'Shops Are Dead'
They told us the high street’s days were numbered – but, we reinvented them and across the world they thrive. They claimed a department store was a thing of past – but, the best ones are, today, more compelling as destinations than ever before.
In the former case, change has been driven by independent retailers and experiential concepts; look to the emergence of Chiltern Street, in London. The latter case, through owners forking out money and space to make department stores part gallery, part event space, part fine dining. Retail is almost that ‘thing’ that happens in the background. The ultimate small-scale example is Milan’s lush 10 Corso Como, which is in fact fronted by its restaurant but remains a style mecca in the fashion capital.
So, what of the shopping centre? Has it, or will it, overcome the odds – as with its retail cousins – and adapt itself for the post-Amazon era? The short answer: Yes.
‘The shopping centre of tomorrow is a generous one – it gives back to its community.’
For the long answer, you first have to consider two societal trends that also forced high streets and department stores to adopt their new identities. First, our desire for experience in addition to ‘things’ (as evidence: we’ll queue up for hours just for an Instagram photo in a bubble-gum pink ball pit). The second, a highly related new demand, that brands do more than sell – they should give back to us, they should support charities or act as patrons of art or literature, as examples. They must embody a set of values. These are referred to often as the Transformational or Citizenship Economies.
The glory of the shopping centre in days of yore was efficiency, prompted in many cases by a zeal for car culture. Drive out, park (once), and hit up a plethora of shops, grab a pretzel and call it a day. The name of the game was transaction – goods for money.
This purpose has been disrupted. For transactional efficiency, we have been given the Internet, with which it is increasingly impossible to compete. Live in the right place, and certain online retailers can get your purchase home to you in an hour – likely faster than a round-trip into town, and certainly a lot less hassle.
How should a shopping centre reshape its worth?
For the shopping centre, here are a few key opportunities to create a little bit of love:
1. Be local
The shopping centre of today and tomorrow is a generous one – it gives back to its community, and not just with a hefty number of low-paid jobs: in art, in experience, in support for local initiatives, businesses and people.
2. Be the change
There’s also something to be said about business models, and operational practices. A variety is best, lending to flexibility: differing sizes of shops and types of spaces; pop-ups; mandatory attrition rates.
3. Be bold
Some operators are taking big steps to reshape – literally – what it means to be a shopping centre. Starwood, a US developer, is buying B and C-grade malls, filling the expansive carparks that surround them with high-rise residential buildings, and taking the lid off the shopping centre, literally removing roofs, to create a town centre, with green spaces, and libraries. In lieu of parking spaces, they are providing Uber car sharing vouchers – because… private cars? Fewer and fewer people have them.
4. Be relaxed
Much of the above, of course, is to get people to hang around in shopping centres for longer periods of time – we have the Internet for the quick and dirty; now, we want a day out. And, the pressure to constantly be slapping down your debit card can be a turn off. There should be plenty of spaces for people to gather, linger, settle into.
The future is here
Bricks-and-mortar retail is far from in crisis – it is, instead, getting a whole new lease on life. Shopping centres in the West have lagged, where in Asia they have become the places to socialise, eat, drink, and yes, shop. But their success is through vision and purpose, and creating community and culture, not just extending opening hours at holiday time.
Equally, shopping centres should be looking to – and creating their own versions of – the very best parts of towns and cities. Because, guess what, they are parts of cities. They are, in many ways, a hybrid of high street and department store and so can easily replicate the inspirational approaches those places that have taken to overcome the challenges they’ve faced.