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Intersection of Opposites: An inspired approach to shopping center design


By Ahsin Rasheed

Retail centers typically gauge their success or failure by one, all-important measure: sales per square foot of leasable space. And while that number varies somewhat depending on the location of the shopping destination, the kinds of stores it contains, and the kinds of consumers it aims to attract, the general rule of thumb worldwide is $400 - $600 per square foot. Do a little above that number and your retail center is an overwhelming success. Do slightly below it and changes undoubtedly will be in store.

Given that rigid criteria, what distinguishes a handful of shopping environments around the globe and helps them to produce sales figures that are almost double that industry norm? As with most things, there are a variety of explanations. The one element all of these centers seem to have in common, though, is what I like to refer to as the “intersection of opposites.”

Retail destinations as diverse as Turkey’s Mall of Istanbul, Indonesia’s Grand Metropolitan, and Utah’s Station Park couldn’t be more different from each other in terms of design elements, retail composition, and location, yet each regularly achieves sales per square foot of leasable space that are nearly double the industry standard. How is that possible?

I believe the common denominator in these and other highly successful retail centers worldwide is the “intersection of opposites” – a unique design approach that breaks away from the standard, cookie-cutter format exhibited by too many retail centers, while simultaneously managing to retain the comfort of a branded shopping experience.

When you combine these two seemingly opposite trends in a single concept, you find inspiration – a design approach that is both unique and familiar, exciting and yet soothing. This kind of design gets visitors excited. It gets their adrenalin going. At the same time, visitors find something relaxed and vaguely familiar about the look of these spaces which makes them feel comfortable and content.

“My company was tasked to design a mall in Bogota, Colombia in a region the U.S. State Department classifies as ‘high in terrorism, residential crime, and non-residential crime. … we conceived of a shopping center featuring secure outdoor gardens, extensive parklands, playgrounds, and trails."

In short, these highly successful shopping centers offer an “intersection of opposites” approach to their designs which combines new and exciting trends and visual beauty with an atmosphere that is welcoming, comfortable, and safe. And it is that design that not only attracts consumers, but keeps them at the shopping center for longer periods of time. The longer the holding time in an emotionally satisfying environment, the greater the likelihood consumers will spend more money and return in the future to do it all over again, ultimately producing the kinds of sales that shatter industry standards.

So how do we create an “intersection of opposites”? Start with a very basic question: What interests and excites people? Generally, consumers are attracted by something that is new and different. They want – and even seek out – excitement and experience. They want to be stunned.

Unfortunately, that’s not always easy when you consider names like The Gap, Victoria’s Secret, and lululemon athletica are found in more than 150 countries. While these are highly sought-after global brands, they must offer something that moves people to seek them out and shop in-person rather than online.

This is not simply a case of employing new trends and visual beauty to attract more visitors. Beautifully designed shopping centers fail as often as they succeed, primarily because they lack other components that are essential to keep consumers coming back and spending. That, then, brings us to a second basic question: What makes people happy?

While the answer will be somewhat different for each individual, people generally tend to be social creatures who want to experience the community around them in an atmosphere of comfort.

The best example of this is the “third place theory” employed so successfully by retail outlets like Starbucks. For most people, the first place where they feel comfortable is home. The second place is usually their workplace. That brings us to the “third place” – social settings, which often are community anchors with food, drink, and an atmosphere that is welcoming and safe.

Retail spaces such as Starbucks strive to be that “third place.” To extend that welcoming, safe atmosphere to an entire shopping center, however, is not always easy. The shopping center must be thoroughly grounded in community comfort, which can vary widely from community to community. As a result, it is absolutely essential that the design incorporate the unique flavor that reflects the demographics and geography of the country or region in which it is located. In other words, what does “comfort” mean in that particular community?

Let me offer an example. My company was tasked to design a mall in Bogota, Colombia in a region the U.S. State Department classifies as “high in terrorism, residential crime, and non-residential crime.” When we researched the area, the one thing we heard over and over again from local residents was that they enjoyed the outdoors. They liked to relax in the countryside, but that wasn’t always possible given the unsafe conditions.

With that in mind, we conceived of a shopping center featuring secure outdoor gardens, extensive parklands, playgrounds, and trails. Visitors were encouraged to explore the natural surroundings both indoors and outside of the shopping center without feeling the pressure to shop. Everything in the design was geared to creating a sense of quiet and reflection. With this unique experience of landscaped areas, the patrons are inclined to spend large amounts of time at the property, both inside and out.

The results to date have been overwhelming, as that shopping center has proven to be extremely successful in both attracting and retaining customers. The point to remember, however, is that the exact same shopping center design may not be nearly as successful in another locale. In order for a shopping center to achieve the intersection of opposites, it must reflect the unique flavor of the local environment, from its music and tastes in food to the attitudes, desires, and culture of the consumers it hopes to attract.

This is the critical moment of design. Inspired design doesn’t just happen. It comes from intersecting the desire for excitement and “something new” with the longing for something familiar and comfortable. Successfully creating this intersection of opposites will produce a shopping center that exceeds the expectations of everyone involved, from the owners and developers to the consumers who shop there.

Ahsin Rasheed is Chairman, CEO, and President of DDG, an industry leader with a reputation for producing quality, innovative, and visionary design for more than four decades. Among the company’s many highly successful commercial endeavors are: Dubai, UAE’s Dubai Festival City; Istanbul, Turkey’s Istinye Park; Pondok Indah in Jakarta, Indonesia; National Harbor near Washington, D.C.; Easton Town Center in Columbus, Ohio; and the newly opened mixed-use development, Mall of Istanbul, in Istanbul, Turkey. For more information, visit
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