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The Top 10 COMEBACK Retail Center Experiences: No. 1 RIO

Al Urbanski

Normally, we present the year’s Top 10 Retail Center Experiences, an all-star lineup of retail centers that over-achieve in adding merriment to the merchandise. But guest experiences have been few in this virus-plagued year, so Chain Store Age decided to shine a light on centers and retail real estate companies that are leading the way in creating safe, yet still-inviting experiences to draw crowds back to their properties. In this challenging time, our COMEBACK centers are re-engaging their visitors with society, not just retail. The editors’ picks start with No. 1:

Look at a leasing brochure for a modern-day town center and there you will find two words that have been underlined by the COVID-19 crisis: “gathering places.”

When the Peterson Companies and Circle Management spent $30 million to remake this 20-year-old lakefront center with a focus on food, entertainment, and gathering space, it readied RIO, in Gaithersburg, Md., for a new retail era—and a historic pandemic, as well.

Socially distanced circles were painted on the grass using sports field paint. A driving range was set up for guests to hit eco-friendly balls into the lake. A hopscotch game leading to a bridge delighted both kids and adults.

“Some of the things we’ve done because of COVID, we never thought we’d do. But this crazy thing happened and we did it, and now we want to continue with a lot of it,” said Paul Weinschenk, president of Peterson’s retail division.

One of those things was pick-up windows at some of RIO’s fine-dining establishments, something never imagined for $30 entrees.

“There will be new retail concepts born out of this,” Weinschenk said.

Like every center owner, RIO focused on complying with government regulations, but it also conducted a 1,000-person survey to learn what consumers in their market area wanted. 

“All wanted an environment they knew would be safe, but a lot were willing to jump right back in. Some said they needed more time, and a small minority said they’d never come back to physical retail,” Weinschenk said.

And as for gathering spaces?

“Can’t have too much of it,” he said.

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