By Andy Schall
Much of the conversation around the retail industry this past year has centered on the trends of online consumer experiences and the relevance, or lack thereof, of "brick-and-mortar" stores. While we know consumers find convenience and value in online experiences, the value of "brick-and-mortar" to retail companies ranges from expanding brand reach to maintaining brand survivability and those things cannot be ignored.
If we look at the current brick-and-mortar retail environment, we see a mix of old and new – everything from traditional malls with empty anchor spaces to strip malls to vibrant mixed-use developments within residential urban and suburban areas. And as we look back on 2017, it begs the question, "What's Still Standing?" However, we’d rather look ahead to 2018 and ask the forward-thinking question, "What Will Continue to Stand?"
To answer that question, we must look at consumer trends that will endure the future "what ifs" of the retail industry. They include economic trends, housing market conditions and other factors related to the individual and competing brands themselves. So, what constant(s) will remain? Retail consumers and their emotions. The brick-and-mortar retail that continues to stand will be those retail and experience centers that connect with consumers on an emotional level.
All too often this conversation starts–and ends–with the brand. Retailers often speak of customer first impressions as if they begin at the front door. However, this notion fails to account for the consumer experience in the moments between turning off the public road, the perimeter to the center, to arriving at the retailers' front door.
Parking, wayfinding, walkability and landscape/hardscape aspects all play into consumer's initial experiences – all prior to ever stepping foot inside a retail store. The more effective a retail development is at creating a sense of place, the higher the consumer's emotional connection will be. While retailers are often not in control of the larger development in which they lease space, they can be selective in the developments in which they choose to locate.
The concept of placemaking is not a new idea, but is often hard to find within today's world of rigid development standards. Placemaking is not limited to new development – traditional mall and strip mall developments can also be re-developed to achieve a sense of place. It is also not limited by size. Placemaking can be accomplished in retail centers both small and large. On larger sites, it is recommended that the overall development be broken into smaller development blocks or districts to enhance consumer experience. Regardless of new or old or big or small, successful placemaking requires working in collaboration with the public, synergistic land development partners and requires often multiple financing strategies.
Central to placemaking is integrating the new or existing development center into the surrounding community. No different than online retail experiences, consumers are looking for unique, inviting and personal experiences. Those that allow them to be immersed in diverse retail offerings will not only save them time – a one-stop shop to fulfill their needs – but also the ability to re-invest in the local economy.
Every retail center has its own set of unique planning and engineering constraints that must be dealt with in creating placemaking experiences – from accommodating the various modes of consumer transportation to humanizing the scale of the development to integrating technology advancements for the benefit of the retailers and consumers. The starting point to placemaking is creating the vision for the new or redeveloped retail center and gaining public support for it. Development plans can stagnate and/or lose direction over lack of public support or financing because of an unclear vision or lack of a vision altogether. Visions that are rigid, complacent or not diversified will eventually falter. Public, political and development partner input needs to be obtained and incorporated to maximize the likelihood of success, as it is the vision that will serve as the foundation for the development.
Visioning takes time – and that should not be understated. Successful visioning plans often require unique development codes to be written with the development plans themselves undergoing countless changes along the way. Build in the time upfront in the visioning process to allow those elements to occur. The development will be better off for it . . . though that may not become clear until after the process is complete.
There will be those in the community that push back during the visioning and development planning process or out right dismiss it altogether. Successful visioning and development plans are built on development goals, community input and political collaboration and can withstand varying degrees of public resistance. The goal is not 100% approval – the key is to find those in the community who share the development vision and build community and economic support for it with their advocacy.
Seeing this process through takes an investment of passion and energy as well as a willingness to adjust and adapt over time. As community and development needs change, allow flexibility to the vision and adaptability within the development plan to change in response to meet the needs. In doing so, the development will remain healthy and grow over time.
The rewards? A brick-and-mortar retail environment that will be able to withstand future development pressures and stay relevant well into the future, serving the consumer needs of the local community and the requirements of the retailers that occupy them.