Feed consumer spirit, body to re-energize malls

June 03, 2014

Architecture and art in Sydney and Shanghai malls demonstrate how U.S. operators could drive shoppers in droves.

If one problem with most U.S. malls is cookie-cutter design, which adds little to inherent appeals of the stores themselves, some examples abroad could inspire.

Consider the craftsmanship and cathedral feel of the historic Queen Victoria Building in Sydney, erected in 1898, and visited by The Lempert Report this winter.  It has stained glass windows, intricate tile floors, a signature dome, the original staircase, and faithfully restored architectural touches such as arches, pillars and balustrades.  The heritage-listed building was refurbished for $48 million (AU) in 2009. In January, QVB hosted six free public performances of the musical Annie, featuring cast members from the Sydney Lyric Theatre. In the heart of City Center above Town Hall Railway Station, QVB is an accessible destination on its own.  The setting elevates the shopping experience, and the place bustles with traffic through more than 180 stores.

Even in populous Shanghai, a mall’s success is no sure thing because of e-tailing and heavy Chinese taxes.  Malls there and in other large Chinese cities turn to wine appreciation events, gyms, spas, karaoke – and art exhibits – to differentiate and pull traffic, says Jones Lang LaSalle, a real estate services firm, reported Ad Age.  The K11 Art Mall, which opened in Shanghai in June 2013, launched a Claude Monet exhibition at $16 per ticket in March 2014 with works borrowed from a Paris museum, and drew about 100,000 people in its first six weeks, the report continued. 

Clearly, U.S. malls could do more than add casual eateries to be compelling.  Some recent steps include retail food to drive traffic.  Whole Foods Market will reportedly be on the ground floor of a three-level, 186,000-square-foot Nordstrom store in the Ala Moana Center in Honolulu, said Pacific Business News.  For WFM, it is a relocation to be nearer to a planned ultra-luxury condominium project.  Meanwhile, this spring, the 90,000-square-foot Uniqlo flagship store on Manhattan’s Fifth Avenue welcomed Starbucks into its space – the first ever for a specialty apparel retailer.  It also launched SPRZ NY (Surprise New York), a collaborative effort with the nearby Museum of Modern Art, to sell clothing based on the works of Andy Warhol, Keith Haring, Jackson Pollock and other artists.  The same items sell at the MoMA Design Store and online at MoMAStore.org; each purchase supports the museum’s exhibitions and educational programming.

By feeding consumer spirit as well as the body, efforts like these could possibly keep malls from slowly dying, which some believe is happening.  They could also help some malls transform to a more upscale feel at the expense of mid-level operators.