Here, using photos and graphics from the freshly renovated Westfield Montgomery–a 1.2 million-square-foot mall in affluent Bethesda, Md.–we show what steps today’s mall operators are taking to keep you shopping in their properties instead of doing it online from your couch.
“Districting”: If you’ve ever spent hours zig-zagging around a mall, you’re familiar with this old-school strategy: “It used to be you intentionally dispersed the merchandising throughout the property,” Hecht said.
In other words, you’d deliberately spread out similar stores, such as J. Crew and Banana Republic, in hopes of keeping shoppers in the mall for a long while. But now that the focus has shifted to convenience, that strategy has given way to a new one that Westfield calls “districting.” In the new set-up, the mall is full of little neighborhoods of like stores so that a shopper can hit all their favorite outposts quickly and easily. This map shows two examples of districting that can be seen at Westfield Montgomery.
It’s not just the stores that are planned with “districting” in mind: Amenities such as children’s playgrounds and family bathrooms are also designed this way. In the next photo, you’ll note that the play area is located just outside of Build-A-Bear Workshop and Destination Maternity–stores that are likely to appeal to parents of young children.
Out with the food court, in with the “dining terrace.” Mall dining doesn’t exactly have a glamorous reputation. At many shopping centers, it’s little more than a sea of tables and uncomfortable metal chairs surrounded by a ring of fast-food joints. As you’ll see in the photos below, Westfield Montgomery’s new dining hub is much different. There are fast-casual outposts such as Cava Grill and Lobster Me, and made-to-order sushi at Sarku Japan.
Westfield has dubbed this the “dining terrace,” which is meant to distinguish it from a typical food court. The idea is that the dining terrace is more than a place to scarf down food: It’s designed to be place where you might camp out with your laptop or linger with friends.
In an era when you might be purchasing more of your clothes and electronics on the Web, the hope is that set-ups like this one will encourage consumers to think of the mall as not just a shopping center, but a community hangout.
Parking innovations: Parking is another place where Westfield believes it’s important to shave time off shopping trips. At many of its malls, the company is implementing a parking system like the one you see in the photos below. When shoppers first arrive, they can easily see how many spaces are available on each garage level. Once inside, a system of sensor-powered lights guides customers to empty spaces.
In many of its renovations and new properties, Westfield is adding escalators to parking garages. They’re more expensive than stairs or elevators, but Westfield is swallowing the cost because it has decided that escalators are faster and more convenient than the other options.
Westfield is required in most jurisdictions to have four parking spots per 1,000 square feet of shopping space. The company is already preparing, though, for the prospect of disruption to those conventions.
“Before we know it, there are going to be driverless cars on the road, and we think that will have a profound impact on how parking works at our properties,” Hecht said. “You’ll be able to stack the cars differently and/or be able to have the cars drop off and come back. So we’re already starting to look into the future on how our properties behave on that.”
Keep people moving: Hecht says that “vertical transport” — escalators and elevators — should not be more than 300 to 350 apart. “If you go beyond that, it tends to be less convenient and therefore potentially frustrating for the customer,” Hecht said. Here’s how vertical transport is designed at Westfield Montgomery:
Identify and incorporate customers’ tastes: Mall operators believe that to fend off e-commerce competition, they have to make a trip to their shopping center a singular, memorable experience. (This is the principle behind what has been dubbed “the experience economy,” a trend you can read more about here.) Part of creating that distinctive mall experience is in pinpointing the design details that will be comfortable and inviting to each mall’s clientele.
“It used to be that malls were designed and built relatively the same, and you could reuse some of the materials and the plans that you had used on other properties,” Hecht said. “That’s entirely changed.”
From the floor materials to the color palette, each mall gets its own look.
“Bethesda tends to be a more conservative customer. So therefore, the palette we went after was to suit more of a traditional design in our material and our furniture,” Hecht said.
Note that the seating in the next photo is classic and comes in a tasteful navy and gray. The lighting fixtures seen in the second photo? Hecht said they were something of a branch-out for this customer base.
The look is very different than what Westfield has done recently at a San Diego shopping center, where it used more rustic materials and softer silhouettes to try to create a resort-like vibe.
Make it easy for them to stay connected: Many of the couches and chairs at Westfield properties now come equipped with electrical outlets and USB ports to allow customers to charge cellphones, tablets and other devices. The mall operator is also working to build out its wifi offerings so that customers can connect to their network from the moment they pull in a Westfield parking lot. Research shows that most customers today are what’s known in the industry as “omnichannel shoppers” — they like to browse and buy both in-store and online. By making it easy for customers to use their gadgets in the mall, Westfield hopes it will allow shoppers to blend the digital and physical shopping experiences, perhaps by using mobile coupons, comparing prices online or posting a dressing room selfie of a new outfit.