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Comment: Retail design needs authenticity in time of disruption says Carrie Ho of Hassell

Is the bricks and mortar shopping mall as we know it dead?

The retail sector has been battling major disruption globally for some time, with changing tastes and behaviours. The consolidation of e-commerce and technology in general, a move towards artisan brands, and a desire for authentic experiences that provide genuine connection are all having an impact.

So how do we, as an industry, work with commercial developers to embrace this continually evolving new order? And how can both retail and design organisations future-proof for success and stay flexible and responsive to keep up with the rapidly changing environment?

A new wave of retail destinations is harnessing these challenges and turning them into opportunities and, in the process,s ensuring they’re robust enough to adapt to the future of retail.

In recent years the Chinese retail market has shifted away from big box retail to a different type of development – more destination; curated, individual, experiential and social in their nature.

Placing people and connections at the heart of commercial developments is paramount. It’s all about the experience and giving people the space and environment to gather and socialise, which is particularly important in Chinese cities where living space is at a premium.

K11 in downtown Shanghai, for example, is as much about the retail aspect as it is about social experiences. The green-walled, art gallery-anchored shopping centre has fast become a cultural and retail landmark of the city – considered one of the most popular places for people to come together and socialise, whether they’re shopping or not.

Similarly, K11’s new mall in the city of Wuhan will be a completely immersive destination experience – with many entertainment and interactive features amid the signature K11 curated art experience.

People are looking for meaningful experiences, so in designing retail destinations as social hubs, integrated landscapes and carefully thought out public spaces are integral.

The very fact that online retailers with established online clientele are moving into bricks and mortar retail outlets supports the trend towards providing authentic experiences and greater connections for customers.

Authenticity can also account for the move away from big, status-driven luxury brands towards more artisan ones. This is particularly driven by the demographic responsible for the growth of the world’s largest e-commerce market, the post ‘90s generation.

In more recently developed retail precincts, this means fewer anchor and flagship stores. Instead, we’re seeing smaller shops that emulate the experience of high street shopping, all the while creating flexible environments adaptable for the future.

For instance, the Gree Coast Shopping Mall in the coastal city of Zhuhui is over 70 percent food and beverage venues complemented by a bookshop and smaller retail stores. The overall effect is a relaxing, site-specific dining and entertainment precinct with infused retail. 

The increased public and open spaces created through new retail precincts also allow for frequently changing ‘content’ and pop up stores with differing types of brands and experiences. As with galleries or museums, there’s an element that is dynamic and ever-changing to compel to return.

So what does this tell us?

Bricks and mortar will continue to have a place alongside e-commerce as people look for authenticity and connections in their daily lives. The physical offering, however, will continue to evolve as the needs and behaviours of the people using the spaces change.

In this environment, commercial developments designed to be flexible, robust and adaptable will have the greatest chance of success. Ultimately, the precincts that thrive will be those that create places people love and want to spend their time. It’s as simple as that.

Carrie Ho is Principal of HASSELL’s Hong Kong Studio