MALLS IN  FLUX: How the digital age is reshaping the future of shopping by M.R. Lopes

MALLS IN FLUX:
How the digital age is reshaping the future of shopping

You’d have to be Rip Van Winkle not to notice we’re in the midst of a cultural upheaval as digital technology changes the way we live, work, shop, eat, play, and learn.

Want concrete proof? Case in point: the shopping mall, those aging bastions of retail that sit at the heart of many communities. But wait! As we embrace the digital age, malls are being reimagined from traditional business-as-usual shopping destinations into multi-sensory, socially shared event spaces offering instant gratification purchasing through entertainment, food and education.

What’s driving the phenomemon? In a word, millenials who have come of age with a whole new set of retail priorities. Key among them, a preference for experience prior to ownership. Lets take a look at how this is playing out in malls across America.

That’s Edutainment! Huh?
Newly coined, the category effectively conveys how savvy mall developers curry favor in the new digital age by teaming with educators to create new interactive opportunities designed to encourage discovery through entertainment.

Eschewing the velvet rope philosophy of keeping vistors at arm’s length, museums are branching out with mall annexes that invite guest participation in a whole range of artistic projects, from film shorts to painting, glassmaking and sculpture.

Theaters in many destination malls have already designated entire areas as hackable and playable interactive experiences with virtual-reality content and immersion where customers can become part of the story.

Food as the New Fashion
It’s the mantra that increasingly reflects the proof that food has usurped fashion as a force in retail and travel.

Food-focused digital platforms see consumers routinely reading online reviews before choosing restaurants or ordering take-out via healthful food-delivery apps.

More restaurants are being positioned within retail areas, creating gastronomic “stop spots” to attract shoppers. Among the possible strategies:

  • using technology, such as self-ordering, and providing healthier eating options to redefine traditional fast-food outlets and casual dining.
  • creating new “experiential dining” that offers more entertainment for consumers. Examples include farm-to-table courtyards, gourmet food halls, and “cook your own food” facilities.
  • viewing food as theater, using reconfigurable spaces and rotational chef concepts in restaurants that offer customer encounters with, for example, celebrity chefs.

Retail as Experience
As consumers shop for experiences as well as products, manufacturers and retailers have responded by changing what they offer and how. Malls have met these rising demands with a variety of how-to seminars both in established businesses and pop-up stores. For example, housewares retailers offer cooking classes, wellness sessions being held in health foods and vitamin outlets and fitness sessions at sports or athleisure shops.

Since the digial age can often be a lonesome landscape, retailers have been quick to fill the gap for mingling by positioning product tutorials in social meet-and-greet settings that encourage conversation.

Anchor stores — those oft-empty retail behemoths — are turning non-trafficked spaces into areas for start-ups. You’ll find once-empty mall corridors and piazzas hosting pop-ups for product launches and seasonal offerings.

Transportation
Any driver who has roamed parking lots and decks for elusive spots knows the frustration of getting into and out of malls safely and conveniently. Here’s how retailers are improving things:

  • Technology-enabled parking, including robot parking valets to perform “last-mile” parking service and maximize available parking.
  • Integrating parking apps and sensors to help shoppers spot spaces and access them.
  • Redesigning car parking to include dedicated e-hailing pick up zones, shared economy parking, and fast-charging stations for electric vehicles.

Technology
Today, the millennial generation comprises the largest online audience, with more buying power than any previous generation ever. Almost seven in ten say they are influenced by friends’ social-media posts; 83 percent say they trust recommendations by friends and family. They rely on peer recommendations, and increasingly discover products online before going out to shop.

But today’s shoppers still want to touch, feel, and explore products before purchasing them. Sensing this need, savvy retailer have created a seamless chain between online and on-site shopping.

Next mall visit, you’re likely to experience “virtu-real” formats to provide a more interactive experience through the use of touchscreen navigation panels, virtual fitting rooms, magic mirrors, and augmented-reality zones.

Online and offline retail is merging by the use of “social shopping” technology with digital screens placed in arrival and departure zones, piazzas, shop windows, and major junctions of the shopping district. These help you locate products, access reviews, and then direct you to where to buy.

Using smartphones for e-checkouts and click-and-collect services also help blend the offline and online shopping experience. Some of the largest mall operators in the United States already give shoppers the option same-day delivery services.

With open arms, today’s consumers have embraced game-changing digital technologies and malls have responded in kind. Next time you shop, prepare to be entertained, educated, enabled and enamoured. It’s a brave new mall out there!

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