BY Kate May
At a seminar in the United States earlier this year entitled “Mall of the future: Catalyst for community regeneration” at the Urban Land Institute, developers and designers laid out compelling visions for transforming decades-old structures into new urban centres.
All of them spoke of the urgent need to find a new identity for these hulking structures and the opportunity to create 21st century community spaces.
Panel member Matt Billerbeck, a senior vice president at CallisonRTKL, a design consultancy of Arcadis, said developers used to ask “how do you put together a compelling collection of retailers, and how do you improve the customer experience and make it so it’s not replicable online?”
Billerbeck, who leads the shopping and entertainment districts sector, and the other panellists made it clear that malls aren’t monolithic. High-end locations across the US have done quite well, buoyed by name-brand tenants while more mid-market shopping centres are taking a beating from online commerce.
But the panellists agreed that in the current economic environment, nimble structures, better connected to both the landscape and the environment, could thrive, noting it’s not just malls that need to change, it’s also the concept of malls and what they might mean to the community.
According to Billerbeck, it can’t be just a shopping centre. It’s about entertainment, and even that the consumer’s view of entertainment has changed. Adding a new movie theatre is like the last gasp of the mall. People want to be involved.
Today’s challenging climate for malls came about for various reasons, mostly having to do with increased competition. The market became saturated, today’s younger demographics have less purchasing power, the internet has simplified the buying experience and shoppers have “experience fatigue”. Trends change but most malls haven’t.
Billerbeck opines that malls need to bring arts and culture onto the property, from buskers and arts events to yoga classes and unique food experiences.
He pointed to a number of examples of creative stores across the US that are elevating shopping and dining into an experience, not merely a place.
Shed in Healdsburg, California, offers interactive food and dining in the heart of wine country offering authenticity and community. Another example is Trinity Groves in Dallas, Texas, an outdoor shopping and dining development with a restaurant incubation programme that cultivates and promotes new chefs.
Many successful developers see the investment in experience as a difference-maker. Recently, Westfield, a mall giant with locations around the world, bought Scott Sanders Theatrical Productions, a company owned by the producer of the Broadway musical The Color Purple, in a bid to create more engaging spaces.
In addition to entertainment, Billerbeck said the real challenge for tomorrow’s malls is integrating them into the urban fabric and finding ways to connect these car-centric developments to the community in a more direct way.
Michigan Avenue in Chicago offers an ideal example, one of the most profitable districts in the world. It’s a street highly integrated into the urban fabric.
According to him, mall developers in suburbia can’t suddenly wrap their retail centres in a dense urban neighbourhood. But they can focus on developments that encourage walkability and more interaction, whether it’s by landscaping and opening up the retail experience to the outdoors, incorporating transportation options such as bike sharing or surrounding shopping malls with mixed-use commercial, office and multifamily housing.
Many of these ideas are not new but there is now increased urgency in making older developments stand out.
Technology is accelerating the evolution of these spaces. Driverless cars will reduce the need for excessive parking lots and offer new spaces for landscaping and community events. Emerging mobile technologies and interactive displays will alter the size of stores.
Billerbeck said the jury is out on whether that means smaller and more personalised with virtual changing rooms, or larger, with a focus on a more interactive, theatrical experience – and to react to a shopper’s presence, creating a more tailored user experience when walking through the mall.
Many locations have started introducing this kind of technology. Salvation, a Nike’s string of concept stores in California, features customisation counters where shoppers imprint images onto their clothes.
There is no set formula for success. New spaces and redesigned shopping centres need to be flexible and adapt to changing customer preferences, he added.
Last year, a report by industry analysts Green Street Advisors said that since 2010, over 20 enclosed shopping malls in the US have closed and more than 60 are on the brink of boarding up.
Food courts, anchor stores and blocky air-conditioned retail centres may seem like 20th century relics in an age of Amazon and fast fashion. After a development glut that left many areas oversaturated with retail, these developments need to evolve, the report noted.
*Note: This story has been updated from the original Jan 25, 2107 version.