Dave Nemeth
Dave Nemeth

Rethinking the role of the mall

by Dave Nemeth. There is no quick fix for mall owners, and it will be survival of the most innovative.

by Dave Nemeth. In recent months we have seen proactive moves from retail malls in an attempt to attract customers back. Malls will, quite simply, not attract quality tenants unless the potential footfall is going to make the high rents attractive. Mall owners are going to have to think very differently and make significant changes in these new challenging times, where online shopping, as well as the emergence of small convenience malls within close proximity to suburban housing, gain popularity.

Attracting customers to a mall environment is going to be ever-changing and a complex scenario with a myriad of things that will have to be done, both in the physical mall as well as online. The word “shopping experience” is still being thrown around in the retail world, but is this actually being understood? The sharp rise in online retail sales over the past year has shown that consumers are becoming increasingly comfortable with taking advantage of this medium. At present, online shopping only benefits the brands themselves and not the mall, so it seems as if this could be an opportunity for increasing revenue as well as loyalty to the establishment. This is an exceptionally complex scenario but would make the entire online shopping experience of great convenience to the consumer. Imagine having the opportunity of going onto a mall’s website and being able to complete a single order which would incorporate a host of stores and products? This would most certainly be a game changer.

Curated product ranges

The complexity of this is that malls would have to invest heavily in expertise and the integration of all the brands and their various systems would prove to be quite a challenge. The way around this would be to collate a wide variety of products within the store’s range, and to change these every couple of months. These curated product assortments could be themed according to season or major events and would be available from one single online portal. It would be a good idea to include limited edition products, as well as specially priced items, to only be available if customers’ orders exceeded a certain amount. The key here is not only the convenience factor, but also a way of enticing customers back to the mall. It is this kind of ongoing communication with clients that will start to build loyalty with the mall rather than with the independent stores.

There is no single element which will attract customers back to the mall again, but rather a collection of both physical and digital elements. For many years malls have attracted customers by utilising the centre courts to host various themed shopping experiences and events. This concept will continue to be relevant as it brings variety and change, but the need now is to include an online element so that the engagement can be both physical, as well as digital. South Africa is saturated with shopping malls and many customers have a choice of two, three and, in some cases, even four from which to choose within close proximity. Whilst some of the online activities won’t necessarily bring feet directly to the mall, they will help to ensure that they become the most likely shopping venue of choice.

A recent survey by Deloitte states the following, “For daily essentials—grocery, bakery, pharmacy—consumers increasingly prefer one-stop shop destinations. Our focus-group participants said they find local neighbourhood centres or strip malls most convenient for meeting these daily, functional needs, and they expect to shop less in enclosed malls than they did before”. With this in mind, the actual design of the mall is going to have to change dramatically and needs to open up and bring nature within.

Biophilic design will be key

Biophilic design is a concept used within the building industry “to increase occupant connectivity to the natural environment through the use of direct nature, indirect nature, and space and place conditions” (Source: Wikipedia). Opening up the mall and bringing in nature will create a completely new shopping experience that is not reliant on any digital intervention. Open areas and parks incorporated into malls will entice families to spend the day there. Whilst many malls have piazza styled areas surrounded by restaurants, these are mostly just an extension of the interior and lack trees and grass areas, which could also be used to host a variety of family friendly events, exhibitions, and even picnics. Listening to relaxing classical music on a Sunday afternoon together with the family and purchasing a pre-prepared picnic basket from one of the restaurants, completely changes the dynamic of the shopping mall, whilst catering to the outdoor lifestyle of the South African shopper.

There is no quick fix for mall owners and, unfortunately, they will not be able to avoid the large costs associated with attracting customers, creating great experiences and attracting loyalty. It will, however, be survival of the fittest and the most innovative. It is time to put together project teams consisting of both internal and external consultants in order to find both short term and long-term creative solutions.


Main image credit: We are Egg, Cavendish Square, Cape Town.


Retailing Africa’s retail analyst and columnist, Dave Nemeth is the founder of Trend Forward; and a design thinker, innovator, business re-designer, trend analyst, keynote speaker and writer.


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