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Op-Ed | Disrupting the Mall

The traditional mall has reached its use-by date and must evolve beyond retail to survive, argues QIC Global Real Estate's Stuart Miller.
Eastland mall in Melbourne | Source: QIC
  • Stuart Miller
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BRISBANE, Australia — As you might imagine, I think about this a lot. For me the future of the mall is the same as its present and past — the future of the mall is about people. That hasn't changed. It is the word "mall" that has reached its used-by date. It invokes quite a homogenised experience.

People are seeking to discover a true sense of place and connection — more than just a place to shop and beyond a transactional relationship with the brands they love.

What is changing profoundly and will continue to change is how we navigate the complexities of people. We are constantly evolving, but generally within a physical environment that has not kept pace. The mall for decades past met the then aspirations of the community. But the aspirations of the community have matured and diversified. Globalisation, the Internet and social media have just amplified that process.

What brands and people both want now is genuine connection and meaning — with a place and with each other, in the heart of a real community. The search for relevance is real.

Central to place creation is the need to build upon retail as the sole source of economic capital. Retail trade will remain the glue that binds mixed-use projects together. However, more diverse social and cultural spheres represent alternative, more sustainable and increasingly more relevant attraction vehicles that can directly and indirectly impact overall financial revenue within destinations.

It’s a realisation that the future will be permanently in beta, hyper-personalised and responsive, evolving and adapting services, systems and spaces to meet the ever-changing needs of the people who engage with them. And we’ll do it together through co-creation, co-ownership and co-investment. Always in perpetual motion. Never complete.

We are constantly evolving, but generally within a physical environment that has not kept pace.

The digital age has brought the world into the palms of our hands and more than ever we are exposed to an endless stream of information. The challenge is how we are responding to this empowering shift in shared knowledge and awareness within the built environment that will shape its future.

The influence of social media gives community an increasingly virtual dimension. Just as social media and mobile technology are reshaping the buying experience, so too are they influencing how people experience and interact within the places they gather.

In the future, the most effective neighbourhood destinations will factor the changing uses of social media and mobile technology into their design, to better communicate their communal, social and cultural purpose.

Physical retail will continue to be complemented by e-commerce, providing layered experiences and services to create a seamless journey. Today’s pure play brands will take part in the physical future by creating brand experiences designed to connect with their customers from showrooms and galleries to restaurants and bars. Physical retail enhances e-commerce further by providing genuine connection and a tangible experience.

Canberra Centre mall | Source: QIC

Logistics will also continue to impact on physical retail. Already automotive brands like Tesla and Ford are reinventing and evolving the traditional showroom. Without the need to store inventory, physical retail space is more dynamic, unencumbered by storage, allowing for greater creativity and more immersive product offerings.

As we move through the fourth industrial revolution, the physical space will be further augmented by digital integration that will add diversity to the physical experience, allowing for an endless reinvention of place. A more dynamic and adaptive space will be inspired by ever-evolving content. Our obligation is to stitch that content into the physical environment that engages with the conscious aspiration of the consumer.

Technology will enhance every element of the physical future, from hyper-connectivity and design innovation to advanced construction processes and materials selection to spaces designated for brands and usages we haven’t yet imagined.

We will create even more sustainable places exploring natural solutions to environmental controls, finding ways to preserve and regenerate things the community values most and incorporating nature beyond decoration into the design.

The growing importance of community lies at the heart of the shift towards neighbourhood placemaking. “One size fits all” really means “Nothing fits anyone;” a considered approach to place-making must meet every individual need within a community — a collaborative approach working with the brands and consumers that engage with physical retail and beyond, shaping services and experiences that fit within the community.

The traditional constraints of category offers will augment, converging to create holistic brand stories told without restraint. There will be neighbourhoods and retail destinations networked to inspire meaningful interactions, but most importantly they must do so in alignment with content that will be useful, have purpose and be valued.

So, intelligent and considered design will remain the fundamental element to inspire engagement layered through every touch point of the experience in concert with unparalleled levels of personalisation and thoughtful service, which will make the consumer experience effortless and personal. It will honour consumption.

Place-makers will build with a whole life approach — the concept of servicing the person in the context of their whole life. It is a shift from seeing people as shoppers to seeing them holistically, with a range of life needs where every need is met in an ecosystem centred on community, culture, creativity and connection. We view place-making as an aggregation of life experiences.

Collaboration is key to the success of whole life design, whether it be to enhance existing public services and spaces within the community or to create new ones; healthier work and residential environments, places for well-being and knowledge sharing, cultural destinations or simply somewhere to play.

Only retail destinations that are consciously but somewhat obliquely dedicated to “wonder per square metre” as much as “sales per square metre” will thrive because, in very practical terms, the former has far greater potential to create value in the future.

Apple proved this by reinventing the retail store and keeps doing it by offering more and more flexible services and spaces dedicated to people. Its new store in downtown San Francisco has a backyard open 24 hours to the public and spaces programmed to inspire. The future will perhaps inspire more radical acts of generosity that follow Apple’s lead.

Captivating architecture and design, intuitive technology, the integration of public and private spaces, an active, collaborative role for the world’s leading creators. These are the pillars of transformation turning physical retail centres into neighbourhood destinations with community and cultural experiences at their core.

Creating engaging spaces through collaborative and considered design and layering art and experience throughout is the key to delivering destinations beyond transaction, elevating them to cultural destinations inspiring genuine and lasting engagement. We must create intimate spaces that people feel at home in — a place to just be. To pause and reflect. To slow the pace. Most importantly, the community must be able to identify with the space. They must feel they have an identity in that space.

Ecosystems will drive the conceptual development of future physical retail — sustainable, restorative, evolving, natural and for life. Diversity is essential to maintaining relevance in anything but it has never been more relevant now. Within an ecosystem, diversity thrives.

Learning from this, we nourish our human, social and communal nature. We come together to meet, discover, share, sell and buy in communities that commune and create. In places that live and breathe like this, brands and people can form real and lasting bonds. This is the retail environment of the future.

Ultimately the future of physical retail and the future more generally must be about people, in collaboration and in harmony. Working together for a future where we can all thrive because, for QIC GRE this is every bit a social legacy, as it is a physical or commercial one.

Stuart Miller is director of investment management at QIC Global Real Estate.

QIC Global Real Estate is the principal partner of the BoF 500, the people shaping the global fashion industry. 

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Agenda-setting intelligence, analysis and advice for the global fashion community.
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