Expert retail mall designer: 'Today's glitz is tomorrow's so-what?' / by Broadway Malyan

Intelligent and anticipatory mall design offers the solution for sustained shopper appeal, argues Jeremy Salmon, Shanghai-based Main Board Director at global architecture, urbanism and design practice Broadway Malyan.

Jeremy Salmon: “In my experience, designing successful retail developments is all about plugging into the psychology of the customer and anticipating the market.

“Developers are happy when their schemes are filled with people and activity, creating a buzz, being talked about and, above all else, being used.

“People are happy when their aspirations and expectations are being catered for – when they get more from a ‘shopping experience’ than simply buying things which, increasingly, they can purchase on-line. They want a sense of fulfilment, satisfaction and enjoyment.

“As retail designers, it’s our job to shape these spaces to make them work for the customer’s ‘front of house’ expectations whilst being fully in control of the back of house infrastructure and commercial planning criteria – two very different types of knowledge that must come together in a unique way on every single project. It’s clear to me that there’s a pattern to the evolution of shopping malls and it’s directly linked to the economic and social development of their locations.

“Emerging economies want different things to emerged economies. The customers in each have very different life experiences and expectations. What is breakthrough and ground-breaking in one country may well be reaching the end of its cycle in another.

“If we look more closely at the ‘glitzy mall’ – and define that as something based on creating bright, clean, clear and attractive spaces with units for high-end and aspirational brands – there’s an interesting pattern.

“First generation malls, like those in Chinese cities such as Shanghai and Beijing, essentially had it pretty easy. When you are the only modern, clean, well-lit, internal air-conditioned shopping environment in town with the only line-up of desired international top brands, you can build it and people will come. 

“Moreover, this was always going to happen in step with the emergence of a more affluent middle class, fuelled on increasing access to images of a western lifestyle and wanting these brands. For me, these schemes were ‘Glitzy Generation 1’.  In some cases, occupier brands did 90% of the experience-creation job for you. Offer me the first H&M or Zara, or for that matter the first Gucci or Prada, in a region or city, and I’ll be there! Once rival malls have opened, the game changes. 

“Equally, once customers have stated their desire to own and feel good about certain ‘new’ brands, malls have to work harder to give them a heightened or differentiated experience.

“Take a recent repositioning project we completed for Ivanhoe Cambridge and the Bailen Group in Changsha, Hunan province. By no means can this mall compete in decorative terms with contemporaries in Shanghai but, within its context, the transformation from a dark, badly-planned, locally-tenanted, anonymous mall to a clean, visually-exciting, modern and most importantly the only H&M, Zara tenanted mall in the whole Hunan province, completely animated the target late teen local customer base, energized with their first taste of having a ‘disposable income’. This was the glitzyist show for two hundred miles, which effectively meant the glitzyist they’d ever been to.

“Look then to IAPM in Shanghai. This project seeks to appeal to the established and savvy first tier China customer base, well-versed in their couture shopping experience. Cleverly, the interior is both white reserved chic AND highly decorative: a design statement, because this differentiates the mall from the existing high-end branded couture malls within walking distance. It is decoratively glitzy by direct comparison to its neighbours but, to pose the killer question, is it actually providing enough of a new experience for the customer? Is the differentiator of a decorative investment enough to maintain a market position for long when other newly-built malls in the same location are changing the experience of shopping into an entirely different entertainment / arts / urban farm experience, such as K11 on the same Huaihai strip?

“Finally, turn up the market maturity demands even further and look to Japan, now with its fifth generation emerged wealth and my current favourite glitzy mall, Tokyu Plaza Omotesando Harajuku.  High-end brands, capital A architecture and an urban forest park experience on the roof – leading the glitzy Asia pack – but only for now perhaps.

“So, my observation is that the burden of responsibility rests with designers to keep re-inventing retail space for the next generation and the next set of customer expectations aligned to the context – where, when, and catering for whom. 

“No-one can afford to emulate on mall design and expect that business plan to deliver long-term returns. ‘Glitzy’ is ever evolving. Copying a successful customer experience from one location and replicating it in another may win you short-term impact but the more sophisticated strategy is to anticipate and to re-imagine the retail experience specific to its context in order to sustain that freshness and vitality that matters.

“Today’s glitz is tomorrow’s ‘so what’ average. Intelligent and anticipatory design offers the solution for sustained shopper appeal.”

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