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Mall of the future? eBay's new storefronts can gather your data

The e-commerce site partners with brands and one of the world's largest shopping center companies to show consumers a new kind of mall, one that melds online with offline.

A woman tries out the Rebecca Minkoff digital storefront at the Westfield Shopping Centre in San Francisco.

SAN FRANCISCO -- Uri Minkoff, CEO of fashion brand Rebecca Minkoff, climbed through an opening in a wall leading to an empty retail space inside the Westfield Shopping Centre in downtown San Francisco. It was an unexpected sight: The stylish Minkoff, sporting a slim-fitted blazer and designer jeans, checking out the dark room, construction material strewn about.

But Minkoff doesn't care about the room itself; he cares about the entrance, where there is a computer setup that, he hopes, will boost his sales this holiday season. That's where potential shoppers will touch a piece of glass, iPad style, to shop.

This giant touchscreen, created by eBay, is the focal point of this new digital storefront. eBay converted two large panels of the glass into a touchscreen that lets shoppers browse virtually through a selection of products and then make a purchase. Minkoff stood inside the empty store, which currently isn't rented out, observing the back end of the setup. People on the other side would stop and tap on the screen, their hands creating small, moving shadows on the translucent wall.

Minkoff's digital storefront, along with ones for Toms Shoes and Sony, serve as the centerpiece of Westfield and eBay's vision of the future of shopping -- one where you can shop anytime, anywhere, and on any device. That a brick-and-mortar mall and an online auction-and-market site would join together in this initiative underscores the blurring of lines between the physical and virtual worlds, which both sides believe will ultimately serve the consumer better through new technology.

"My goal is 'Minority Report,'" said Steve Yankovich, eBay's vice president of innovation and new ventures, referring to the 2002 movie that features predictive technology and Tom Cruise using hand gestures to control computer actions.

For a brand like Minkoff, which largely sells through big department stores, opting for what is essentially an interactive billboard over an actual store is a relatively safe way to test the waters for a larger retail presence.

The digital storefront is part repurposed, part custom technology. What consumers see is a large digital image with a touchscreen area showing the products for sale. After customers choose a product, they enter their mobile number (the entered digits are hidden, but the touchpad is fairly visible, so if you're not careful people around you can see you entering your number), and complete their purchase on their smartphones.

What makes the display possible are layers of projection film and touch foil adhered to the glass, as well as a custom-made Sony 4K projector and eBay's proprietary software running on a computer out of sight, behind the glass. Induction speakers cause the glass to vibrate, turning it into speakers. This lets users hear sounds when they make contact with the screen.

The projection film allows for crisp images, and the touch foil, a thinly wired adhesive skin that's normally used on top of bulkier consoles, allows for accuracy in a shopper's touch. The 4K projector, typically used in research-and-development labs to examine detailed images of things like motor parts or circuitry, produces sharp images without blinding the viewer.

The storefronts are customizable in look and size. The Rebecca Minkoff display looked like it was made of two glass doors, and it had four rotating images. Sony, which also has a small presence in the mall one floor down, decided to create a display that took over an entire wall and had sensors programmed to sync the movement of its product images with the movement of anyone standing in front of it.

While the tech behind the glass touchscreens is definitely cool, the really exciting part for retailers is the the top of the display, with its several black squares. The squares are Kinect sensors, using infrared to monitor customers' movements within a 15-foot range, and gathering valuable data for retailers on what actually catches a customer's eye or will make people stop in their tracks all together.

"It's such a completely different way of thinking about retail," said Healey Cypher, who leads eBay's retail innovation group. Traditionally, retailers don't have any hard metrics to tell whether a store display is doing its job to entice customers. What's more, the digital storefronts also track shopping activity, the same as a Web site would: How much time consumers spent browsing the products, which products they clicked on, what they ended up purchasing in the end, whether they wanted to have it delivered to their homes, or, in Sony's case, pick it up elsewhere in the mall.

Coupled with the physical foot traffic data, the futuristic glass walls give retailers a more complete picture of their customers' spending habits.

Minkoff --who is actually a techie himself, having founded a software company before taking over the business side of his sister's fashion brand -- said retail brands like his could use the data before investing in a physical storefront, to test which locations work well for their products. Inversely, the mall could use it to test out retailers before leasing them a space. His brand is mainly carried in retailers like Bloomingdale's and Nordstrom, but he has three stores in Asia and is opening the company's first US flagship store in New York this spring. Having a digital storefront could help Minkoff decide where he may want his next physical location.

eBay did a similar setup for Kate Spade's pop-up stores in New York and the retailer used the data gathered from the storefronts to decide where else to open popup stores.

"The metrics were so huge, they opened it in a place where they wouldn't have," Cypher said, adding that the shops showed a definite correlation between the data and the sales made. "One of our concerns was people using it only because it's cool tech, but what we found was that it's about the brand."

eBay is continuing to improve on the shopping experience and the speed of the setup. While the Kate Spade storefront took about a week to set up, Cypher's team can now put one together in less than three days. The storefronts aren't permanent; the ones at the Westfield mall come down after January 12. Yankovich said digital storefronts are a more attractive option for malls that have any open spots for rent because they're easy and fast to set up, and more attractive than the placeholders malls currently use. But he doesn't want to stop at malls.

"We're going to take this technology and the idea of using glass and move it out of the mall -- on the bus, train, at the airport. Anywhere where people are waiting, congregating, or milling about," he said.

For Westfield, the digital storefront is just a sampling of what's to come.

Kevin McKenzie, who leads Westfield Labs -- a department created by the company to think of ways tech can be used to keep shoppers at malls -- knows that malls have to adapt technology to stay in the game. And it's not about stopping retailers from selling things online.

"Consumers don't think about offline and online, they're just like 'I just need to buy something,'" he said. "So, we don't get caught up in the brick and mortar and online. We just look at our buildings as real estate to facilitate commerce, online and offline. I think the whole industry is starting to wake up to that."

Kevin McKenzie, Westfield Labs' chief digital officer, demonstrates how to make a purchase on a digital storefront. eBay

McKenzie sees the mall as a platform, much like eBay except in physical form. And as a platform, the mall has to provide an experience that will compel shoppers to use it. That includes attracting quality food vendors, and figuring out ways to serve consumers before, during, and after they're at the mall.

"It used to be that years ago, before online, you were inspired by coming to the mall. You couldn't discover anything beforehand because the Internet didn't exist," he said. To mimic that kind of Internet discovery, Westfield is piloting searchable mall directories in Australia and Europe. These digital directories don't just show where stores are, they can go into detail, letting a shopper know where a specific type of product is available throughout the mall. In December, Westfield is rolling out infrared-enabled sensors in the parking lot, so people can reserve specific parking spaces through their phone before they arrive.

While McKenzie admits that he doesn't know if any of these things will keep shoppers coming in, he's excited to try. And, though he said it's not about online or offline anymore, he's thinking about what a mall can do outside of the digital box.

"What advantages do we have?" he said. "What can we do that Amazon can't do?"