Carrolltown Center on Black Rock's Web Cyberspace: Black Rock Associates Inc. and self-storage owner Storage USA Inc. are the first local real estate firms to use the Web.

June 04, 1996|By Kevin L. McQuaid | Kevin L. McQuaid,SUN STAFF

Carrolltown Center's bricks and mortar may be located in Eldersburg, but its marketing effort now spans cyberspace.

Thanks to a new Internet World Wide Web site, Black Rock Associates Inc. is providing leasing and tenant information electronically to prospective customers and others about Carrolltown, a mall that the Sparks real estate firm bought for $10 million in January 1993.

"We realize we're just one of many channels of distribution for our retailers," said R. Dixon H. Harvey Jr., Black Rock's president.

"And since our business is to make retailers' successful, the more we can do for them the better."

Although Web sites have become commonplace for many Baltimore companies, ranging from Alex. Brown Inc. to Rent-A-Wreck Inc., Black Rock and self-storage owner Storage USA Inc. represent the only two local real estate firms thus far to use the Web to communicate. "It's a natural for us," said Thomas E. Robinson, president and chief operating officer of Storage USA. "For developers of a pretty low-brow product, we're pretty technologically advanced and it's something we're committed to to better communicate with investors and analysts."

Despite the high-tech nature of the Internet, both Harvey and Robinson said, getting online wasn't complicated or expensive. In both cases, the companies spent less than $5,000 to enter cyberspace.

While Black Rock is using the Internet to promote retailers in its two malls and a third it manages in Virginia, Storage USA is using its site to promote itself.

Before long, the company plans to offer its annual report via a Web page.

"Advertising nationally is not something we're really signing off on yet," said Robinson, whose real estate investment trust went public in March 1994.

Eventually, Harvey says, scanners of Black Rock's Web site will see electronic "coupons" and advertising for community events. The company also plans to expand electronic links to tenants such as Kmart, Blockbuster, Wendy's and NationsBank, and include local merchants.

National mall owner Hahn Co. has already entered the world of interactive shopping, offering Web coupons and information such as movie listings and information on upcoming sales and new stores.

"It's being used by customers as a preshopping tool," said Teresa Holve, director of Internet business development for San Diego-based Hahn, a part-owner of the Towson Town Center mall.

"We saw it as an opportunity to enhance our identity, increase foot traffic in our centers and conduct leasing online. In that respect, we're using it as a business tool."

More like a business power tool.

Unlike some, Hahn's Web site contains hundreds of pages of data on 17 of its centers nationwide, complete with four-color graphics and demographic and community information.

"Without having visited Towson Town, you can get a good feel for the center and the Baltimore area," Holve said.

Such detail is costly, though. Although Holve declined to reveal Hahn's cost to begin the venture, she said it was in excess of $25,000. By September, a year after its launch, Hahn intends to add more data and have all of its properties represented on the Web.

"The thing I like about the Web, unlike a marketing brochure, is you can build upon it," Holve said. "With a brochure, if you print up 100,000 and send them, they're gone. So the Web is much more cost-effective."

But determining just how cost-effective is problematic. Unlike traditional retail barometers such as sales, Web site browsers leave few trails other than "hits" -- the number of times information from a page is downloaded -- that can be recorded or electronic mail messages.

"It's hard to translate how a Web page affects the bottom line," said Harvey, who admits to spending hours on the Internet a couple of evenings a week. "And that's one of the challenges. But for us, what was important was to be out there."

In Black Rock's case, its Web page has received more than 800 "hits" since its inception three months ago. Storage USA, which also went online in March, now gets about 500 "hits" per week, exceeding its expectations. Hahn gets hit thousands of times per week.

With the promotional potential of Web sites, other local mall and commercial real estate owners are considering taking the electronic plunge. Prime Retail Inc. Chief Executive Abraham Rosenthal said after last week's annual meeting that the outlet mall developer is "considering" the Internet.

And the Rouse Co., the Columbia-based mall owner with a $4.8 billion portfolio of properties, is studying a Web site, said company spokeswoman Cathy A. Lickteig. "We're trying to define our own objectives and we're going about it cautiously," she added.

Rouse and Prime Retail already have some Web experience, however. Rouse's Underground Atlanta and Santa Monica Place malls in Georgia and California, respectively, have Web sites to attract customers and present information, as do six Prime Retail outlet centers.

Rouse and others may be waiting for further technological development and the evolution of cybershopping, where consumers could order goods electronically and have them delivered without ever having to visit a mall.

Even with its tremendous impact, the Internet isn't expected to eliminate traditional shopping, of course.

"There will always be a need to go to stores for certain things," Harvey said.

"People will always shop if only to interact and see other human beings."

Pub Date: 6/04/96

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