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Developers planning one high-tech Mall of Georgia

Ben Carter says technology is last piece of the puzzle he, Scott Hudgens and CPI are putting together in Atlanta.

With several major tenants signed and construction under way, The Mall of Georgia at Mill Creek's developers have shifted some of their attention to technology.

Specifically, Ben Carter Properties, which is developing the 1.7 million sq. ft. super-regional mall with the Scott Hudgens Cos. and Corporate Property Investors, is looking for the right way to connect the entire state of Georgia with the Mall of Georgia. The developer already has laid the groundwork to have a technology-ready mall

"Technology is the last piece of the puzzle," says Ben Carter, chairman and CEO of Ben Carter Properties. "Technology, retail and entertainment are on a collision course. We have to predict how the Mall of Georgia can be integrated with technology and the Internet. It's kind of the most unknown part of our business right now, Internet commerce."

If all goes as Carter hopes and plans, consumers one day will be able to call up the Mall of Georgia website ( and click on to receive real-time feeds from stores in the mall. The website will allow customers not only to order products, but to have a sales person show them the item beforehand.

"Where I think it can ultimately go is providing an opportunity for the retailers themselves to have live video feeds through our website," Carter said during a recent interview in his Atlanta offices. "Customers can have contact with sales personnel and view merchandise from on the website."

Carter concedes that the idea is cutting-edge, but he believes his development team can pull it off with help from the center's retailers. "To make it an achievable goal is to require retailer participation because it's an expense that needs a revenue stream or expense-sharing agreement."

Carter says the Mall of Georgia's development team has incorporated technology in each step it's taken in planning for the huge center, being built at the intersection of Interstate 85 and Georgia 20 in Gwinnett County. The mall is set to open on Aug. 13, 1999, developer Scott Hudgens' 76th birthday. Carter credits Hudgens, who has developed some of metro Atlanta's most successful malls including Gwinnett Place, with being the visionary on the Mall of Georgia project and with crystallizing the idea of bringing big box, large retailers and entertainment together in one location. With Hudgens' ideas becoming realty, the team now is laying the groundwork for a technologically advanced mall. Plans call for the mall to have the hard-wire cable capacity to allow Carter and his team "to do whatever we want to do with technology," he said. Fiber optics will play a major role, he adds. "The hardware, software, fiber optics and real-time image exchange is coming together pretty quickly," he says. "August 1999 is not too early from the technology side."

The Mall of Georgia website now is geared toward prospective tenants and providing a brief overview of the project. As the opening of the mall grows closer, the focus will change. "It's going to move to more of a consumer slant," says Tom Connolly, a sales consultant and Mall of Georgia point man at Atlanta-based iXLInteractive Excellence Inc., which Ben Carter Properties has hired to enhance the Mall of Georgia website.

Connolly says the real-time imagery Carter wants to put on his mall's website is available now and is being used for a variety of purposes. Videostreaming allows real-time images to be transmitted from a location to the World Wide Web. "Videostreaming is something that's already out today," he says. "What is limiting the technology at this point is the bandwidth that's out there."

Bandwidth capacity, which Connolly says is "improving every day," dictates the speed with which information and video can travel through the Internet. As bandwidth increases, the capacity to transmit images increases. "The technology's there today to do what they want to do," he says of Carter and Hudgens.

The fiber optic system connecting the Mall of Georgia to the technology world is crucial, Connolly says. "The fiber has to be going into the mall," he says. "They have to be attached to the Web."

Combining retail uses and the Internet is a hot trend, Connolly says. "It's the biggest growth area out there on the Web," he believes. "It's the easiest way to reach customers at their homes."

Carter believes consumers eventually will favor shopping on-line using real-time imagery over catalog shopping. Ordering from catalogs, he says, can be frustrating. Personally, Carter says he is bothered when he receives a clothing item that doesn't fit and must send it back. With live video fed through the Mall of Georgia website, consumers can have a personal shopper escort them through stores. "It's more of a walk-in-the-door and talk-to-somebody approach," he says.

Carter envisions a team of salespeople wearing headcams (hats with minicameras) walking arounddifferent stores and offering on-line shoppers information about items they're interested in. He says he got the idea while in an Old Navy store where salespeople are connected using headsets. "I said, 'What the heck. Let's take a camera and put it on a hat.'"

The salespeople will be able to show customers size, color and pattern options of softgoods, which Carter believes will catch on with on-line customers. "They're basically your live mouse," he says of salespeople guiding on-line consumers through stores. "You've got feedback."

During the next year, Carter must sell his high-tech plans to the retailers who will set up shop in the Mall of Georgia. "If we can do all that, or 90% of it, we will have brought the definition of community service, entertainment and select retail to the level it has the capacity to be," he says.

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