To say the modern shopping mall has undergone transformation is an understatement.
In the glory days from around 1956 to 2005, shopping centers were closed-in, bi-level, monolithic structures with anchor stores and food courts attracting shoppers by the droves. But modern consumers are increasingly pulling away from the cookie-cutter approach and gravitating, instead, to mixed-use centers that intermingle retail stores with open areas conducive to living, dining, working and playing — and with strong property-wide branding and identity.
This seismic shift has forced brands to rethink how to insert themselves into a shopping center’s framework. In previous years, national, large-format chains opening new stores in malls were given wide berth in maintaining their own branding attributes because the center wanted them there. However, as more urban lifestyle-focused, mixed-use projects have taken their place — think Chelsea Market — these larger brands are making concessions to fit into their new surroundings. Brands are no longer the driving force behind customers flocking to mixed-use developments. Instead, the unique property is “the brand,” and to fit in, retailers must provide value to the location and blend into its environment.
Does making concessions to belong in a local shopping venue diminish the brand? How can companies maintain their identity while simultaneously embodying the venue’s branding too? Consider the following best practices that will enable you to extend your brand beyond its established formula while conforming to your new, often smaller environment.
Identify Brand Must-Haves
The first step to any new venture is defining the non-negotiables associated with your brand. This includes company representatives knowing what elements are critical in relaying your label to your customers, whether it’s signage, colors, scents or certain products. For instance, think of Victoria’s Secret without its signature palette of pinks. Would this global brand give them up for a sustainability-focused property that requested earth-toned exteriors instead?
After completing a comprehensive brand audit, your company should explore a potential new location’s environment. Considerations include whether it makes sense to have your store a part of the new development and if the venture will enable you to continue serving your target market in a unique way.
Understand Concessions Are Likely
After determining your brand’s must-haves, you need to identify what concessions would make the project worthwhile — the classic risk-versus-reward tradeoff. What would you give up or add into your brick-and-mortar store to fit in with the prospective development’s requirement? Because often, big brands concede to a landlord’s requests to plant their flag and establish a presence in an up-and-coming development.
Take Chelsea Market, for instance, a historical landmark turned retail-and-office space in Manhattan. Its developer took a collection of 19 abandoned structures — former home of Nabisco and birthplace of the Oreo — and kept much of the old architecture and décor while turning the buildings into a new, stylish mixed-use center. Many one-off, local shops took up residence, but so did national brands that altered their normal footprint to conform.
Evaluate whether an alteration or extension of your brand makes sense and weigh the pros and cons. Would location elements deviate from your brand or broaden it in a way that makes sense? For instance, Atlanta’s Ponce City Market — a fully renovated Sears, Roebuck & Company building and sister property of Chelsea Market — is home to an eclectic mix of shops, eateries, bars and offices that fit into the center’s historical look and feel. Businesses at Ponce must mix the structure’s industrial vibe with greenery, such as incorporating living walls and adjusting their signage to blend with the property’s unique atmosphere. Although several are Atlanta-borne businesses, the property also boasts big brands such as Anthropologie, West Elm and Williams Sonoma.
Mix Local With National
Increasingly, big brands carry local merchandise because today’s experience-driven consumer wants items supporting their community and new developments suggest it. To
meld with the home-grown feel of Ponce City Market, for instance, Williams Sonoma sells Atlanta’s Beautiful Briny Sea Salt, an item unique to that location.
The challenge for big-name companies is to balance their brand’s notoriety and identity with local elements that make them relatable. Whole Foods exemplifies how the large brand-local feel concept can work. Approximately 70% to 80% of its stores’ products are uniform nationwide, but the rest incorporate local goods, such as honey, candles and soaps, from nearby or regional farmers, vendors and artisans. Cooked-to-order fare varies depending on location as well. In San Francisco, for instance, Whole Foods shoppers would likely find roasted local vegetables whereas in Milwaukee, local brats and beer are available for purchase.
Brands also localize by injecting native materials or colors into their stores. In San Antonio, the storefront of a national label might incorporate stacked stone whereas that same company’s façade in Atlanta would comprise thick granite blocks. Or, you might find a merchant infusing pastels throughout a Miami location but Colonial hues in Boston.
Despite Making Concessions, Local Infusion Could Benefit National Brands
So, the question remains: Is it worthwhile to make slight brand alterations to fit in with local mixed-use developments? Although there’s no cut-and-dry answer, changing your brick-and-mortar design to conform to a development’s vision can work well. Know your brand’s must-haves and flexibilities. Decide whether slightly veering from the norm will help or hinder your overall company mission. And lastly, remember that consumer preferences change, and rigidity could inhibit you from expanding into a new, exciting and unique market.
Tomorrow’s success will likely belong to tenants willing to break free from long-standing patterns and practices. Brands that will thrive in the live-work-play environments are those fully embracing a consumer-driven future.
Tom Ertler is a LEED accredited retail designer and creative director focused on brand development, graphic communication, environments design, and implementation (A&E). His career spans 28 years and is distinguished by numerous industry awards and results. Prior to joining Miller Zell, he was a founding partner with Authentic Retail Group in Pasadena, Calif., an integrated brand development firm and the creative director at Envision, the full-service environmental design studio of Palladeo and WD Partners.His diverse client list includes General Motors, BMW, Best Buy, Whole Foods Market, Walmart, Longhorn Steakhouse, Kroger, Office Depot, Red Robin, 7-Eleven, ExxonMobil and The Home Depot.