South Mississippi shopping is a mix of traditional service and high tech

Shopping gets personal with technology

At Gulfport Premium Outlets, shoppers use the Internet and smart phones but still want a personal experience.
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At Gulfport Premium Outlets, shoppers use the Internet and smart phones but still want a personal experience.

Just three weeks into the year and already we hear Coast Clothing in Pascagoula is closing after 42 years and Wal-Mart will close 154 stores in the U.S.

The retail industry is changing rapidly, but experts say don't expect brick-and-mortar stores to just go away as online sales increase. Retailers are embracing the Internet, which some had said would put them out of business, and using it to bring shoppers into their stores.

Do expect lots of changes in the way we shop, though.

The hottest trend in retail isn't Michael Kors or another designer -- it's Omnichannel, a term that describes how retailers provide customers with a seamless experience whether they shop online, by telephone or in a store.

Disney has perfected the concept of Omnichannel, said blogger Aaron Agius. After people book their trip to a Disney park through a travel agent or website, they can plan their entire trip down to where they will dine. Inside the park, a mobile app helps people find the attractions they want to see and gives the estimated wait time. Disney's Magic Band program, Agius said, is a hotel room key, storage device for photos taken with Disney characters and a food-ordering tool.

Personalized service

Disney typically is ahead of its time, but shoppers in South Mississippi increasingly have access to such personalized services. It's not meant to replace traditional shopping but to make it more convenient and fun.

Shoppers waiting for Kohl's, Target and other stores to open at The Promenade in D'Iberville on Thanksgiving night were perusing their printed sales circulars and checking store layouts with their smartphones to find the big deals.

Winn-Dixie in South Mississippi provides recipe cards for shoppers who come into one of its grocery stores and don't know what to make for dinner. Shoppers can use the Winn-Dixie app and website to find ingredients, pull up their digital shopping list, get a coupon and track their reward card savings.

Gulfport Premium Outlets has gone to a concierge-type service to give shoppers a personal touch, said Rhonda Roberts, director of marketing and business development. The shopping center's free VIP shopping club provides members-only coupons and sales.

"I think it's elevating that customers experience," she said, "rewarding that customer for shopping with you. Differentiating yourself from another retailer.

"Customers are smarter shoppers today. They really look for those deals. They compare."

Old-style shopping not dead

But the Internet doesn't replace the shopping experience for many people. "They still want to come in and touch it and feel it and try it on," Roberts said. They want to take their purchases home that day and not wait or pay for shipping. They want easy exchanges.

Simon Property Group, parent company of Gulfport Premium Outlets, encourages social media to make shopping interactive. Shoppers can try on a jacket, snap a selfie to text to friends for their opinions and then tweet their photo at #FoundatSimon.

"I think people want to get out and be entertained," Roberts said. "It's an overall experience."

It's all at the mall

Edgewater Mall in Biloxi was social shopping long before there was social media.

"A key is just synergy," said Terry Powell, mall manager. A mix of big and small businesses along with food and attractions draws shoppers across the generations.

"We had a really good December," Powell said, and that brought prospective tenants in January.

When the opportunity came to get Shoe Dept. Encore as a tenant, several small stores agreed to move to make room for the large store that will open next month and draw more people to the mall.

"I think we're going to see more out-of-the-box thinking coming up soon," he said. "As a retailer today you'd better be thinking outside the box."

Big money at stake

A lot is at stake. The National Retail Federation says the retail industry employs one in four Americans and contributes $2.6 trillion each year to the nation's gross domestic product.

Matthew Shay, CEO of the federation, said at the Retail Big Show in New York last week he's been coming to the convention for five years. Retailers are looking for that next big thing shoppers don't even know they want yet.

"Each year," he said, "we're bringing together a more diverse and representative group of retailers -- discount and department stores, home goods and specialty stores, Main Street merchants, grocers, wholesalers, chain restaurants and Internet retailers -- to explore the future and drive innovation."

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