FUTURE OF RETAIL | Letters from the CEO Series - "Malls" (I of III)
By: Stephen Hart - Founder & CEO of DedON | June 2021
More Than a Mall
As the pandemic shifts into its second year and my Covid exhaustion hits an all time high, I find myself thinking of the future more and more - hopefully, the near future. The silver lining for me is that this pause from “normal” has given me time to rethink everything about the world we live in.
Today I want to share my dream for the shopping mall. I know - how lame is it to think about shopping malls? But, as it’s currently a forbidden place here in Toronto, Canada, I am dreaming about what I always wished the mall could be. I think the pandemic has just made it more likely that my dream mall is possible.
I will try to paint a picture of the place I hope the shopping mall could be. First, you’ll have to forget the big rectangular box. Forget the long hallway of stores. You’ll have to forget about what the mall was and start to imagine a place where you might actually want to spend time. I’ve been visiting malls and dreaming of their potential for many years.
I always thought the mall could be the town square from days gone by. The place where people left their homes to come gather, socialize, be entertained and generally just enjoy each other‘s company. My biggest dilemma is that this energy does exist in shopping malls - but only on Friday nights or Saturday afternoons. Then, for the duration of the week, malls are for the old and the bored. Why is today's town square lacking everything human beings love?
So here it is: my dream of a shopping mall. Most importantly, shopping is only part of the experience. It’s still integral, but it’s not the sole reason for going to the mall. I imagine a place where we can spend different amounts of time at different parts of the mall as it best suits each individual on any given day.
I want to take the concept of humans as social beings and build the mall to maximize that experience. The trend of bringing in restaurants and other entertainment factors is already under way and continues to be an important piece in my vision. But, like most people, my life is a little more diverse than just eating and shopping.
Maybe I want to go to the gym, or grab a bite to eat with some friends, and then catch a movie. I could probably do that once or twice a week. But when I think of a town square, I think of a place someone wants to visit nearly every day. So, in the 2021 town square, I want to play, eat, work, exercise, and enjoy entertainment! The more reasons to be at the mall, the more opportunities for people to spend money, and the more the original economic purpose of the mall can be fulfilled. It’s a win-win!
Where humans can work is changing rapidly - as it should! For my whole life, technology has promised the ability to do work from anywhere. However, for most people in many industries, it took a global pandemic to truly get that promise delivered. So let’s embrace this and finally build spaces for the type of work we have to do!
I want to work in places that inspire me, or at the very least, places that help me complete the specific type of work I’m trying to do on any given day. Sometimes I need the concentration of a quiet space. Sometimes I like being on the edge of activity without being involved in it (for reference, I’ve always loved working in airports). Sometimes I like to go for what I call a “walkie-talkie” (as you can guess, it’s a combination of a leisurely stroll and a conference call because I find my brain works better when I walk). So what if there was a walking trail lined with trees that surrounded the mall? Or an office space that I could rent overlooking a busy courtyard of people? What if office towers rose above a mall and provided different workspaces so companies and individuals could choose where and when they work? All of the above only adds to the mall population during working hours, ultimately increasing store revenue, as well as creating an office environment that is rich in amenities.
Now that the workday is over, I want to get moving. Again, if the main point of a shopping mall is to draw people in for consumer purposes, I can’t think of a better way than giving people places to play. I’m talking about all ages and all types of play. For kids, something as simple as a playground could suffice. They just want places to run, jump, and get rid of their endless energy. Even better, this could be a supervised place where parents can leave their children while they shop, enjoy a quiet coffee, or finish up some work. But why stop there? Adults could have the opportunity to join a beach volleyball league or play tennis or racquetball. Maybe they want to bowl, hit the batting cages, or go roller skating. And of course, these could all be paid experiences. There are so many low-footprint sports that could draw in crowds, and after play is done, those post-game crowds could hit the restaurants and shopping areas. This type of behaviour already happens in our cities - I’m just talking about bringing it to one place so I don’t have to drive all over town.
Obviously, I could never forget about shopping. At the historical root of the mall is the sale of goods and services. I think the big transition that we’re going to largely experience post-pandemic is a change in aesthetic and size of retail spaces. An increasing number of brands don’t care if they sell in-store or online, as long as they sell. The role of bricks and mortar has adapted to this concept with the flagship store model where merchandise and brand experience is combined for increase in sale. This means that brands are more likely to create fun, engaging, and exciting things to see and do in their stores, so that when customers leave, they are more likely to buy this brand somewhere. I love the idea of brands delivering experiences and allowing us to immerse ourselves in their culture, almost like going to a theme park!
Largely, I like the idea of convenience being built into the mall. What about a curbside pick up area for the whole mall? It makes sense to build a giant drive-thru lane for the whole mall where all retailers can provide convenient and safe curbside pick-up options. This could allow people to stop by on their way home from work and pick up something they’ve ordered online.
I guess what I’m saying is that I just want more reasons to get out and be around people. More importantly, I don’t believe that these feelings are fleeting. I believe that this is millions of years of human instinct. We are social creatures, and if the pandemic has shown us anything, it's that we need to be social to be happy and healthy. I believe that post-Covid, most of us will not take for granted the time we can spend with others. I hope that these large commercial spaces that we call shopping malls can take on the role of gathering people. I understand shopping malls need to make money by charging rent for spaces that make a good return on sales per square foot. I want shopping malls, retailers, and customers to get this formula right so that these public spaces can continue to evolve and grow. I believe that the consumer is now changed forever because of the pandemic’s lessons. Anyone looking to be successful in bricks and mortar really does have to recognize this change and provide spaces for human beings to willingly leave their homes and gravitate to.
My real hope is that someone will read this and build me the shopping mall of my dreams. I would love to show up in the morning, grab a pick-me-up from a coffee shop, and venture out on a 30 minute walkie-talkie around a beautiful park space surrounding the mall. Then, I’d like to head indoors, set up my laptop and work for a couple of hours. At lunch I’d like to get together with some friends and eat on a sunny patio. Then maybe another walkie-talkie, followed by an informal team meeting with some colleagues in an inspiring meeting space where we can brainstorm ideas. We stop the meeting abruptly at 4pm so we can make it to our team volleyball game, then head for drinks afterwards. That, to me, would be a nice little day at the mall that would be very profitable for everyone, both financially and spiritually.
The brands that can make the post-COVID world feel safe while making it a not too distant experience from the pre-pandemic, are the ones that will realize the most success.
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