Since Essential Retail last sat down with Hammerson, the shopping centre group's customers have gone crazy for its location-based mobile application, with downloads increasing from 80,000 to 300,000 over an 18 month period, while registration has increased from 50% to 80% –  well above industry average.

Hammerson's group head of multichannel, Sophie Ross says when the app was first released in 2015, the group put effort into getting the downloads, but it has now moved its focus to improving customer engagement.

"It's about understanding how customers are shopping in centres and using that information to encourage them to shop more and spend more time with us."

The loyalty app – called Plus – is available in all but one of its 23 shopping centres across Europe, with its newest addition, Dundrum in Dublin accessing the technology very soon. Each shopping centre has its own application, for example 'Brent Cross Plus', so it can analyse its own customer data and the way regular visitors shop.

One of the main functionalities of the app is geo-location, thanks to strong Wi-Fi and 6,000 beacons situated around its shopping centres.

"Location is really useful," says Ross. "And expectations have really changed, with Google Maps and things customers expect to be able to geo-locate themselves, but that's much more difficult in a building with not great mobile data coverage."

Hammerson has seen a significant uptake of the app, despite the fact the location functionality depends on a customer's Bluetooth being switched on. "You can access information in the app without registering or using Bluetooth – we're not trying to withhold information, but we explain that if you want the full experience you need to turn on Bluetooth."

Ross says not only does geo-location allow customers to better navigate to the shops they want to visit, but it also provides heat-mapping data and Hammerson can use this to encourage shoppers to alter their shopping habits.

"From a business perspective, we try to take customers off their usual track," she describes. "They may come in and visit three shops, enter through the same doors, take the same route, and even park in the same car parking space. But if we understand that track, we can encourage them to go and do something new because we have the ability to communicate in real time as they go around the centre, which is really valuable."

Customers are encouraged to share their data with personalised offers from its retailers, which Ross calls a "clear value exchange".

"We're not going to con someone to give their data," she adds.

Ross says Hammerson measures ROI of its app through footfall and dwell time and she says since implementing the technology it has seen 12% of Plus customers visit more frequently, while 15% spend longer shopping.

The next phase of the app will integrate an artificial intelligence product called 'Find Similar', developed by Cortexica. Also being used by John Lewis, the technology allows customers to take a photo of an item and find something similar in colour, pattern or shape from one of Hammerson's retailers.

"Research states 92% of customers always shop in the same store, but 94% said they would be encouraged to go to a different retailer," says Ross. "So if you like a skirt in a magazine and use Find Similar and discover it's in a retailer you'd not normally go to, it absolutely takes you off that track."

The benefit to retailers

Meanwhile, Hammerson's retail partners can get involved with the Plus app at no extra charge to their rental fees. But Ross admits some retailers are nervous about using location technology. "We give our retailers the ability to turn off the offers, but we're not finding retailers who are saying 'no' – we need to continue to show the value of working with us on it."

While Hammerson does not share individual customer data with its retailers, it can share useful trends about customer flow around the centre. This also allows the shopping centre to tailor its lease prices more effectively.

"A retailer owns the customers when they're in their store – but think about all the customers not in your store, that's where it becomes really interesting."

Geo-location applications are logical in a closed environment like a shopping centre, where Hammerson's app acts as the single mobile touchpoint a consumer needs. Ross says the Plus app ensures customers are not overwhelmed by notifications (three max are sent per visit), so how can location be effective elsewhere in retail, say on the high street, where customers need an app for each retailer in order to be able to have a similar level of service?

"Realistically, from a customer point of view, they're not going to have the app of every retailer," she says. "If I get too many pushes on my phone I'm going to delete the app, it's really annoying. For our retailers, we want to give a platform they want to share."

But Ross says this technology could be used on a high street – which is effectively an open-air mall – "I see value in an area getting together," she says.

"But for an individual retailer, I think it's a different value case. One of the things we're developing and is increasingly valuable to us, is heat mapping and the impact on leasing and events you run. In retail environment looks at value of shelf space – slightly different I can absolutely see it, lots of ways."