How Shopping Centers Are Boosting Their Game in the Age of Amazon

With online shopping taking a bite out of brick-and-mortar retail sales, an industry group says the way malls can stand out is to focus on providing an experience that web storefronts can't touch.

The suburban shopping mall—once the home of Tiffany concert tours and packed specialty stores—may be becoming a thing of the past in the age of online shopping.

These days, it seems like the only time malls go viral is when BuzzFeed puts up a post loaded with pictures of abandoned shopping centers. The stats aren’t showing much in the way of growth, either. Since 2010, the expansion of retail space has slowed to a crawl—a big change for an industry that once added 100 million square feet of shopping center space each year, for decades in a row.

But don’t count out the the mall industry just yet, one trade group says.

The International Council of Shopping Centers would like you to know that the industry still has plenty of potential for growth. The secret? Rather than concentrating on winning the price war, malls are working to provide great customer service, food, and entertainment offerings, says ICSC—all in the interest of making the mall less of an place to buy stuff and more of a community destination.

“The industry is currently evolving as a result of technological innovations and changes in consumer tastes and preferences,” according to a 2014 ICSC report. “Rather than trying to stop or slow this evolution, the shopping center industry has embraced it—seeing it as the next wave of opportunity and a way to connect with consumers like never before.”

The report notes that there are certain parts of the mall experience that online shopping has been unable to replicate—including the ability to fulfill immediate needs, provide one-stop convenience, or allow shoppers to touch and try on merchandise.

It’s that experience that has led even traditional online retailers like Warby Parker and Bonobos to create physical retail presences and prompted companies to step up their retail game. The goal: to combine the streamlined experience of online retail with the visceral appeal of the in-store experience.

“Given these market forces and consumer trends, shopping centers and the retailers that inhabit them are on the cusp of an exciting new era,” the report notes. “Those that embrace these changes and are able to quickly and effectively adapt to this new competitive landscape will thrive; those that do not or cannot will fade away as has always been the case.”

In a recent story, Chattanooga, Tennessee, developer Duane Horton compared the phenomenon to another form of entertainment that was disrupted by technology: professional football. Realizing they were losing the comfort game to television, teams began improving their food and seating offerings, with the goal of making the experience fun again.

“Retail has to do the same thing,” he says. “It has to reinvent itself.”


Ernie Smith

By Ernie Smith

Ernie Smith is a former senior editor for Associations Now. MORE

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