It’s a challenging world right now. Inflation, rising interest rates, persistent supply chain lags and labor shortages are affecting the retail industry. That’s to say nothing of the always changing retail environment.
But there are also consumers who are ready to put COVID behind them — who are looking for a reason to venture out, be entertained and spend some money (though maybe not as much money, thanks to inflation). You also have shopping center owners who are quite eager to give these consumers what they want.
While architects and designers can’t remove problems like rates or inflation from an owner’s plate, they can help them navigate — and win — in this new market. How? By making sure every detail, dollar and person counts.
Strength in numbers is always appreciated when times are tricky. Frankie Campione, principal at CREATE Architecture Planning & Design in New York City, notes designers are collaborating more than ever to get the job done. This type of collaboration is particularly useful during the current materials shortage, he notes.
“There doesn’t seem to be any way to know what shortage may affect any particular project,” Campione says. “There are two projects, both on Long Island. One has roofing materials, the other can’t get them. One has a storefront, the other has a delay.”
Campione believes shopping center owners could receive more help navigating these shortages if general contractors took a similar approach as the design community.
“It would be interesting to see general contractors work with each other in the same manner architects have grown accustom,” he continues. “If they were able to stockpile, store materials or work together to the benefit of all projects, perhaps there would be fewer delays overall.”
Even if general contractors won’t work together, designers are ready to team up as early — and often — as needed.
“The design and construction team should be put together early in the process to determine the costs of construction, as well as design and construction schedules,” says Noel Cupkovic, principal at CUPKOVIC architecture in Cleveland. “In determining the availability of materials, we often are working with the contractor to determine what needs to be ordered well in advance of construction.”
Cupkovic notes there’s a science to building the most efficient and less expensive building as possible. That not only involves diligence and math, but often more collaborations.
“There are deals to do, and brick-and-mortar renovations are happening as key tenants are changing their prototypes, downsizing and reinventing themselves,” he continues. “Developers are keen to their needs and are working to make deals happen for their clients, the retail tenant. We are always reviewing costs at each phase of the project, schematic design, design development, bid permit drawing and final drawing for construction. Value engineering is fluid and somewhat constant in the process.”
Designers are also working directly with shopping center owners to mitigate supply chain difficulties. Dustin Watson, founding principal of inPLACE Design in Baltimore, Maryland, advises his clients to not just order early but order local when possible.
“The use of local sources might mean a higher price point but affords more control over the schedule and the end product,” he says. “It’s a win-win, as local products boost local commerce, while shop visits give designers more control, leading to more accurate timing on delivery.”
Watson also encourages flexibility in design, as well as pre-selected substitutions should a product or material become unavailable. Finally, he recommends designating one person to source and track materials.
While it might not be a normal environment for developing or redeveloping a shopping center space, Campione is a fan of staying true to the owner’s protocols and vision instead of trying to fit a square peg in a round hole.
“What I do not suggest is trying to guess what materials or construction types may or may not be an issue,” he says. “We have redesigned numerous projects ‘chasing’ the market because we’ve been told steel is in high demand only to find that masonry was going to delay the start of construction four months later. Construct your building in the manner you are accustomed and work into your leases any caveats that construction delays may cause.”
Kevin Mousty, executive vice president of the Eastern region at MCG Architecture in Cleveland, notes that while challenges persist, owners and designers still have the same jobs to do. In that respect, working on a retail project this year is simply business as usual…perhaps minus some extra funds.
“I don’t think any of today’s solutions differ from past goals of budget-oriented design,” he says. “Creating the most cost-effective design solutions based on the programmatic need of the client will not change. What may change is the ability to upgrade based on pro formas, which include inflationary conditions.”
Do Twice As Much With Tech
By now, most retail owners know they need to take tech seriously. Still, with prices rising and budgets tightening, it’s essential that every dollar spent bring in a few more. The pandemic may have accelerated trends surrounding in-app food orders and buy online/pick up in store (BOPIS), but many shopping center designers are all for them.
“Today, online ordering, QR codes for reservations and check-ins and in-app pickup check-ins are must-haves,” Watson says. “Inflation has also increased the demand for buy now, pay later services. Centers that offer order pick up must create a centralized, one-stop order pickup for consumers who place an order at more than one store.”
These services not only produce the omnichannel environment many of today’s shoppers — especially the younger ones — are looking for, but they offer multiple reasons to visit a shopping center.
“Technology that helps merge online and offline are increasingly important in today’s ecommerce environment,” says Anthony Sanchez, design director and principal at Nadel in Los Angeles. “Retail designers continue to devise innovative ways to incorporate specialized space to accommodate ecommerce pick up and distribution. The goal is to provide the most seamless shopping experience from arrival to payment and returns.”
Some of this specialized space includes dedicated parking, which has become standard since the pandemic. Savvy shopping center owners take the BOPIS trend a step further by providing fitting rooms that accommodate easy pick up, allow the consumer to try the product on without leaving the center and, in some cases, facilitate immediate returns or size exchanges.
“Click and Collect [BOPIS] is the best of both worlds, blending online shopping with in-person pick up,” Sanchez continues. “This service not only minimizes the amount of time spent in a traditional shopping experience, but satisfies the immediacy of a return that you don’t get from online.”
Even takeout windows can provide an enjoyable shopping center experience when the space is done right, Watson asserts. He points to Jamaican restaurant Konoko, which his team is designing at the Avenue at White Marsh in Baltimore, as an example of this.
“The takeout window allows you to quickly and safely pick up the cuisine,” he says. “But the life of the restaurant can be enjoyed regardless of whether you eat in or take out thanks to the space’s integrated music entertainment, murals and resort-style amenities. It’s all about the experience married with the product of service that creates a great place.”
Even the murals can take on more than one function. On the one hand, they add ambiance and give waiting diners something to look at. On the other…Instagram.
“Instagrammable moments have become a design tool in all our projects,” Watson continues. “One of the fastest and truly efficient ways to make an impact is visually. Custom graphics and murals that capture the branding of the shopping center, retailer or restaurant can elicit moods and inspire people to share them with their friends and followers.”
InPlace recently designed a Banditos | Tacos and Tequila on Allegheny Avenue in Towson, Maryland, with an aesthetic that features bright colors and extensive fantastical graphics to convey a fun and exciting feel. Utilizing influencers can also be a win-win: new backdrops provide new content for the influencer, while influencers can spread the word — and vision — of a tenant or shopping center to the masses.
“Influencers rate highly among consumers,” Sanchez says. “People want to visit the places they see on social media, so making a shopping center more Instagrammable can help organically elevate its profile and attract more visitors while boosting an influencer’s exposure.”
This type of mutually beneficial relationship can be helped along by providing novel, short-term activations and themed concepts, exhibitions and branding opportunities, Sanchez notes. As more visitors come, they’re inclined to share the space with their social media followers, whether that’s two people or two million.
“These opportunities allow a landlord to monetize and build online brand awareness for their center,” Sanchez continues. “In this way, these creative and impactful design elements are functioning as an anchor to that demographic.”
Watson recommends weaving Instagrammable backdrops into the fabric of hardscapes and landscapes. This should include ample areas that accommodate large group shots. He’s also a fan of foliage walls, lit walls, murals, multi-level hardscapes and colorful, interactive sculptures. Retailers can also get creative, not just with their walls, but with their dressing rooms.
“Fashion influencers are craving Instagrammable spots in-store where they can try clothes or products on and have a great backdrop,” Watson says. “Dressing rooms with a viewing area that includes fashion amenities, props, pedestals, mirrors, art and bright colors make the perfect attraction for the social set. Remember, more time in the store equals more sales. More social media posts of products equals more sales.”
Regardless of the Instagrammable backdrop or influencer rolodex, Campione advises shopping center owners to keep the main goal of the activation in mind. This not only provides a little perspective, but prevents them from doling out too much cash for the sake of the ‘Gram.
“Influencers bring an awareness to stores, brands and even shopping centers themselves but the goal is to drive sales,” he says. “At the end of the day, it’s the tenant mix, overall aesthetic environment and upkeep of the center that ensures return visits. Any way that the message can get out or imagery portrayed is viable.”
Many Spaces Have Multiple Uses
The most obvious example of today’s multi-functional environment is the mixed-use trend that’s taken over retail. This includes projects like the Rise Hollywood in Hollywood, California. The Nadel-designed project includes 370 multifamily units, offices, retail and dining services.
“Projects like the Rise Hollywood provide a wide range of amenities that meet a variety of needs all in one concentrated space that truly mixes leisure with everyday life,” Sanchez explains. “The incorporation of a retail center within a multifamily environment helps drive foot traffic, maximize convenience and enhance the efficiencies of daily routine.”
A shopping center owner doesn’t need to add a hotel tower or office campus to maximize the use of the physical environment, however.
Cupkovic notes that flexible spaces with interesting hardscape and landscape designs, not to mention good lighting, can provide programming year-round.
Watson says abundant plant life can enliven a space, simultaneously forming natural barriers and traffic controls at the same time. Similarly, awnings and trellises are great sun and weather protectors, while creating a more intimate space that doesn’t sacrifice ample air flow.
Even streets are pulling double shifts nowadays, as Downtown Palm Beach Gardens can illustrate. The lifestyle center in Palm Beach Gardens, Florida, is being redeveloped to include a hotel, residential tower, public art, children’s splash pad and a re-imagined pedestrian shopping experience, thanks to the addition of a Dutch shared street technique called a “woonerf.”
“The woonerf allowed us to rethink the leasing strategy and tenant mix through the integration of a shared pedestrian and vehicular street,” Campione explains. “Now we’ll have a great mix of dining and retail options that extend the typical shopping day well into the evening.”
Whether it’s designers wearing a few more hats, social media-worthy murals or streets straight from the Netherlands, today’s retail professionals are doing what they have to in order to get the job done. Still, for all these strategies and Instagram-friendly walls, Mousty doesn’t see a huge difference between today’s design strategies and those of yesteryear.
“I have always been a fan keeping things simple,” he says. “I believe there are three key elements to a successful shopping center design, and they have not changed in my 24 years of retail design — visibility, accessibility and flexibility. You must be able to see it, conveniently access it and to change it.”
This article was originally published in the July 2022 issue of Shopping Center Business magazine.