Your User Group is a Shopping Mall

Your User Group is a Shopping Mall
by Hewie Poplock

Over the last year, I read some articles about shopping malls and their need for reinvention or closing their doors. I realized that the similarities between shopping malls and user groups were quite amazing.

Gone are the shoppers looking for the traditional mall of the 1980s and 1990s with a collection of stores, a food court, and a movie theater. Times have changed. New and innovative shopping experiences have developed and are thriving. Many of the old indoor malls have empty store fronts and sparse customers. The once busy food courts are nearly empty of businesses and patrons.

Busy shopping area
Busy shopping area

Yet, in some areas, malls are bustling and full of shoppers. The indoor malls have given way to outside shopping communities. Some indoor malls are doing well. In the past few years, very few new indoor malls have been built. However, in some areas, such as Sarasota, Florida, a new Mall at University Town Center has been open about a year and is not only bustling, but is already expanding, as well as it has created an entire shopping district around it.

If malls want to thrive they have to do things to drive people in and make it an experience. Their mission is to stay relevant. As e-commerce attracts more of the shopper’s dollars, traditional malls are doing quite a bit of soul-searching. They wonder how they can continue to keep shoppers happy in an era when customers have gotten used to the highly personalized and convenient experience of online shopping.

The newly successful malls are focused on convenience and efficiency in every step of the process, from big picture decisions such as store location to little details such as what kind of furniture to use. They are using such techniques as “districting”. These malls are full of little neighborhoods of like stores so that a shopper can get all of their favorite outposts quickly and easily. Amenities such as children’s playgrounds and family bathrooms are also designated this way. We are seeing the food court disappearing and being replaced by the dining terrace. Fast casual restaurants have come to this dining terrace. It’s designated to be a place where you might use your laptop or linger with friends. Set ups like this will encourage consumers to think of the mall is not just a shopping center but as a community hang out.

There has been a change in the mix of stores. These new formats can include movie theaters, fitness centers, educational facilities, walk-in medical clinics, health and wellness centers, and even supermarkets, that were some of the original anchors in the malls predating the 1980s. These reinvented malls are leveraging technology. Many offer free Wi-Fi. In others, retailers use apps to encourage shoppers or to send shopper location-based offers as they shop. Some have in-store GPS to help shoppers look for a particular department or store. They try to make the experience memorable. They schedule events such as fashion shows, auto shows, technology exhibitions, and special holiday events to enhance the draw of the mall.

The mall in Sarasota has a Facebook page, special offers, free Wi-Fi, and special apps with offers. An app called “Step away” has exclusive sales and deals while shopping. There are special shopping packages with local hotels. There are group specials. There are locally themed children’s play areas. There are couches with electrical outlets and USB ports to allow customers to charge cell phones, tablets and other devices.

Let’s shift to user groups. Many computer user groups organized in the 80’s & 90’s. Many operate just as they did then. Of course, it is more difficult to get speakers, free programs, and volunteers to run meetings and SIGs. Many user groups have folded or are close to folding. Some groups are thriving. Those that are thriving have reinvented themselves. See the similarities to shopping malls?

Abandoned shopping mall
Abandoned shopping mall

Look at what has changed since your user group first organized. Very few people had computers. It was difficult to find help. Now, most homes have at least 1 computer device, most have several. When our groups started there was no Internet. Many groups started a BBS and had a newsletter to help their members. Presenters travelled and gave great presentations with giveaways.

However, new technology came. Many of our group leaders did not want to learn or change with the times. When your group started, there was no YouTube. There are now over 1 billion YouTube users and over 4 billion video views per day. There were no iPhones or Smartphones back in the day. There have been close to 800 million iPhones sold and over 200 million iPads. There has been 1 billion smartphones sold and tablets are selling at a rate of about 275 million a year. Not counting cameras in phones, 2.5 billion people have digital cameras and the first digital camera was sold just 30 years ago.

Other technologies have come about in recent years. Skype launched in 2002 and has 300 million users. Instagram has 182.5 million users who share 19 billion photos, with 58 million photos being uploaded daily.  Facebook has 1.4 billion users and increased 12% last year. Twitter has over 1 billion registered users, with over 300 million monthly active users. Other widely used new technologies include, but not limited to Roku, Apple TV, HDTV, & 4K TV. More recently, Uber now has over 8 million users and 160,000 drivers.

Has your user group become one of the old, tired shopping malls? Has it reinvented itself to highlight the newer technologies, some of which I have mentioned? If your group has not changed with the times, it is lot like the old dead malls and probably will be torn down soon. If your group has changed the topics, changed the way you present, promoted your group to new people, and accepted these new visitors or members and their focus, then your group is like the thriving malls. It may not be too late to change & update, but it does take some work. It also takes publicity in new and different ways.

Publicity needs to be a combination of many aspects such as a fresh website, which is kept up to date. Your group should have a Facebook page which items are posted regularly.  Other ways to publicize your group include, a newsletter, eNews via an email newsletter/flyer, etc. Use the many benefits of APCUG to get more ideas. Contact your APCUG Advisor for suggestions and help. Get ideas from the many other member groups of APCUG.

Help your user group become a thriving shopping mall. Reinvent yourself before it is too late.

By Hewie Poplock
Past APCUG Vice-President
User Group Member since 1982