Five Ways To Create Places Shoppers Want To Be— And To Be Seen

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Five Ways To Create Places Shoppers Want To Be— And To Be Seen

By David Kitchens and Abbey Oklak - 10/18/2019
Judy Davis / Hoachlander Davis Photography

When shoppers stroll by the Tiffany & Co. flagship  on Fifth Avenue and 57th Street in New York City, they may pause at the windows of the luxury jeweler and gaze inside just as Audrey Hepburn did—a cup of coffee and croissant in her black-gloved hands—in the famed opening of the 1961 film “Breakfast at Tiffany’s.” 

Then, unlike watching the movie on the silver screen, a shopper plays his or her own leading role in this script. Today’s plot could include going inside for a diamond--or dining on a memorable breakfast of their own. In 2017, Tiffany & Co. joined the new wave of traditional retailers putting an increased focus on experiential shopping with the debut of the Blue Box Café on the store’s fourth floor, outfitted in the brand’s signature robin-egg hue and offering a sophisticated menu.

Like Tiffany’s, today’s mall owners are reinventing the traditional brick-and-mortar experience to set the stage for exceptional retail experiences. Whether at a strip center with commodity retail, a traditional shopping mall or a historic main street, successful designers understand how to provide shoppers with the star treatment. 

There are five fundamental elements to creating these well-curated environments: prioritizing the public realm, adding visual diversity, expecting the unexpected, planning for accessibility and appealing to pedestrians. By acknowledging details and incorporating modern conveniences, these five pillars of design combine to form an authentic place—ultimately translating to increased dwell time and repeat customers.

1. Prioritizing the public realm 
The contemporary connotation of “green space” can range from lawns for event programming to wayfinding through thoughtful landscape architecture and planting mature trees for added character. Once considered a supporting role, these flexible, outdoor spaces are now taking center stage.

To see this in action, visit the recently revamped Ballston Quarter in Arlington, Virginia. Formerly known as Ballston Common Mall, the three-story shopping center blazed a new trail in retail design when it first debuted in 1951. The mall staked its claim to fame as one of the first major suburban shopping centers in the Washington, D.C. area, and the first in the nation to be built around a multi-story parking garage. Think the 1953 version of “A Star is Born,” which earned Judy Garland an Academy Award nomination for Best Actress.

But times have changed. At Ballston Quarter, COOPER CARRY led the design of the mall’s two-year, multimillion-dollar overhaul, beginning with removing the roof and creating a central outdoor plaza. Amphitheater-style steps invite guests to pause and linger or descend to patio seating where they can dine al fresco outside a 25,000-sq.-ft. food hall. Together, the indoor and outdoor elements complement each other as well as the Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper duet from the recent remake of “A Star is Born” that snagged a 2019 Oscar.

2. Adding visual diversity 
Dubbed Quarter Market, Ballston Quarter’s food hall is as much a feast for the eyes as for the stomach. The vibrant mix of 14 stalls offers a wide array of global cuisines, including dining options for quick bites or the perfect date night. The visual variety not only inspires guests to snap an Instagram picture, but also keeps locals and visitors alike coming back for more. Not to mention, the people watching—clinking beer glasses, laughter and old friends catching up—can rival Netflix’s latest food documentary.

While the rise of food halls may feel like a trendy phenomenon, the value of visual variety is nothing new. Celebrating its 25th anniversary this year, Maryland’s six-block Bethesda Row is considered a textbook example of successful infill redevelopment. With diverse storefronts and buildings, the architecture of Bethesda Row creates a stimulating “main street” environment which encourages people to explore. In 2019, the walkable shopping destination continues to land exciting new tenants, including digitally native retailers like Amazon Books, Warby Parker and Framebridge.

3. Expecting the unexpected
Speaking of variety, don’t forget to introduce a plot twist or two into the script. Of Ballston Quarter’s 850,000 total square feet, 40% is comprised of experiential offerings. A cooking school, live-action adventure course and a bowling alley/arcade are among the new tenants at the Arlington complex, making it one of the region’s largest entertainment hubs. 

Located on the eighth floor of Ballston Quarter’s parking garage, the existing MedStar Capitals IcePlex is the mall’s original experiential anchor, offering daily public skating and serving as the practice arena for the Washington Capitals hockey team. The design deliberately improved the connection between the mall’s vertical stacking, allowing guests to flow freely from food at Quarter Market on the first floor up through levels of fashion, fitness and entertainment to the IcePlex. The “Rink on the Roof” is now a reinvigorated anchor for the shopping center and bustling destination for Capitals fans, who celebrated a Stanley Cup championship last year.

Additional examples of surprise-and-delight features can include impromptu seating, a colorful pop from a well-placed art mural, play areas for pets or event programming to activate green space.

4. Planning for accessibility
While “unexpected” may be ideal when it comes to the arrival of a favorite food truck, there are other places in which today’s shoppers don’t want any surprises—like waiting for a confused Uber driver or picking up the wrong mobile food order.

To avoid turning your shopping center’s script into a bad comedy (think the mall chase scene from “Blues Brothers”), plan ahead for ease and accessibility. Depending on the market’s needs, important considerations could include marked zones for dropping off and picking up rideshare users, charging hubs for electric scooters, bike valets or designated areas for storing to-go and delivery food orders.

5. Appealing to pedestrians 
Last, but far from least, the success of tomorrow’s shopping centers—particularly in densifying areas— relies on the shift from a car-first mentality to a people-first mentality. A retail center can boast impressive green spaces, visual variety, unexpected elements and accessible features, but there is no story without people to enjoy them.

To ensure a pedestrian-friendly experience, a retail center should incorporate walkability features that are safe and comfortable, social spaces at the street level and connectivity beyond the traditional parking lot. At Bethesda Row, parallel parking is placed along both sides of the street, which creates a buffer between patrons dining at sidewalk cafés and street traffic. Rather than broad open spaces, pedestrians prefer defined, tight, urban spaces that foster vibrant environments for cross-shopping and encourage organic social interactions—the tried-and-true way of people meeting people. 

As another example, Ballston Quarter’s defining characteristic is no longer its multi-story parking garage. The design plan put the adjacent Wilson Boulevard on a road diet by eliminating a fenced median, making the street easier to cross and creating an outdoor sidewalk environment that is activated by restaurant patios and people. 

By incorporating these five design elements into a new or newly reimagined shopping environment, developers and architects can not only script a blockbuster hit but create an enduring classic for the next generation. What star-studded stories will your shopping center tell?

David Kitchens is a principal in the mixed-use studio at the architecture and design firm COOPER CARRY. Abbey Oklak is a senior associate who works in the firm’s retail, mixed-use and planning studios. 

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