UNIVERSITY PARK -- The Mall at University Town Center now has a smartphone application that will serve as a pilot for Taubman Centers properties nationwide.
Taubman, based in Bloomfield Hills, Mich., announced Tuesday the free app is available for Apple iOS devices, while an Android version will launch in mid-2015.
The app has actually been available for a few weeks in the Apple Store, but the company decided to make the announcement two days before Christmas to help people with their last-minute shopping. And peak tourism spending is right around the corner in the Bradenton-Sarasota area.
"Our goal and mission is to make the shopping experience better, to make it easier, make it more productive, fun and engaging," said Ivan Frank, director of digital marketing for Taubman.
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The app, with the help of Bluetooth beacons, can:
Detect a shopper's location in the mall and help provide step-by-step directions to a store.
Save favorite stores to a list that will also be highlighted on a mall map on the app, and see recommended deals and offers.
Create a shopping itinerary.
The Mall at UTC app attempts to provide a first shopping center-wide app that can provide a round-up of key offers and how shoppers can find their way around. Because some retailers use proprietary Bluetooth beacons -- think of these like WiFi hotspots -- getting two-way communication between retailers and centers and then to the shopper just isn't there yet because no one has developed that technology yet, Frank acknowledged.
Technology company MXM created the new app using real-time, mall-based navigation features using Bluetooth Low Energy SMART beacons from another technology company called SPREO. Bluetooth LE is a technology rapidly adopted by such retailers as Macy's that can track shopper's movements and send out push alerts for deals in-store.
That's eventually where this app could be headed, Frank said, but the debut app is built on simplicity and basic features letting shoppers view existing offers at the mall.
"Offers is one part of the journey, but first how do you make that experience better?" Frank said. "The first thing, and the lead for this, is indoor navigation capability we haven't seen at any other location."
If location-based offers become part of the app, they must be user friendly.
"We want it to be a great experience," Frank said. "We don't want to clutter it up..."
Bluetooth LE is able to track someone's location indoors down to 12 to 18 inches, something that GPS can't do, said Brett Reisman, director of marketing for SPREO. The technology, along with SPREO's mathematics and algorithms, help detect floor changes so it knows if shoppers are on their way to the upper level of, say, Crate &Barrel, instead of the lower level.
"One of the challenges of Bluetooth in large, crowded places is that the signals are not always precise," Reisman said. "This is an issue with WiFi and other options available. We actually fine-tuned and solved these issues to detect floor change down to a foot and a foot-and-a-half position."
The company collects walking movements from users through the Bluetooth signals to help create more efficient walking routes as more people use the app, Reisman added.
Data collection and security are a major concern today given what seems to be monthly data breaches in the U.S. No credit card information is stored -- the only thing users are asked to do is create a log-in for the app, which can be used on the mall's website, to remember favorite stores and plans, Frank said.
It's possible that as the app becomes more sophisticated, data could be collected that shoppers' patterns of what deals are selected, validated and entries into certain areas could be collected to make business decisions for Taubman at its malls.
"I think that's good speculation that data could be extremely valuable. But at first we have to understand how it might help us and to the extent it links retailers and consumers," Frank said. "If we can help both of them then that is a home run for us. Those are the types of questions we have to address."
SPREO has a deal with Taubman to develop indoor-navigation technology for apps at 18 malls, according to the New York-based company's website.
"Taubman is pleased to be the leader in bringing this technology to shoppers to enhance their in-mall experience," SPREO co-founder and CEO Avi Sacajiu said. "Through our work with Taubman, we are leading the way in using radio-frequency signals for precise navigation in large, multi-level spaces like The Mall at University Town Center. This is truly a unique amenity for shoppers."
SPREO has a deal with Taubman to develop apps for 18 centers and the majority of Taubman's properties should have an app by the end of 2015, Frank said.
Charles Schelle, Herald business reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7095. Follow him on Twitter @ImYourChuck.