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Can social enterprise create communities in malls?

For consumers, empty shops are bad for morale. For landlords, they’re bad for business. Retail vacancy rates are at their highest since April 2015, says the British Retail Consortium, with one in 10 shops in town centres standing empty. So when conventional retail tenants can’t be found, landlords must get creative.

Shopping centres and malls around the world are upping their diversity by introducing all manner of leisure and other activities. This makes sense as up to 48% of consumers’ discretionary expenditure now goes on experiences and experiential products, according to Deloitte. “People are looking for new things and new experiences and so everything’s up for grabs,” says Wayne Cheng, associate design director at Landini Associates in Sydney. No wonder centres are increasingly home to eateries and bowling alleys, and even coworking spaces and classrooms.

Change Please
Change Please

The latest craze is the socially-minded or community-based café. Lendlease and LCR are offering a double whammy at their £2.4bn International Quarter London in Stratford. Users of the IQL’s shared workspace, Workable, get their caffeine fix at the kiosk Change Please, which doubles as a coffee-based social enterprise providing barista training and jobs to homeless people. Both Workable and the kiosk were designed by Fletcher Priest.

The Birdhouse Cafe
The Birdhouse Cafe

Meanwhile in Nottingham’s Broadmarsh shopping centre, owner Intu has moved into direct retail with the opening of The Birdhouse Café. This stand-alone, rent-paying tenant uses local suppliers including coffee roastery 200 Degrees, and Ugly Bread Bakery.

Guy Thomas, head of retail at Lendlease, explains the thinking behind bringing Change Please to IQL. “We seek to deliver a positive social impact across all our developments, and are keen to both nurture developing brands and provide space and support to work with those which provide social outcomes.”

Cheng at Landini Associates – which created The Kitchens food-hall-cum-factory on the Gold Coast – says there’s a logic to marrying a food offer with some sort of social or community angle. “Food is real, and done well, it glues people together and reminds them what being a human being is all about, which includes caring for those around you and within your community. So it makes sense to combine the two.”

Café Feed – by Weddle Gilmore in Scottsdale, Arizona - is a fine example of the philanthropic café concept, according to Matthew Brown, director of consultancy Echochamber. Located in a former industrial area of Brooklyn, it’s a “really nice, bright and airy industrial conversion, with iconic open brick, natural materials and old wooden beams”, he says.

But Brown also sounds a note of warning. “Harnessing the community is a way to create interest and authenticity and increase footfall. But you’re fiddling with the deck chairs while the Titanic is sinking.”

Instead, landlords and local councils need to focus on the bigger picture. “The reason traditional regional malls are looking so desperate is because the commercial reasons for visiting have vanished.” Brown believes that in order to survive, “cities need to think like malls and malls need to think like cities. The mall of the future should be a place where you live, work, go to the doctor, go to school. It should be an actively safe and managed environment, and should be interesting enough to be a tourist destination.” He points at New York City’s transformation of Chelsea into the Meat Packing District.

The Birdhouse Cafe
The Birdhouse Cafe

Dan Shaw, director of The Birdhouse Café and general manager of retail innovation at Intu, suggests that he is thinking along these lines. “We’re looking at other mixed-use opportunities such as residential, hotel and flexible working spaces around our centres. The vision is to build places for people to live, play, shop and work. Introducing more small and independent businesses is an important part of these plans, because they provide the great variety and sense of community that consumers now look for as part of their shopping or leisure trip.”

Likewise at Lendlease, where the focus is on community. “We understand the benefits that nurturing small and independent brands and social enterprises bring to the local community,” says Thomas. “It means we are able to create a high-quality and varied food and beverage, retail and leisure offer which relates to its community.”

Such ventures are a relatively easy win, so mall visitors can expect to see more of them. Shaw already hopes to put Birdhouse Cafes into other Intu centres in the UK. But as Brown points out, retail is not the only sector with its challenges: “Loads of fast casual [dining] brands are really struggling.”

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