Saving big format retail: Repurposing large-format spaces for future success
Jan 12, 2019
You were once drawn to explore malls, their layout, racks and shelves with hopeful hands (and a willing wallet). You could go home with something both tangible and intangible. These places were special and magnetic. We still go to these spaces - in America there are 1.5 billion mall visits a month - but are we connecting with them as we used to. What has changed?
Community chess board at Short Pump Town Center, Richmond, Virginia
Community chess board at Short Pump Town Center, Richmond, Virginia

Online often gets the blame for this change. The slick not-so-new kid that brings the world to us instantly. And while it has certainly contributed, the cause, I think, lies in our much broader relationship to spaces and places, and fundamentally what has caused that relationship to change.

Studies are examining the impact of our built environment on us as people. All of our surroundings either help or hinder us, on a psychological and physiological level. Wherever we are, our brains are processing, with all senses, to either respond positively - attracted, engaged, animated - or negatively - bored, passive, stressed. There is no 'neutral'. Our reactions can be palpable with immediate effect or compound slowly over time. With urbanization causing more of us to live shoulder to shoulder, home and work environments are the focus of optimization and adaptation - think micro-apartments and WeWorks everywhere. The goal is total environmental bliss. For body and mind. So how can we do the same to retail spaces small and big?

It is reported that even the briefest exposure to a 'boring' environment has a negative effect. While that might be a bit dramatic as a one off, the compounding effect of repetitive exposure will lead to negative associations. The reality is that large-format retail suffers from this. These spaces have a negative, read 'boring', association. Perhaps it is about the range of choice, and monotony thereof. Too much or too little in one place can under-deliver or overwhelm us all at once. We want options to engage with. The success of direct-to-consumer (DTC) brands have proven how a focused curation can lead to mass sales and appeal. Brands like DTC poster child Warby Parker, continue to expand the number of physical stores, rather eyewear emporiums, to complement their online channel. Same goes for Casper, the disruptive mattress player, who recently launched a nap café called Dreamery in NYC. Coupled with their 20+ small footprint pop-ups across the country and single permanent space, their specialist DTC model is focused on creating an intimate and flexible environment for people in a category dominated by endless stacks of springs and memory foam, typically in one large size.

Maybe it's lack of personalisation, that prevents people from connecting with large-format spaces. We are after all stepping into someone else's design and layout, with their curation of brands and goods that we then need to navigate and make sense of. These labyrinthian spaces often take away our feeling of self-control and can make us feel small within them. They both dislocate while trying to locate us - probably why we gravitate towards online. But what if we let people lead how a space was engaged with?

Nike is testing their new concept Nike Live with its first location in Los Angeles. Created to be a responsive, hyper-locally curated space, the experiences and goods on offer represent the specific geographic location the space is in. Based on learnings from Nike apps and online date, they are able to bridge digital and physical channels to provide 24/7 advice on what products to buy, curate the best mix based on sales data, and offer services specifically for the LA consumer - like curbside pick-up of products via text. This has allowed them to create a space that represents the distinct Nike LA culture not just Nike culture. Building to be agile, means goods and services can change with the people who visit there.

At the heart of our changed relationship with large-format retail spaces is that we have moved on, while spaces have not. They are fixed, in location and in our own perceptions. We might still associate them with bland monotonous experiences of the past that don't match our expectations of today. For us at QICGRE, it all comes down to people-environment fit.

We understand that creating the 'perfect' space is an impossible and subjective balancing act between form and function. That is why we adjust, tweak and change it to best suit the community that use them. Testing new models, and concepts to make sure we draw people in and create new positive perceptions, for the long-term. We recognise that the 'four-wall economies' model of large-format spaces is not the be all and end all anymore, and has affected our sense of place when it comes to 'retail'. Our built environments and spaces must be designed first and foremost around its occupants and users. The local community. The people who do, should be, and will be interacting with it regularly.

The biggest opportunity is to repurpose large-format spaces today. Giving them a new role in our lives. Something with civic purpose. To help build communities, by collaborating with people. Between four walls and beyond.