Shopping centres are having a hard time. A recent report by Savills found that 2018 was the worst year for shopping centre investment volumes since 1997, and data from Springboard suggests that footfall is also down, dropping 2.8% year-on-year.
The fact is, the experience of shopping is changing. Consumers no longer want to wander aimlessly through an enormous shopping centre of passive retail outlets. They want to be engaged, entertained and educated. And this simply doesn’t compute with the vast majority of current shopping centre models.
There is, however, an opportunity for forward-thinking property developers to learn from other sectors. While traditional retail may be struggling, museums and visitor attractions remain busy, with people drawn in by blockbuster exhibitions accompanied by the promise of a well-designed store, curated product displays and the opportunity to learn something new.
The appeal of a major exhibition is hard to denounce. The V&A’s latest exhibition, Christian Dior: Designer of Dreams sold out in just 19 days. Four years ago, almost half a million people visited the museum’s Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty show.
So here we have one area of the property sector that is struggling with footfall and another that is thriving. It’s not rocket science. Surely there is a really compelling case for the two to work together.
Bringing theatre to the shopping centre experience
Museums and galleries already share their collections with other institutions to great effect. In fact, ‘Dippy’ the 85ft-long plaster cast of a Diplodocus skeleton is currently on a three-year tour of the UK, visiting other museums and cultural venues such as cathedrals, drawing major crowds.
As an example, when Dippy was placed at the Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery, visitor numbers increased by an extra 140,000, with these visitors allegedly spending £4.2m during their visit. Imagine the potential spending power of these visitors if an exhibition such as Dippy was placed in a shopping centre.
In partnering with museums, galleries and visitor attractions to introduce touring exhibitions with supporting retail, developers can deliver that increasingly-important element of the customer journey. Experience.
Whether through interactive exhibitions, immersive VR experiences or talks and masterclasses provided by experts from the partner institute, the raw properties of a major exhibition – whether it’s fashion or literature-based, musical or historical – offer immense potential for creative pursuits and active engagement with consumers. It offers a point of difference. An added value and reason to visit a shopping centre beyond the need to purchase basic goods. In essence, it turns shopping centres into purposeful destinations.
This opportunity for cultural collaboration also extends beyond museums and galleries to visitor attractions. Just look at the impact of Platform 9 ¾ at King’s Cross and the newly-opened Harry Potter stores in Heathrow and Gatwick. These stores incorporate props from the film series into their fabric, drawing on the immense following of the Harry Potter franchise and offering a unique customer experience beyond simply shopping.
Interactive, experiential, curated
So, what does this look like in practice? Given the scope of most blockbuster exhibitions, they are best placed beyond the boundaries of traditional units and given centre-stage in atrium spaces. This enables ease of customer/visitor flow around the exhibits with ample space for informational story-telling, interactive additions like VR headsets and any set-ups for talks or masterclasses such as origami experts giving lessons in inventive gift-wrapping.
What this also allows for is the introduction of aligned retail alongside the exhibition, offering consumers the opportunity to take home either a memento of the experience or a design-led product from the institution or attraction’s curated collection. This can be anything from plush toys to books and apparel, rotating in content as new touring exhibits are placed on show.
In positioning these exhibits and supporting experiential retail within existing atriums and open floorspace, cultural partnerships do not detract from the commercial potential of the shopping centre. They don’t impact the availability of full-paid commercial units. They are flexible, agile pop-ups that can grow or reduce in scale depending on the latest exhibition.
The traditional shopping centre model is outdated
There is no disputing that the retail sector is undergoing a period of rapid change. Competition from digital platforms and D2C brands is higher than ever and bricks and mortar stores are under increasing pressure to adapt to this new environment, delivering experience-led retail to draw consumers away from their smartphones and into physical stores.
As a result, the traditional shopping centre model needs to change. The current set-up simply doesn’t deliver the personalised, curated experience needed. Modern consumers want stories, information and interaction. In short, they want the added value that most shopping centres simply aren’t providing. Indeed is the term ‘shopping centre’ relevant anymore?
And this is where cultural collaborations could come in. Museums and galleries understand how to draw a crowd, keep them engaged and entertained, and leave with a branded product under one arm. The visitor feels enriched by the cultural engagement; the institution delivers a powerful experience and, with the support of well-designed retail, benefits commercially. It’s a win-win.
Callum Lumsden is Founder & Creative Director, Lumsden Design