SAN FRANCISCO, May 28 (Reuters) - Australian shopping plaza operator Westfield Group launched a food-ordering pilot program on Wednesday, becoming the latest in the mall industry to test ways to stem a consumer drift toward e-commerce and away from brick-and-mortar stores.
Westfield said that if successful the program, dubbed "Dine on Time", could serve as a platform for rolling out other services in future that would help its network of nearly 90 malls worldwide compete against e-commerce rivals like Amazon.com Inc. Pilots like these represent Westfield's effort to use technology and features already available online to blunt convenience advantages held by e-commerce companies.
Starting Wednesday, customers who frequent Westfield's shopping plaza in downtown San Francisco can order food from 15 of the food court's 45 restaurants. They can also schedule a pickup or have it delivered in a three-mile radius.
"We believed there was a lot we can learn out of that category (food ordering) that would ultimately enable us to do the other categories that much better," Westfield's Global Chief Digital Officer, Kevin McKenzie, said in a recent interview.
Allowing shoppers to order from the food court online or on the phone could help the mall become more of a central hub for consumers, McKenzie said. In the future, the program may help Westfield stores deliver products that consumers order online within the hour.
The pilot program is the latest move by Westfield Labs, a division led by McKenzie that was set up to test out projects to reinvigorate the 54-year-old company's shopping centers at a time of declining foot traffic in malls and growing online sales.
At an industry conference earlier this year, real estate developer Rick Caruso said the typical U.S. mall will be viewed as a "historical anachronism" within 15 years unless it is completely reinvented.
That sentiment is shared at Westfield, which is stepping up innovation efforts even as it goes through a financial restructuring of its own.
"We want to move faster but you've got so many entities you're doing with and no two malls are alike," McKenzie said.
Other Westfield pilot programs are being rolled out more extensively this year. A London-based test that allows shoppers to pay for parking using a wireless radio-frequency identification tag on their windshield will be introduced in two U.S. shopping centers and one in Australia this year.
Such experiments can help Westfield lay the groundwork for next year's opening of its retail complex at the World Trade Center site in New York, McKenzie said. (Reporting by Deepa Seetharaman; Editing by Kenneth Maxwell)