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People walk at the Eaton Centre in Toronto on Wednesday, Dec. 26, 2018.

Tijana Martin/The Canadian Press

Canadian mall owner Cadillac Fairview Corp. Ltd. is testing a shopping app and planning to introduce digital payments to try to fend off e-commerce threats and tap into the lucrative mobile payments market.

Mall operators are racing to stay relevant amid competition from Amazon.com and other online retailers. Cadillac Fairview, which is the real estate arm of the Ontario Teachers’ Pension Plan, is hoping to bring more of the convenience of online shopping to its bricks-and-mortar shopping centres.

Introduced in November at its Eaton Centre mall in downtown Toronto, Cadillac Fairview’s app is designed to give shoppers a mobile mall directory, promotional ads and a way to find products such as Nike shoes across multiple stores. It could eventually tailor promotions to the user.

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Without the app, called CF Browse, shoppers can only use the stationary mall directory to find stores.

“If Nike has a store, then the directory is great. It will tell you where the store is. It won’t tell you the 10 stores that have Nike product,” said Jose Ribau, Cadillac Fairview’s executive vice-president of digital and innovation.

Once the app is fine-tuned, it will be available at Cadillac Fairview’s 18 other malls across the country.

Mr. Ribau said the app will eventually include a payment function.

“Customers are telling us that, in an ideal world, they could pick up the product and walk out and payment would be embedded,” Mr. Ribau said. “I imagine we would be testing some form of payment mechanism or prepaid mechanism in 2020.”

Cadillac Fairview, which also owns and develops office towers in Canada, is one of the latest businesses to eye mobile payment tools and financial services after the success of Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba’s digital payment Alipay.

Apple and Google have their own mobile wallets, which store the user’s credit-card or debit-card information on the user’s mobile device. Royal Bank of Canada and other Canadian banks have mobile wallets that allow their clients to pay with their phone.

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Mr. Ribau does not yet know how the payment tool would work. He pointed to different models such as the Starbucks app that requires customers to prepay, and ride hailing app Uber, which stores a customer’s credit-card number. Uber customers do not pull out their credit card, cash or phone to pay at the end of a trip.

“There is zero friction in an Uber transaction," said Tracey Black, executive director of modernization with Payments Canada, which is responsible for the country’s clearing and settlement infrastructure. “The capability exists for them to deliver an Uber-like experience.”

It will also give Cadillac Fairview access to critical customer data.

Mall landlords are constantly searching for ways to better understand their shoppers and consumption patterns. They can measure foot traffic through sensors and cameras. They can get a retailer’s gross sales if it has revenue-sharing lease agreements in place.

But that does not give the mall owner the complete picture.

“Right now, they do get sales, but they only get the total sales. They can’t correlate it to the customer. That is the big issue that all mall operators have," said Alex Arifuzzaman, founder of retail real estate adviser InterStratics Consultants Inc., who conducted market analysis for Cadillac Fairview from 2009-2016 but did not work on the app.

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The app brings Cadillac Fairview one step closer to having that vital information that e-retailers already possess.

“It’s all about data. Online companies have complete data on customers and how much they spend. Mall operators have never had that,” Mr. Arifuzzaman said.

Ms. Black said: “A lot of the appeal is the information that we generate through the payments that we do. You get insight into what consumers are buying and how much they are buying."

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