The retail mall holds an increasingly complex position in the grand narrative of American commerce. Once a symbol of unchecked consumerism, an environment in which all material needs are condensed and immediately gratified, it has unraveled over the last decade into the stalwart of our post-collapse pessimism — an institution that couldn’t withstand spending habits restrained by economic collapse.
Taking the opposite path is the digital market. The App Store has grown disproportionately, surpassing half a billion apps in 2012, and online retail has exploded. Between 1994 and 2011, Amazon.com grew to revenues of $50 billion, while seemingly-dated chains like Staples reached nearly $11 billion in annual income. Thousands of retailers have followed. And so, as one institution collapses, it's been assumed, another has taken its place, and it has done so with boom-like regularity in a time when nearly every market suffered.
But another trend has emerged recently, one less expected. Consumer interest shifted toward bridging the gap between our digital habits and our surroundings. A purely digital life — one in which products were seen but not experienced — has proven unfulfilling, and both startups and international brands have tried to leverage existing mobile technology to bring retail up to speed with the rest of the world. And as a result, real-world retail, once thought another victim of mobile convenience, is re-carving its niche.
At SXSW 2012, we’ll look at a race that remains largely unsettled — between Google Wallet and Apple Passbook, Square and Intuit, Dwolla and Paypal. We'll also look at retailers themselves, like Old Navy, where shoppers can unlock rewards by scanning products with their smartphones, REI, where customers can apply for REI-branded Visas on the go, and Stop & Shop, where visitors can check themselves out without ever waiting in line. In this, mobile has expanded retail possibilities that are at once digital and structural, shaping our understanding of products, the process by which we purchase them, and the very way we move through space.
With the industry in its infancy, and consumers lagging retailers in their awareness of these opportunities, we’re barely getting started. The unexpected shift reconnecting us with the world around us is rich with opportunities for the consumer, and, perhaps more so, the American mall.
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