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Heat mapping and digital queues: Malls’ plan to fight virus as shops reopen

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The owner of Australia’s largest shopping centre Chadstone, which was at the centre of a devastating COVID-19 outbreak, is introducing pandemic-busting technology such as heat mapping and digital shopping queues at 20 of its Melbourne malls as retailers reopen on Wednesday.

Vicinity Centres, the country’s second-largest retail landlord, says the technology will help counter potential outbreaks after a butcher's shop in the group's Chadstone mall infected dozens of people and seeded a COVID-19 cluster earlier this month that spread beyond the city to Kilmore and Shepparton.

Victorian Police sweep Chadstone Shopping Centre after a small number of people staged an anti-lockdown protest last month.Credit:Chris Hopkins

"Safety remains our top priority and we’ve been working hard, alongside our retailers, to get our Melbourne centres ready for the reopening of retail with thorough COVID-safe plans in place utilising new technologies," Vicinity chief executive Grant Kelley said.

The $6.3 billion ASX listed landlord will use real-time heat-mapping technology to monitor what's happening in the malls so it can quickly respond to congested areas and send teams to keep customers moving.

As well, its new digital queueing system called SocialQ will help retailers safely manage shopper’s movements and reduce capacity and congestion in stores. The recently developed software allows customers to pre-book their shop and virtually queue through the use of QR codes on their mobile phones.

Melburnian Dean Cherny developed the app, which is now being used by hundreds of retailers.

The tech was designed by Melburnian Dean Cherny, who owns in-store music supply company Marketing Melodies. Mr Cherny made the software through Australia's first lockdown in April and has now seen huge success rolling out the product in Victoria.

"At the moment it's going gangbusters," he said. "We're trying to get literally hundreds of retailers signed up by tomorrow."

The software manages online bookings and virtual queues for walk-up customers, with a goal of reducing crowds of shoppers lining up outside stores. If a store is too busy, shoppers can choose to virtually reserve a spot in line and come back later.

SocialQ has signed up prominent retailers and shopping centre owners, including Vicinity, GPT, JB Hi-Fi, Kmart, Target, Country Road, Cotton On and Just Group. More sign-ons, including from major mall owner Westfield, are expected in the coming weeks.

Mr Cherny is hoping the app will become a major boon for retailers managing crowds through the Christmas rush, with the company also able to facilitate contact tracing if future outbreaks do occur.

Vicinity is also rolling out interactive, real-time data showing visitor numbers and forecasts for any given day and the week ahead. The feature, updated every fifteen minutes across nine malls, will help customers plan when and where they shop before they leave home.

“This feature makes it easy to avoid the usual busy periods, such as the middle of the day, and on weekends, and will save time for the most convenient shopping experience,” Mr Kelley said.

Melbourne’s large shopping centres are emerging from the long and harsh coronavirus lockdown battered and bruised.

The crisis wiped up to $1.8 billion from the value of Vicinity’s malls as it gutted foot traffic and forced multiple stores to close, putting significant pressure on rental income from tenants.

Vicinity, which manages and part-owns multiple top-tier malls such as The Glen in Melbourne’s east and Sydney’s The Strand Arcade, said it will station COVID safety officers at entrances to remind visitors to use hand sanitiser on arrival, wear a mask, encourage everyone to practise social distancing and direct traffic flow.

Mr Kelley said the new measures were in addition to a rigorous cleaning and sanitisation program.

Contactless parcel concierge (click and collect) was now available at nine centres across Melbourne, including Altona Gate, Bayside, Broadmeadows Central, Chadstone, DFO South Wharf, DFO Essendon, Uni Hill Factory Outlet, Northland and The Glen, he said.

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