent directly online.

Building off that trend, some mall companies have launched novel marketing strategies that try build off that behavior, tapping into customers shopping online and ultimately drive them to shop at their properties. They're offering style experts, consumer panels and gift idea services.

Phoenix-based Westcor, a division of Macerich Co., a Santa Monica, Calif.-based REIT, launched a Westcor Gift Guru in 2001 to serve as an expert resource to the local media. “We wanted a program that created a direct link from Westcor retailers to the media,” says Anita Walker, senior manager of public relations for Westcor, noting that it also provided Westcor an opportunity to focus on critical categories of retail.

As the local media began to tap into the Guru as a resource, the company expanded the concept to be an entire panel. Four of the panelists are Westcor employees. The fifth — the teen style expert — is the daughter of one of Westcor's executives. Julia Zajdzinski, is the “Home Décor Connoisseur”, Devon Hoffman is the “Fashionista”, Suzanne Kobinski is the Gift Guru and Linda Whitlow is the “Family Fun Aficionado.” All are marketing managers with Westcor. Carly Scholl is the“Real-Life Teen Style Expert” and the daughter of Westcor senior vice president of development David Scholl.

Westcor also launched a Web site, where visitors can send comments or questions to the panel and get personalized tips on fashion, gift-giving and home decorating.

All of Westcor's shopping experts now regularly appear on morning shows at four local television stations to offer holiday shopping tips, hot gift ideas, fashion trends and other seasonal advice, Walker says.

“Everyone is included over time, because there is a myriad of opportunities to get all our tenants involved, from mom and pop shops to the Gaps of the world,” she says.

The project, which leverages the company's own marketing staff to provide shopping advice, has been a bonanza for Westcor and its tenants, so Macerich is now rolling out variations of the concept at its East and West Coast properties.

“The Westcor Gift Guru and Style Panel programs have done precisely what was intended: provide abundant opportunities for Westcor retailers to be highlighted in the media, receiving valuable promotion,” says Walker.

In a similar venture, Shema Krinsky, director of marketing at Forest City Enterprises' Mall at Robinson just south of Pittsburgh, has made inroads with local media outlet KDKA-TV and has launched a Web site to support this marketing strategy.

Mall tenants provide outfits worn on-air by KDKA and CW Network News anchor Sonni Abbata, Pittsburgh Today Live Morning Show host Kristine Sorensen and weather anchor Rebecca Hower, which are then showcased on the mall's Web site.

Mall marketing staff appear twice a month on Sorensen's show to offer gift-giving ideas and discuss a variety of topics, from deciphering the dress code on holiday invitations to seasonal fashion tips.

The Mall at Robinson Web site also offers information about popular toys and gifts items, retailer coupons and special promotions and mall events. Visitors can also purchase gift cards online and view past KDKA morning show segments.

The segments were initially launched to help retailers maximize limited marketing budgets, says Krinsky, noting the TV segments have been a hit with viewers, which is evidenced by the number of hits on Web pages showcasing fashions worn by KDKA-TV personalities and show segments.

Reaching Echo Boomers

Westcor's Style Panel also provided Westcor a link to the huge Echo Boomer market, with the addition of a 14-year-old Teen Style Guru. The Echo Boomer generation is similar in size to Baby Boomers and a major target for the retail industry, with nearly 80 million teens and young adults born between 1982 and 1995 now coming of age.

Echo Boomers represent the first generation exposed to computer culture from the cradle. The Internet is the most effective way to reach them, suggests Amy Kraft, marketing director for the Legends at Village West, a 1.1-million-square-foot, open-air destination lifestyle center in Kansas City, Kan. That's why she plans to launch Style SOS, an interactive Web resource aimed at teens age 14 to 19 that provides helpful information about style trends and new lifestyle products relevant to this age group.

Visitors will be able to join a blog and discuss issues with peers, post movie and music reviews, share ideas and information and ask questions about fashion trends and other information, which will be answered by a freelance writer who will also pre-screen blog entries and maintain the site.

Teens can also participate in polls on topics of concern to their generation, sign up for an regular eBlast of age-targeted news, and customize their online experience by selecting a background screen and music that plays while they navigate the site. “We'll add a fun twist to it for teens, with target pages that really meets their needs,” Kraft says. There are numerous national teen resources on the Web, but “no local source that speaks to where fashion is right now in Kansas City versus the New York runways. We'll provide them with a realistic idea of what they can expect from our stores, and styles that are available to them.”

Style SOS, which is scheduled to go live in January 2007, is designed to build a relationship with this huge consumer group. “We're going for a subtle sell,” Kraft explains. “We want to build credibility among teens as a resource for fashion, entertainment and other information,” Kraft says. “This is a generation that is already spending $170 billion a year — you cannot ignore that.

“Providing a tool to address their specific needs today will form a loyalty that has the potential of spreading to other friends and family and remain strong as this segment grows older and becomes the next dominant generation of Americans,” adds Kraft. “The investment we make today is small in comparison to how it can pay off in the future.” The budget for the Web site is $8,900.

General Growth Properties, for its part, plans to roll out a Fashion Camp concept at 10 of its malls next summer. The Fashion Camp was tested in the Dallas market last summer. A GGP spokesperson says the week long educational program is geared to youths interested in pursuing a career in fashion design or retail.

The new program, held at the Dallas Galleria, was so popular 187 teens signed up for 50 available slots, according to the spokesperson.

The Dallas program exposed participants to a variety of fashion-related careers, with presentations by successful working professionals. Fashion Designer Karly Marshall discussed “How to Style Fashions,” Seventeen magazine Merchandising Associate Stacy Charles presented on Fashion Event Marketing, Cotton Incorporated trend analyst Jessica Parch offered “Trend Forecasting: Taking the Trends Through the Design Process,” Nordstom representatives talked about “Fashion Through the Retail Process,” and Dallas Morning News fashion editor Tracy Achor Hayes, meanwhile, discussed Careers in Fashion Journalism.

General Growth will choose 10 markets for next year's tour by the end of 2006.