Easton Town Center has been busy this holiday season, as might be expected at a mall that welcomes nearly 30 million annual visitors. But there’s also been an extra dose of holiday excitement generated by the center’s many holiday community outreach initiatives — including a partnership between Easton and the Columbus College of Art & Design (CCAD) that has provided opportunities for students to gain hands-on experience planning and executing the Columbus, Ohio shopping destination’s holiday window displays and Santa attraction. And as a bonus, the students’ desire for sustainability meant that many of the materials used for the displays are recyclable or upcyclable.
“Students treated Easton as a client, so they needed to create a presentation, present to the client and hit their deadlines,” said Spencer Jordan, SVP of Leasing for Steiner + Associates, which manages Easton, in an interview with Retail TouchPoints. “We’ve learned that the time management piece of this project was a really great learning experience for them as far as managing a project, hitting deadlines and bringing it to life. It is a full experience for the students. They can use it as life experience but they can also list Easton as a client on their resumes.”
The students gain professional experience and Easton’s executives learn about fresh Gen Z trend perspectives, particularly sustainability, by employing the next generation of designers — without the costs and time involved in hiring focus groups and conducting other market research into audience attitudes.
“Development and retail executives always want to understand how young people are shopping and consuming product and media, but we rarely asked them,” said Jordan. “We have found a really fruitful partnership in adding to the visual elements of Easton by just asking them what they think. It’s an invaluable partnership. We can give them some experience and they can give us some really wonderful insight.”
Examining Sustainable Trends Through Student Design
Now in its second year, the Easton-CCAD holiday design partnership allows students from different areas of study to participate in a real-world brick-and-mortar retail project. In 2021, the program utilized the talents of fashion students who created holiday-themed garments to adorn mannequins for window displays. The 2022 campaign featured the work of next-generation interior designers, who created a gingerbread village.
Easton’s team noticed the importance students placed on incorporating sustainable elements into their work. In fact since the CCAD partnership began, sustainability has been central to the project.
“Once the window displays come down there can be quite a bit of waste,” said Jordan. “And since it is displayed for such a short period of time, we wanted the entire window art display to be recyclable.”
Both the fashion and interior design students focused on using recyclable and upcyclable materials:
- Fashion students created their garments using wrapping paper and ornaments;
- Interior design students worked with cardboard provided by Easton and CCAD to develop their displays; and
- Students upcycled design elements from previous installations.
“[The 2021 project] really started a conversation around working with CCAD to highlight young, local fashion designers and to also highlight sustainability in our displays, which is a thread that’s continued through to this year,” said Jordan. “It’s always energizing to work with younger students in Columbus and experience their thought processes regarding design, installation and seeing it come together as a final product. There is so much talent right here in our backyard. We make it a mission to assist in sharing their talents with the greater Columbus community.”
Expanding the Project into a ‘Winter Wonderland’
CCAD students who participated in the program joined the Easton design team at a time when the center’s holiday initiatives are growing. Two years ago, Easton Town Center moved its Santa Claus experience from a smaller display located outside of one of its tenants into one of its vacant 5,011-square-foot indoor retail spaces, which allowed visitors to become immersed in the center’s interpretation of the North Pole.
“We decided to take a vacant space and fully commit, turning the whole space into the North Pole winter wonderland,” said Jordan. “It went from a significant expenditure of time and energy to a massive project for the Easton mall team.”
By leveraging the talents of local design groups, including the CCAD students, Easton gained additional hands to build the Santa project, but also fortified its connection to the community. Easton now serves not only as a retail destination but also a resource that provides opportunities to creatives within the area.
“When we’re looking at these window displays or the storefront displays, we’re always thinking about how we can bring in our local community,” said Jordan. “We work quite a bit with local schools, local fashion groups like the Columbus Fashion Alliance, and we’ve worked quite a bit with the Columbus Recreation and Parks Department and with the schools in the area. We always have our eye on opportunities to highlight public and private partnerships within the city.”
Easton’s holiday community initiatives include another design-inspired partnership through the center’s work with Nationwide Children’s Hospital. The hospital placed butterflies measuring approximately 6 feet tall on its lawn and at six additional Columbus locations, including Easton.
“When somebody donates to Nationwide Children’s Hospital, the butterflies light up so the kids in the hospital can look down on the lawn and see these butterflies lighting up for every donation given to the hospital,” said Jordan. “We absolutely wanted to be a part of that campaign and bring awareness to donating to Nationwide Children’s.”