Shop mall from home Retail: Three outlets are trying a new way to lure customers.


You finish reading your e-mail, check your horoscope and decide to head off to lunch. But first, you look for coupons from restaurants in the mall's food court - after all, it's only a two-minute walk away.

You're using your local mall's Smart Shopper Pavilion, a kiosk of computer terminals that combines Internet e-mail access with information, maps and advertisements for mall stores.

At home, the mall provides you with full - and free - Internet access. Your Smart Shopper CD-ROM contains catalogs for every store in the mall so you can shop from home via your PC. If you find a product you want, you put it in a virtual shopping cart and have it delivered to your home.

This is no far-fetched dream of the shopping future. Three Baltimore-area malls - White Marsh, Owings Mills and the Mall in Columbia - are among a dozen cutting-edge retail centers nationwide that provide Web kiosks and Internet access for their customers.

Why Baltimore? The Columbia-based Rouse Co., which operates the malls, struck a deal with the firm behind the kiosks, AIM Smart Corp. Six other Rouse malls outside of the area are on the Smart AIM system now. Towson Town Center should be hooked up before the end of the year, and more Rouse malls will join the system in the months ahead.

AIM Smart, headquartered in Goodrich, Mich., has similar agreements with two other major mall operators, the Simon Property Group and Wells Park. That gives the firm the potential to reach 550 major malls by 2002.

Rouse has made Smart AIM technology the centerpiece of a freebies program called the Premier Shopper Club. Members receive the Smart Shopper CD-ROM, a book of coupons, free local phone calls from the mall's customer service desk and other privileges.

The three Baltimore malls have signed up about 25,000 customers, according to Robin S. Higgins, Rouse's director of marketing for the eastern region. She said she expects Towson Town Center to deliver 8,000 more. About 700 people sign up each week.

Mall owners worried about competition from Internet-based shopping see the Smart AIM system as a way to ride the trend, rather than fight it. Free Internet access is the bait that gets customers in the door.

Ellicott City resident Rosa Cowan has been accessing the Internet through the Columbia mall's service for three months. While she hasn't used it for online shopping, she's pleased with the connection.

"I love the service. It's a wonderful gift to customers," said the 37-year-old mother of three.

Although she has owned a PC since 1993, Cowan had resisted signing up with an Internet provider because "we didn't want the monthly bill." When it came along, the free, mall-based Internet service sounded like a good idea.

Cowan said she usually logs on to the Internet once a day to browse the Web, read e-mail and check for upcoming events at the mall.

Setting up Smart AIM software is straightforward. The CD installs a modified version of Microsoft's Internet Explorer and related programs. But be careful: the installer wipes out any existing version of IE and "optimizes" your PC's Internet settings. This can disrupt other dialup software such as America Online. Smart AIM provides toll-free tech support.

Mac users are out of luck - the software is Windows-only - although anyone with an existing Internet connection can access the Smart AIM Web pages.

The CD-ROM makes cybershopping tolerable by reading photos of products from the disk rather than downloading them over the Net. Users receive periodic CD updates with fresh product information.

At the in-mall kiosks, any shopper can get store information, coupons and horoscopes. Premier Shopper Club members can check their e-mail on the touch-screen terminals.

But on a recent Friday afternoon at White Marsh, shoppers like Patrica Poe seemed more interested in daily prize giveaways. Club members receive a green plastic card that they can swipe through a Smart AIM terminal up to three times each day for a chance at free dinners, umbrellas, mugs and other prizes.

"Every time I come to the mall I'm going to stop here," Poe said.

Another White Marsh shopper, Christine Pappas, said she'd eventually like to shop from home with the CD-ROM. "If I can pull up Hecht's and get a sweat shirt for my son and then get it delivered to my home, I would use it," Pappas said.

Unfortunately, that may take a while. At the moment, stores offer only a handful of items online. Garry Eberhardt, AIM Smart's Chief Operating Officer, acknowledged the paucity of merchandise but said the arduous input process is under way. "It will take six to eight months to get a lot of products into the system," he said.

So far, only 10 percent of the signed-up club members are using the free Internet access.

"It will take time for people to realize it's there," said Eberhardt. "Everybody thinks there's a hitch."

Indeed, how can anyone afford to offer free Internet access?

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