Todd Whipple of Rochester came to the Boulevard Mall Tuesday morning looking to buy a pair of socks. He had planned to just pop in and out of Dick’s Sporting Goods to make his purchase.
But Whipple also plays Pokémon Go. When he spotted some activity on his phone, curiosity got the best of him. He walked through the rest of the mall and, as he wandered, he found a hotspot near the mall’s fountain.
“I guess it worked out for the mall, because I’m about to buy a pretzel,” he said.
Now you know why retailers are ecstatic about the augmented-reality smartphone gaming fad. For them, Pokémon Go is like pennies from heaven.
“This is a shopping center’s dream,” said Russell Fulton, manager of the Eastern Hills Mall in Clarence.
The dream is happening during a nightmarish era for brick-and-mortar stores and shopping centers, which have been buffeted by the boom in online shopping and cultural changes that have weakened their allure as a gathering spot for young people.
Even during the best of times, it can be tough getting customers through the door in the summer, which is why malls often run special promotions and hold free events to coax consumers in. Pokémon Go has succeeded where some of those initiatives have failed.
Market analyst Oliver Chen has been widely quoted in the past week for making that exact point. He told MarketWatch: “What the game represents has the power to transform retail if stores can capitalize upon new traffic and become integrated into an entertainment experience in an authentic, brand-appropriate manner.”
Retailers said it’s easy to spot those people who are on the premises to play the game. They walk, sometimes in packs, with their phones held out in front of them. Sometimes the influx of traffic translates into increased sales.
Walden Galleria has a Pokémon gym near its P.F. Chang’s restaurant, which has driven traffic to the mall’s restaurants. Its electronics retailers have reported “remarkably increased” sales of portable charger packs, said Marissa Romano, the Galleria’s marketing director. And cellphone stores have seen a bump in customers upgrading their phones in order to optimize game play.
The Galleria leveraged the game’s popularity Friday with a special promotion offering free 2016 Center Guide coupon books to anyone who caught at least five Pokémon at the mall. It also hawked the mall as an ideal place to play the game, considering its air conditioning and free Wi-Fi.
Boulevard Mall is capitalizing on the craze, too. It’s in the process of finding costumed characters from the game to make an appearance at the mall.
T-Mobile recently tied the game to its “T-Mobile Tuesday” company-wide promotion. It gives customers unlimited high-speed data for a year when playing the game, free Lyft rides to a PokéStop or gym, a free Frosty from Wendy’s and 50 percent off phone accessories in T-Mobile stores.
The North Tonawanda Downtown Merchants Association arranged a Pokéhunt at its stores Thursday. It timed the event to coincide with its Canal Fest sidewalk sale and sent out social media blasts hawking the five PokéStops and a gym near its shops.
The game has resulted in the kind of organic, word-of-mouth buzz advertisers crave.
Western New York players have formed Facebook groups to plan meet-ups where they can hunt Pokémon in groups. They also post alerts to tip each other off to hot spots. Users have posted about spotting rare Pokémon at certain stores, such as Walmart and H&M, among other locales. Alexus Ross found some in the Wegmans parking lot on Dick Road.
“Got a Pikachu and another Squirtle. There was another few there that I didn’t have yet but I couldn’t find them before it was time for me to go,” she said. “My groceries were getting warm.”
Even though stores tend to have fewer PokéStops than outdoor locations, such as Canalside, players who “gotta catch ’em all” will leave no stone unturned.
Pokémon Go has been a boon to shopping malls in particular, many of which have struggled with lagging traffic in the face of online shopping rivals.
At Eastern Hills Mall, the Center Court fountains are a PokéStop. The mall has contacted the app’s maker, Niantic, about adding more stops to keep the momentum going. Mall services is ready to assist customers with Pokémon-related questions. It put up signs welcoming Pokémon “trainers,” (as players are called in the game), while other signs advertise “coins, hatching and giveaways.” Its MacSolutions Plus store has a sign in the window offering battery packs.
Fulton said he is impressed by the wide range in ages and demographics the game is bringing in, young and old.
“School is out and kids are being dropped off at the mall in droves,” he said. “It’s like ‘keep looking kids and, oh, grab a snack and some new sneakers while you’re at it.’ ”
It’s likely just the first step in a major collaboration between Pokémon and retailers. The two are working to add sponsored, in-game PokéStops in physical retail locations.