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Why the Future of the Mall is All About ‘Blend Spaces’

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As consumers head back to physical stores, malls and shopping centers are striving to remain relevant parts of shopper journeys that have been dramatically reshaped. EPAM Continuum, a global innovation design firm that specializes in customer experience design, recently unveiled the concept of “Blend Space” to illustrate how experiential flow and physical-digital touch points can meet a range of needs and shopping “modes.”

At its core, “Blend Space” encourages the creation of “resilient, holistic, and human-centered retail experiences.” That is why the team at EPAM Continuum believes that landlords need to be more flexible and focus on creating partnerships with current and potential tenants that encourage agility and innovation.

“The lease model is dated,” explained Jessica Maniatis, Director of Innovation Consulting at EPAM Continuum in an interview with Retail TouchPoints. “Imagine a brand that started online, opened a store, tested it and found out a year later that the format doesn’t work for them. If they’re locked into a 10-year lease, they’re screwed. Landlords need to be more flexible with retailers, not only in the duration of their space but how to get out of it and/or how they use it, so it can be more multi-purpose.”

But more flexibility for tenants is only the baseline. Tenants and developers need to extend this agile thinking to the entire shopping experience, especially as consumers crave more social — yet still safe — interactions. Maniatis and her colleague, Associate Director of Innovation Consulting Megan Welker, discuss how they believe fundamental shifts in consumer behaviors will ultimately drive shopping mall developers and landlords to transform their experiences.

Retail TouchPoints (RTP): Many studies have indicated that consumers are eager to return to physical stores. How does this impact shopping malls and outdoor centers specifically, especially as we get into the holiday season?

Megan Welker: As the world continues to open up, you’re going to see the retail space transition more into an event space. During the pandemic, retail was one of the few avenues for people to go out and experience novelty and feel connection to other humans in their lives, and that really is blooming as the world reopens. Retail is still one of the only places you can go for connection and entertainment.

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RTP: Are there any trends that may impact shopping center design and strategy moving forward?

Welker: I think people have become very accustomed to the outdoor element of retail. They like being able to have that kind of dual-purpose space. It’s nice to be outside; that’s a luxury that perhaps we weren’t used to. On top of that, there’s an additional luxury of people becoming acclimated to having more personal space. So as we think about the future of designing malls and spaces like that, those two elements could strongly be integrated into the experience.

RTP: We’ve seen some spaces evolve into “lifestyle environments” that encompass several facets of consumers’ lives — from shopping to fitness and even lodging and healthcare. Is this something that will continue?

Welker: If I were to stake money on anything it would be retail-as-entertainment. That’s the future. Retail has always been about collecting things, but retail moving into that seeking/entertainment/educational space is really the future. In our Blend Space report, we talk about four modes of retail: Connect, Seek, Collect and Comfort. The moment of “comfort” is actually quite difficult in this space because it has to be impulsive — and impulsive shopping during the pandemic was difficult because you largely couldn’t “try” an item before you bought it. The “collect” mode has pretty much moved on to the digital space. The digital channel has swelled up to really meet it, and it’s met it with a standard of excellence.

Where the future of in-person retail is really going is the “connect” mode. An entertainment-as-retail space is where humans can connect with each other as well as seek. But “seek” also has a strong educational element to it. People want to know that what they are buying is the “right” thing for them.

RTP: Regarding your point about “collect” being owned by digital, have you seen developers embrace ecommerce or omnichannel in an innovative way?

Jessica Maniatis: I don’t see as much omnichannel happening on a developer level as we perhaps would expect. There’s a great outdoor retail center in Long Beach, Calif. where they’ve done a good job of adding activity areas. What used to be a paved walkway is now green with lawn chairs, a bocce ball court and various other things that people can do when they’re not shopping. Perhaps transforming these outdoor spaces is a solution to make people feel safer too, because they can sit outside of a crowded store and engage in activities.

Maybe developers can encourage retailers to be more creative and flexible in the way they conceive an omnichannel experience. As people head back into public spaces, after experiencing so much pandemic-era retail innovation, they might well be open to new holistic ways of thinking about the shopping experience. It’s the sort of thing we explain in our report: Making Customer Experience Seamless: Playbook for the Omnichannel Retailer.

Of course, there are more effective omnichannel applications at the brand level. For example, I can use the Nike app to check and see if something’s available in the store and track my purchase history, but Nike really excels when it comes to incentivizing customers to download and engage with the app while in the store. Some locations have a vending machine of Nike gear where you scan your unique QR code in the app to get a free item. This brings consumers back weekly or monthly to cash in, but also to check out new arrivals.

There are creative ways that brands are incentivizing consumers to follow them everywhere. You lure them in with the free socks and they perhaps become more loyal customers. Developers: take note!

RTP: Sure, there’s plenty of room for improvement at the experience level, but what about fulfillment? We’ve seen some positive moves over the past 18+ months but will these services continue to scale?

Maniatis: I personally don’t think offerings like curbside and buy online, pick up in-store (BOPIS) are going away. People have developed habits that are now so ingrained in their approach to shopping that they are here to stay. With so much news lately about the common cold being on the uptick as we’re all jumping right back into socializing or being in these public areas unmasked, there’s a huge segment of people that still want to play it safe. My hunch is those safer habits are going to stay and developers should continue to innovate on how that transaction happens.

RTP: With all of these trends in mind, how do you believe shopping malls and centers will evolve over the next year?

Maniatis: The biggest need in the immediate future is to create multipurpose spaces that include an event space, outdoor space and gathering space. We know people are excited to simply leave their house, so we need to provide them with a place where they can do something different and see some friends, but still feel safe.

Welker: I would add that shopping will become more of a form of entertainment in these spaces. The act of shopping itself is being able to see and bring novelty into our lives. I think we sometimes forget how important novelty is to the mental health of human beings, and shopping really fulfills that need strongly.

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