By Thomas Mark
Landlords and tenants in the retail real estate sector are facing an unprecedented challenge in the face of the coronavirus pandemic. Not only do they need to weather the current storm, but they need to return stronger than ever, ready to compete with thriving online retailers and to serve a shell-shocked public who has had time to re-evaluate values and rethink what is important to them.
In 600BCE, Aesop wrote about the power of unity in a fable about a man and his quarrelling sons, demonstrating how a single stick is easily snapped, whereas a bundle of sticks is difficult for one man to break. This is a reminder from the past that the only way to overcome the long-lasting effects of events like the current crisis is for landlords and tenants to come together and work together.
Aside from measures that landlords are taking to temporarily reduce rental burdens—essential if centers want to reopen with actual tenants in place—it’s necessary to look ahead and start implementing ideas that will build community, curate content, and create spaces for people to convene.Harvard professor Ryan Raffaelli identified these as key principles that helped brick-and-mortar bookstores bounce back in the face of competition from Amazon.com, and centers and malls can apply these to get through the current crisis, and to offer future added-value that online retailers cannot.
Building community means prioritizing community needs and experiences over transactions. After all, people can buy generic products anywhere, but they can’t buy community. This means offering what the ICSC calls a “third place” where people can come together outside of home and work.
Curating content means offering people what they want and need. These may have shifted in light of recent events. The current focus is on local goods, reinvesting in the local economy, and supporting local businesses. Landlords and tenants can respond to this together, curating content in the form of products, services, experiences, and other offerings that are tailor-made for their local community.
By working on building community and curating content, landlords and tenants will be creating places for people to gather, or in the words of Raffaelli, to convene. Celebrating seasonal events and annual festivities like Harvest, Halloween, Christmas, and New Year is an important part of this. Rituals and annual celebrations create safe spaces in turbulent times, and light and design are essential in creating the right atmosphere for them.
With that in mind, autumn and winter will be critical to centers. Now is the time for landlords and tenants to work together to show local communities that retail spaces are part of a bigger vehicle that allows people to gather and find community, something that will be in high demand as coronavirus restrictions are eased.