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Retailers Should Put Purpose Before Product, Experience Before Sales

Oxígeno’s design is inspired by the area’s history, art and culture, with a focus on the natural environment.

Retail Insight recently sat down with Hernan Martinez, CEO of Cuestamoras Urbanismo, to discuss the changing landscape of shopping centers as they become more of a community center for the cities they service. Martinez has firsthand experience with this as he and his company develop Oxigeno, a mixed-use project in Costa Rica that offers four unique zones that incorporate entertainment, shopping, dining, green areas, and the local Heredia neighborhood.

Do you think today’s convenience-driven, instant-gratification world is one reason we seem to be seeing an uptick in mixed-use projects? 

The uptick of mixed-use projects is the result of several important urban and consumer trends. The resurgence of mixed-use, town and city centers derives, in big part, from the recognition of the negative impacts of urban sprawl. It is now generally recognized that development of car-centric, low-density, single-use urban areas has detrimental economic, environmental and social consequences. These can include higher infrastructure costs, the loss of natural land to accommodate a limited number of people and the disruption of neighborhoods’ social fabric.

Cuestamoras Urbanismo is committed to the development of open (non-gated), dynamic urban communities and projects. We strongly believe that mixed-use projects play an important part in the creation of connected, lively and sustainable urban communities. For example, Oxigeno — the first phase of a 2-million-square-foot, mixed-use project — incorporates a plethora of experiences that go beyond retail stores. The project will feature cultural, leisure, health, sports and educational activities. Phase II and III will also include residential, office and hospitality.

Many complementary retailers tend to prefer “clustering” nowadays. Is this a new trend? 

We believe in clustering but not just on the arrangement of retail stores but also as a base for organizing visitors’ experiences. Our goal is to maximize connections through “journeys,” recognizing the different roles a visitor may play depending on the reason for his or her visit. For example, the same young adult woman will look for different “journeys” for her various roles as a mother, wife, book lover, athlete, concert-goer, etc.

Why is flexibility so important in today’s shopping centers?

Our visitors, especially the younger ones, have incorporated into their lives a software-based digital world that is constantly changing. As this continues to happen they will increasingly expect the same type of change in the physical sphere. Flexibility is even more important when these gathering places are not tourist destinations. Tourist destinations encounter a high rotation of customers. Hence, they can get away with lower “refresh” rates.

Oxigeno’s gathering areas can rapidly refresh themselves, as a magician would, to constantly surprise the visitor. Oxigeno’s main plaza can transform itself from a basketball court into a fair or a 2,500-spectator showplace in a matter of hours.

How can you utilize digital technologies to enhance a customer’s experience and forge a connection with your project?

This is probably one of the most exciting and rapidly evolving areas impacting our industry. The seamless interaction between the physical and the digital worlds is as important as offering a broad spectrum of activities. Oxigeno’s journeys include those in the media and digital spheres. That is one of the reasons we incorporated a TV and radio studio into the project. In other words, we think in terms of platforms and not in terms of space-for-rent or products.

An aerial view of Oxigeno.

Do you believe we will see changes in the industry that go beyond product design?

In my opinion, probably one of our industry’s most important paradigm shifts is the end of the developer as a renter of space. Instead, successful developers will have to mutate into full-blown operators and curators of customer experiences. Luckily, running complex, multi-disciplinary operations is an intrinsic part of our DNA. It would also not surprise me to see cutting-edge operators from related industries, such as media and entertainment, augmenting their participation in our industry.

What types of opportunities will your company target in the near future?

Our team includes professionals with broad U.S. and international experience. We are now in the process of looking for and screening potential sites in the U.S. Currently, we are looking both at greenfield and re-purposing opportunities in secondary and tertiary markets where we identify the potential to create or recreate a vibrant community hub. We have the experience, know-how, methodology and financial resources to make it happen.

— Interview by Nellie Day, contributing writer. This article is part of the Retail Insight newsletter by Shopping Center Business, a six-week publication leading up to ICSC RECon and including post-conference coverage. Some of the articles and the videos in the publication are created in conjunction with our content partners, which sponsor the newsletter. Click here to subscribe and to see archived newsletters.

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