Retail’s Revival: Fixing What’s Wrong With Malls, Shops & Brands

Recollections of a Shopaholic

For me, shopping has long been an emotional journey. The joy of seeing shop windows artfully displaying their wares. The thrill of discovering something unique and beautiful. The nervousness of hoping what I desire is available in my size.

I was born in Europe and lived there until my mid-twenties, and in those days shopping was more than just something done out of necessity. It was an event, a ritual filled with excitement, from deciding what to wear and whom to go with, to planning which stores we’d hit and where we’d stop for lunch. I loved visiting European cities with their traditional outdoor shopping districts, walking through vibrant neighbourhoods and store-lined streets, cobblestone underfoot. Going to the mall was more convenient of course, and back then, malls had a bit of magic and charisma. Luxury brands and distinct retail chains comingling with restaurants, bookstores, and even pet stores, all under one roof.

My enthusiasm tripled when one of my first clients in the Middle East was the then-famous Dubai Shopping Festival, a paradise for shoppers. Imagine several dozen malls and 30 days of deeply discounted goods, in a stunning city full of life, with special events and live entertainment all throughout! I still think it is one of the best events in the world.

Retail’s Downfall

Given my personal passion, it was only natural that I started working with retailers, brands, malls and developers to develop events and experiences that would help their venues stand out and attract patrons. But as the retail landscape began to change, the shoppers were coming less and less. Much has been written on brick-and-mortar’s decline, but it is not merely the convenience and efficiency of e-commerce that’s at fault.

I blame retail’s demise on greed and ubiquity.

Shopping centers and districts began as places of culture, community, discovery. The shopping experience was more emotional, less transactional. Take the story of young architect Victor Gruen, considered the father of the modern shopping mall. In 1956, he designed the first fully enclosed and climate-controlled shopping complex, Southdale Center in Edina, Minnesota.

Inspired by the town center of his beloved Vienna, he envisioned a community hub like the one he’d frequented back home, a place to gather amidst shops, culture and entertainment. Gruen’s vision, he said, was to provide, “the needed place and opportunity for participation in modern community life that the ancient Greek Agora, the Medieval Market Place and our own Town Squares provided in the past.”

When Southdale opened, it was regarded as a revolutionary concept in urban development. A sprawling wonder with fountains, an aviary, tropical foliage, art installations and year-round cultural programming. Flash forward fifty years and Gruen’s beautiful vision became usurped by greed and ubiquity. Shopping malls sprang up everywhere, bigger and bigger, with more stores and parking spots, less wonder and no culture. All the stores look the same, all the malls lack character. All the brands are focused on faceless transactions. And we wonder why everyone would rather buy online!

Reincarnating the Culture of Shopping

We have forgotten the sensual, tactile experience of open-air bazaars. The community bonds fostered in lively piazzas and squares. The lure of crafted goods and unique shops as conduits to fulfil our desires.

In our connection-starved world, consumers crave a return to more personal, immersive moments of engagement. Technology has its merits, but you cannot feel the softness of silk or cashmere through a screen. You cannot share your journey of discovery with others by clicking and adding items to your cart.

We have to go back to what it means to shop. Remember how to create the culture around it and reimagine spaces and places to be centers of culture and community once again. And we have to think more intentionally about the customers we are trying to attract. People aren’t just motivated by sales and discounts. We feel before we think. Emotional differentiation is the secret to creating a magical shopping experience that not only gets customers in the door but makes them want to come back.

Here are some ways to restore culture and magic to our shopping centers and stores:

Malls + City Streets & Squares 

Become a community hub:

Develop your shopping environment through a placemaking approach, striving to become the heart of your community. Seek to create a small city within your city; design spaces and places of culture and community. Or as Fellini said, create “un piccolo universo.” 

Foster a sense of place, with an eye toward what makes your destination special or unique.

Invest in the experience, programming and curating anything and everything, from annual events to unexpected occasions, social opportunities and special happenings. Collaborate with your tenants and retailers to create the magic together with you.

Bring more experiences and concepts that will support the life and energy of your space and place – giving people many reasons to want to be there. Sales will follow! 

Cultivate beauty & innovation:

Bring culture and the arts – humans love to be surrounded by beauty. We desire and appreciate talent and craftsmanship.

Think of attractions, landmarks and icons – create them or temporarily borrow them.

Partner with artists, creative people, designers, philosophers, anthropologists and people who love to shop!

Evolve, innovate, create something new. Creativity is what makes a space or place unique.

Retailers & Brands

Be more personal, less transactional:

Shoppers are loyal to brands they feel a connection with. Store design should communicate what your brand stands for, going back to your roots, your essence. Tell your story through personal touches that make us follow, respect, admire and tell it further.

Be distinctly yourself and create your own lane. Avoid copying others, or you’ll be seen as inauthentic, or, worse, ubiquitous.

Go beyond your annual global events, which may play well on social media, and think of your individual stores and their identities. Act local to create destinations of desire.

Work with new talent, experiment, curate, program, create. Seek out extraordinary, designers, artists and makers. They can elevate your brand and add unexpected impact.

Extend your brand through every touchpoint:

Be memorable in all you do – from advertising to packaging and product, service and storytelling.

Your shop window is as important as your annual fashion show or a product launch. So is your sales floor.

Your staff are your brand ambassadors. Train them well and treat them well so they tell your story with pride and provide an experience that motivates shoppers to want to return.

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