Online and offline were once two very separate worlds. But with the rise of e-commerce and in particular mobile e-commerce, the distinction between online and offline is blurring rapidly.
One of the internet’s early effects was to foster a much greater proliferation of specialty retailers than ever before — retailers with a unique point of view but not necessarily a need for a tremendous amount of floor space. The internet has allowed retailers to connect with potential customers and express their brand in entirely new ways, and physical stores have become a part of their communication and sales strategy instead of being their only or primary way to reach consumers.
While logic would suggest that this downgrade in the importance of physical stores would lead to less interesting designs, on the contrary the ability of retailers to communicate and build brands online has actually led to more focused and impactful physical store identities as well. If you look at a successful mall today versus twenty years ago, you will see a much stronger and more varied collection of tenants now than ever before, and shoppers have the internet and e-commerce to primarily thank for this more tailored collection.
Meanwhile, omni-channel retailing has converged the online and offline shopping experiences. For retailers who practice this approach, prices are consistent in all formats, and consumers can choose between numerous options: shopping online with home delivery, shopping online and picking up at a store, shopping at a store and taking merchandise away, or shopping at a store and having it delivered to their home.
Many retailers are also attempting to make elements of their online experiences similar to their stores, and some retailers, most notably Burberry in the UK, are going the other way, attempting to integrate elements of their online presence into their physical stores — through software that allows virtual trying on of clothes, or live links to events in other stores or even other countries.
The internet has also impacted retailers in ways that go far beyond their physical space or their online presence. Fast-fashion retailers like Zara, Uniqlo, TopShop, H&M and Forever 21, who are harnessing the power of internet-based technology in all aspects of their business — design, manufacturing, and logistics — are growing very rapidly and in many cases taking over larger spaces once inhabited by big box retailers like department stores and large home electronics showrooms. Along with convenience, these stores offer the latest styles, reasonably priced, updated quickly and continuously, in ways that simply weren’t possible before.
With these internet-fueled changes gaining traction among retailers, developers of shopping centers are weighing the new choices that these technologies are bringing consumers, comparing them against brick & mortar’s limitations, and beginning to respond with changes of their own.
Just as many brands are now looking to trend-setting individuals that curate collections from a variety of sources, and then through social media connect with other consumers worldwide, shopping centers of all kinds are now also being curated in order to bring a special vibe or character to physical collections of stores.
One of the biggest curation trends is to integrate strong national or international brands with stores or restaurants with a strong local vibe or presence, so that consumers feel that they have the best of everything available to them in one place.
And it is no longer enough to cluster all the luxury brands on one end of the center and the value brands on the other — along with the tried and true, consumers are looking for interesting, surprising shopping opportunities on both ends of the spectrum, often at the same time.
And perhaps in response to the private nature of online shopping, the public experience of shopping has become more heavily intertwined with other communal experiences. Pop-up stores, rock star chefs, strong art programs, enhanced programming, better restaurants and food courts, even the increase in mixed-use destinations that include retail, office, hotel and residential uses… all are enhancements to the ceremony of shopping, of people gathering together to share experiences and activities.
Finally, understanding that e-commerce has made shopping more convenient, bricks and mortar developers are focusing on enhancing the convenience of shopping centers as well. Features like concierge desks, car washes, and children play facilities, along with better food and entertainment choices, allow consumers to continue to fit the pleasure of real-world shopping into their increasingly busy lives.
While retailers have taken the lead in addressing the challenges and opportunities provided by the internet, integrating the online and physical worlds to provide a number of integrated platforms to reach their customers, shopping center operators and developers are not far behind, focusing on enhancing the experiential qualities of retail environments and in bringing a variety of new venues and experiences into their centres. And for shoppers, it’s been a win-win.