At a time when malls are struggling to stay relevant and brands are navigating the changing retail climate, GGP — the investment company that owns and operates malls across the U.S. — is opening a concept store in its Water Tower Place location in Chicago that backs some promising solutions.

Through a partnership with The Lionesque Group, a NYC-based, experiential agency, GGP will operate a connected storefront called In Real Life, or IRL, featuring digitally native brands based on a theme. The first, home and living, will run through the winter holidays. Maiden Home furniture, Leesa mattresses and original artwork from UGallery, among other pieces, will be staged in home-inspired rooms throughout the 4,000-square-foot space.

Another partner, Impinj, which makes RFID software, will soup the space up based on a Field-Test technology platform created with The Lionesque Group. As a result, brands will be granted immediate insight into customer activity, preferences and purchases through a live feed.

“We’re offering [brands] a physical in-store experience that mimics or matches up with what they’re used to on an e-commerce platform,” said Larry Arnstein, vp of business development at Impinj.

Melissa Gonzalez, CEO of The Lionesque Group, said she saw IRL as a way for people to experience primarily digital brands in a physical space at a time when the market for direct-to-consumer home goods is on the rise. What’s more, she said, retail in Chicago, like that of Washington, D.C., is poised to grow.

Many of the brands that will be included in the store haven’t been sold in brick-and-mortar setups before, but were eager to sign on. For instance, other than through its website, the owners of UGallery, an online art gallery, had only sold their pieces at art fairs.

“Art’s a real complementary purchase that puts the icing on the cakes of one’s home,” said Stephen Tanenbaum, co-founder and CEO of UGallery. “It benefits us a lot in terms of being in a space that’s more of a home and not a sterile physical gallery.”

Dreamy“Dreamy” by Mary Pratt, a UGallery art piece that will be available at IRL

A requirement by IRL: The brands had to be equipped to drop-ship, because the store doesn’t house any inventory. Items are ordered on iPads and then shipped directly to customers by their corresponding brand.

For customers who can’t decide whether to buy on the spot, Field-Test facilitates shopping post-visit: While in store, shoppers can tap an available “key bar” with their desired item’s “product card,” which results in a personal text featuring a link to purchase.

On top of home goods, the store will feature a lobster bar featuring dishes from Chicago-based DaLobsta — which is not that outside-the-box, considering the current trend in mall tenants.

“The role of physical stores is constantly changing. [Today,] our shoppers want everything under one roof, and this goes far beyond traditional apparel,” said Melinda Holland, svp of business development at GGP, noting that within the group’s current centers are supermarkets, movie theaters, lifestyle stores and entertainment venues.

Along with obtaining data analytics and experiencing a testing ground for a storefront, participating brands will benefit from a boost in brand awareness. To help them along, Gonzalez is encouraging them to throw events and provide memorable in-store experiences. Leesa, for one, will showcase a VR-based activation: Shoppers who lie on a mattress will be treated to a dream sequence featuring its brand ambassador Michael Phelps.

GGP, of course, will gain from any foot traffic the new store attracts.

SketchGlossywithLogoAn artist rendering of IRL, designed by The Lionesque Group

IRL opens August 24 and is set to stay open for a year. After that, the contract could be extended in Water Tower Place and to more of GGP’s 127 retail properties.

“This is a low-cost way for brands and e-commerce retailers to test physical retail space,” said Holland.

Gonzalez said that more than 90 percent of retail sales still happen in store, a fact that was backed by a FitSmallBusiness report. As she sees it, in-store experiences are valuable as ever.

“There’s a lot of low-hanging fruit that still hasn’t been captured by brands, in terms of understanding the ROI for investing in physical space,” she said. “If you understand that all customers have a different path to purchase, and the value brick and mortar has along that path, you can create a better experience across all of your channels.”

Water Tower Place image courtesy of