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Comment: Gabriel Murray on why food is key to the future of the shopping centre

Years ago when I joined Fitch, then the largest design firm in the world, it had its own shopping centres division. Young retail designers would often be asked to join that division to work with the architects on the design of the “food court”. At the time this was not deemed the sexiest of labours.

Often the food court was the last area of the overall mall design to be considered; the architects had created the major building statements for the tenant spaces. The customer flows had all been worked out and the food court was a secondary thought, not given the consideration it deserved - by designers or operators alike.

How things have changed. The physical retail landscape today is, in some ways, lead by Food and Beverage (F&B) operations. They are no longer an afterthought.

F&B offers have completely fused themselves into regular retail at an alarming rate. As shopping merges into leisure with cinema theatres, bowling alleys, terraces of restaurant chains and leisure activities this leaves the old food court concepts as a secondary destination for customers loyalty.

The past told us that the food court was driven by impulse - an add-on to support the main retail event. But walk through any modern Westfield development to see how food and beverage is completely integrated into the retail environment. We are all pinballed between coffee, doughnut and pretzel units then nudged round corners by pizza, sushi and burger bars, all existing side by side with mobile phone, clothing and jewellery stores.

The general idea of grouping together family-friendly, fast fresh food concepts was a good one – but modern consumer behaviour needs to be treated in a completely different way.

The new clustering of food offers has to combine major brands and local operators to create a different type of F&B offering and a sense of uniqueness, offering different ethnic food offers, more healthy alternatives and more ‘on trend’ food varieties. And the design of the experience is paramount in attracting the customer.

This new food offer will not rely on impulse shopping. It may even become an important anchor for the shopping centre, as department stores once did, driving trade and custom. The new generation food court will be the food emporium of the future.

Gabriel Murray is founder and creative strategist at Studio 48