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Garden State Plaza capitalizes on Pokemon craze

July 19, 2016 GMT

The chorus of the Pokemon theme song is “Gotta catch them all.” Westfield Garden State Plaza in Paramus would like to add the words “at the mall,” to that chorus line.

Retail analysts say that augmented reality games such as Pokemon Go can teach America’s malls how they can evolve, and survive, in the digital era. The game, which exploded upon its release two weeks ago, creates digital Pokemon that appear on a smartphone using the location technology on the phone. It requires players to go to physical locations such as parks, museums, and stores, to catch them - a boon for retailers who have seen their customers dwindle as online shopping eliminated the need to go to bricks and mortar stores.

The Plaza, the state’s largest mall, is one of the North Jersey businesses looking to use the power of the wildly popular location-based digital game to draw customers. The Plaza is encouraging players to post pictures of their mall-caught Pokemon on social media, and is offering posters a chance to win a $100 gift card.

“We’re piggybacking off the fun and excitement of the game,” said Lisa Hermann-Srednicki, senior marketing director of the mall. “This is like the downtown of Bergen County,” she said. “People are coming here for all different reasons,” and the game complements those reasons.

Berkeley College, a for-profit career school with campuses in Woodland Park, Paramus, and seven other locations in New York and New Jersey, plans to post maps of campus PokeStops - places where players can collect rewards - on a special page on its website, and it is touting its campuses as a “safe environment” for game play.

For both The Plaza and Berkeley, welcoming players with the promise of friendly hunting grounds packed with Pokemon makes sense. The mall benefits when potential customers spend more time inside its doors, because someone tracking a Squirtle or a Charmeleon or other “pocket monster” created by the game is someone who may also buy a meal, or a pair of shoes. Berkeley officials are hoping that someone who visits a campus to catch a Pokemon may get the idea to sign up for a class or two.

Even organizations without a profit motive are using the game to draw traffic and attract interest. The Ridgewood Library is holding events Wednesday and Thursday at which it will create “lure modules” - game add-ons that attract wild Pokemon to a site.

“There is enormous potential for small businesses to leverage this whole trend of merging the digital world with the physical world,” said Darshan Desai, a Union County resident who teaches international business and management at Berkeley’s New York campus. Desai said that even if the Pokemon craze is short-lived, the game’s popularity is likely to change the way all businesses try to engage consumers.

“Young people may get bored with this, and something new will come, but the kind of augmented reality games, where they are merging the digital world with the physical world, is going to stay, and the expectations of engagement are increasing,” she said.

“We think retailers should seek to embrace Pokemon Go,” said Oliver Chen, specialty retail analyst for Cowen & Co., in a research note to investors. Calling the game the first mass adoption of an augmented reality application, Chen said it had the potential to drive more foot traffic to stores. The maker of the game, Niantic Inc., sold marketing sponsorships for a previous augmented reality game, Ingress, and is expected to eventually create such sponsorships for this game.

At the Plaza Tuesday morning, about a dozen people, most of them in their late teens or early 20s, could be seen walking in the mall, either alone or in groups of twos or threes, holding their phones in front of them, looking for Pokemon.

Most of those interviewed said they were at the mall to shop or meet friends, and not specifically to hunt Pokemon, but that after arriving they discovered that the mall was loaded with Pokemon. “There are plenty of them here,” said Jaime Morales, 24, of the Bronx, who had accompanied his girlfriend to the mall and was killing time while she worked. He had just found some Pokemon near the Sephora store.

Three 19-year-olds from Paterson, Mary Macancela, Leslie Cruz, and Carlos Moreno, were stopped near the Macy’s entrance catching Pokemon and comparing catches. “We’ve been here 10 minutes and I’ve already caught three,” Moreno said.

Email: verdon@northjersey.com