By Thomas Mark
There is no denying that 2020 has been a tough year for everyone, and shopping centers and brick-and-mortar retailers have been hit particularly badly. Rolling setbacks have forced many to close their doors, re-assess their business models, and attempt to compete with well-established online retailers, all in the space of a matter of months. In spite of all that, I am optimistic about the future of shopping centers and retailers that have made it their mission to create analogue experiences for customers. Why? Because, people who were once blasé about their freedom to leave their homes, to gather, shop, and socialize have learned just how quickly that freedom can be curtailed, and just how valuable face-to-face interactions are in their lives. They want to leave their homes and commune in spaces, and few sectors are as well placed to provide that (and a great deal more) than shopping centers.
That does not mean that retail spaces can be complacent and assume that footfall numbers will start to rise as lockdowns end. To get people out of their pajamas and into centers, retailers have to do more than simply “be”. They have to turn spaces into safe places that are filled with atmosphere, community, and celebration, and that is a classic example of placemaking.
The art of placemaking has many different components. In my experience, particularly with regard to the challenging months that are hopefully behind us, I believe that shopping centers are uniquely placed to create spaces that: are filled with atmospheres that make people feel safe, comfortable, and confident that they – and their loved ones – are not putting anyone at risk by leaving their homes; are gathering spaces and centers of local community where families, friends, and friends-to-be can enjoy time together across generational and cultural divides; celebrate important festivities and perhaps even become intrinsic parts of annual celebrations that are important in their communities.
Do centers need a vision and a creative concept? Of course, they do. They also need festive lighting, décor, and design that makes spaces more welcoming, that creates an intangible but essential feeling of security and safety, and that offers an experience that “sitting at home and shopping online while watching Netflix” cannot compete with. By linking the placemaking vision to recurring seasonal events like Valentine’s Day, Easter, and Christmas, shopping centers can tap into people’s need for ritual, and can not only drive footfall, but help their communities return to normality. Now is the time for shopping centers and retailers to step up and become the centers of community that they have professed to be for at least a decade. As spaces that offer to meet a mix of needs – leisure, shopping, eating and drinking, entertainment, and often more, too – I believe that centers have an opportunity to define the “new normal” and set the standard for a return to social and public life.
If centers can meet the challenge head-on, working within the boundaries of limited financial resources, and using their limitless creativity to help themselves and their communities, they may yet rise from the global shifts arising from the pandemic stronger than before.