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Why experience matters in retail
Jeremy Salmon
11th April 2018

​Retail is a core component of mixed-use development as it attracts people and adds value to commercial and residential areas.

Locations that focus on how people spend their free time and consider the customer experience in a holistic way beyond browsing and purchasing are the most successful.

There is heightened awareness for this need to focus and deliver a sense of place and different experiences across all channels. Retailers have been quick to understand this and nurture their brand experiences, destination makers less so.

Night photo of entrance façade to retail and leisure destination ID Mall in Hefei, China, designed by Broadway Malyan.

Changing demographics

Around the world, people are moving into cities at a significant rate. They are becoming wealthier in both time and disposable income. People are moving to urban areas to benefit from the healthcare, education, security and prosperity available. Cities present opportunities and broader choices in the activities available.

Nowhere is this more apparent than the Asia Pacific region. In China the number of people classed as middle income (US $35,000 salary or higher) has trebled. In India, this figure has doubled.

Africa, Latin America and Eastern Europe are also growing. Fashion, technology, coffee and restaurant brands will be the first beneficiaries of this larger spending, as disposable income goes up and people spend more on better quality products, luxuries and leisure. These categories match depictions of aspirational lifestyles and fulfill a need for more social spaces.

This progresses to increasing personalisation as the same demographic tires of the generic brand experience and hankers for the bespoke.

For North America and Europe rapid growth is less easy to find with a highly competitive transitioning of the mature market. This transition is difficult, with the economic infrastructure largely unchanged but a consumer that has transformed.

The trend for bespoke and crafted products and experiences has not only emerged but consolidated, and there remains a continuous need to adapt and move ever quicker with the customer.

Global influences

The power of a brand to excite and interest consumers relies on creating a clear value proposition and building familiarity and increasingly personal relationships with the consumer. Brands are increasingly international thanks to technology and customer aspirations are no longer shaped by what is only available locally.

The retailer must be able to showcase their brand and deliver an experience both tailored to the shopper and in keeping with their global positioning. This has a large impact on the design and layout of spaces, from small concessions up to flagship stores. Flagship stores or Brand Centres should be the jewel in the crown for any retailer. They are more than a place to purchase the product. They should demonstrate how the product meets customer needs and deliver a unique experience that is true to the location.

These stores are often one of the main attractions for a retail environment. Securing their involvement can contribute hugely to the success of a scheme.

The Bedok Mall branding utilises a vibrant palette

The smartphone generation

Commentators in the last decade have focused often on “Bricks v Clicks”. A decline in high street and mall performance over this time has been attributed to the rise in online shopping. However, recent research from PWC shows that where carefully nurtured, “bricks and mortar” shopping is increasing, as shoppers seek a more social experience.

Consumers focus on their social capital - they want to “check-in” to the best places, share their experiences with their friends, interact with brands, crowdsource opinions and find inspiration for their purchases. From selfies on Instagram to vlogs documenting their latest purchases, people’s smartphones are at the heart of this change.

Our own insight shows that if the right tenant mix is provided, in an engaging, unique environment, dwell time and spend will go up.

So what makes a good retail experience?

It may include an increase in concept, niche and bespoke formats as brands differentiate their physical offer from digital challengers, and a rise in pop-up shops and experiences. The surprise element and time limited nature makes it an exclusive, desirable and highly shareable experience.

One of the core dynamics is the integration of great food. Research by analytics firm CACI shows that customers spend 35% more money and 81% more time during their visit if they eat or drink. This too, offers shareable content that people will post online.

A careful balance of spaces also entices people. For example, the integration of indoor and outdoor environments, such as terraces and gardens, has a positive impact on wellbeing. Mixing traditional retail with more event-focused spaces adds spectacle and atmosphere. (Time Out Market in Lisbon is a good example of this). Combined, these kinds of elements creates a sense of activity and results in customers who are more engaged and spend more time at the location.

Interior photo of new timber finishes and contemporary furniture in the food court of El Tiro, a retail mall in Murcia, Spain.

Tell a story

Any mall needs to have its own clear sense of place that differentiates it from its competitors and one that is rooted in its context i.e. meaningful and resonant to its customers. It provides the “wrap around” for retailer brands, place to visit.

Designers should ask themselves a number of questions before they design anything. Are they creating something socially and culturally relevant to the location? Does any new narrative complement or enhance the site and its history? These factors should influence aspects such as the materiality of the place, its texture and the characterisation built through signage, interior fixtures and fittings, and the external envelope of the building, its landscape setting and overall placemaking proposition.

Once these considerations have been embedded in the design it is important that free movement is encouraged so that customers avoid ‘dead ends’ and enjoy a layering of choreographed experiences and activities. This builds a richness, with repeat visits revealing new and previously unseen aspects.

While retail might be the initial attraction to a location, it should not stop there. The development of “retail resorts” take this concept of “more than retail” to its conclusion. These sites have more in common with masterplans for mixed-use developments due to their scale and ambition. They combine retail with a range of uses so that people can fulfill all their leisure needs in one place. They are the complete expression of the new reality that entertainment is the new retail. We are enticed by the exciting and new and yet rooted in the need for authenticity and the real.

Examples include the integration of exhibition and event venues, aquariums, theme parks, cinema, dining and a mixture of retail formats including markets, boutique and big box, on one site.

At this scale, the possibilities for developers expand exponentially in cementing that special place within the collective consciousness of their target audience and delivering something that will have customers coming back and telling their friends and family about it.

Feature glazed cinema building at Baron's Quay, a new retail and leisure quarter in Chester, UK.