5 Changes Malls are Making to Survive the New Normal

What can shopping centres do to remain relevant in the new normal? Douglas spoke to retail and mall experts about what strategies are being implemented.

Renderings of the University Heights Redevelopment Plan
Renderings of the University Heights Redevelopment Plan by Lifang Provided by WA Architects Ltd.

When British Columbia declared a state of emergency on March 17, retailers assessed the risk, most opting to close as the province entered lockdown and consumers stayed home. This hit the sector hard, with the soaring success of e-commerce calling into question an oversaturation of stores.

Safety and convenience

After two months, Victoria’s malls reopened under Phase Two of BC’s Restart Plan. To bring shoppers back safely they implemented one-way systems, sanitization stations and distancing measures. Mayfair — which never fully closed because of essential service tenants — invested in extra security patrollers, adding ambassadors to help customers adopt new routines.

Annual footfall

In a recent report, The Future of the Mall, Deloitte Canada used research from senior executives, retailers and consumers across Canada to identify future trends for malls and retailers. While the report found foot traffic in Canada’s top 10 malls fell by 22 per cent between 2018 and 2019, Victoria bucked the trend with increased footfall in that same period — 24 per cent at Mayfair and 1 per cent at the Bay Centre.

However, the national situation may have an impact locally. Many brands represented in Victoria’s malls have announced pullbacks to their store count, including DAVIDsTea, Le Château, ALDO Shoes, La Senza, Alia N TanJay.

Embracing technology

The pandemic exposed huge differences in retail vulnerability, with less digitally savvy companies left playing catch up.

“It has fast tracked everything,” says Laura Poland, general manager of Mayfair Shopping Centre. “If you weren’t a building owner or retailer trying to figure out your part in the omnichannel experience already, then the pandemic left you working on it fast and furious to catch up … We’ve got click and collect, curbside pickup, and are looking at line management technology and parking apps.”

Rethinking the role of the store

The role of the store is changing. Large, flagship stores like those of Lululemon and Aritzia offer experiences including yoga, food and events.

“The Island is a smaller market so you’re not going to see the wow factor flagship stores here,” says Poland, “but we’ll see elements like improved or contactless checkout.”

Closing the loop in a customer’s digital engagement with the brand will mean many retailers will opt for smaller storefronts.

The food revolution

Deloitte predicts that the food and beverage sector will uptake space previously leased to retailers. With Victoria’s already strong foodie culture, this seems a safe bet.

“We have 18 to 20 eateries right now, and that likely will grow,” says Darlene Hollstein, general manager of the Bay Centre. “It’s all about the experience, coming in and tasting local offerings.”

At the Bay Centre, with 30 to 40 per cent local offerings, Hollstein cites Purdys Chocolatier and Chai Fashions as examples that appeal to the growing trend for local or Canadian products with a sustainable, traceable origin story.

Becoming a new destination

Malls already offer the increasingly desired convenience of a one-stop shop, but consumers are looking for much more. Uptown Shopping Centre is well positioned to cater to the post-pandemic needs of shoppers, with stores set around a flexible public green space with a fully pedestrianised central thoroughfare.

Kristy Lowes, general manager of Uptown, saw a need for retailers to access new spaces.

“Browns expanded their patio space onto the Uptown boulevard,” she says. “Annex Raw added a location at Uptown to be able to facilitate more people in classes, given the current distancing restrictions.”

Redevelopment plans for University Heights at Shelbourne and McKenzie speak to a similar localisation of shopping through the combination of retail, residential and office space. Over the last three years, community consultations have resulted in the addition of a public park, larger daycare facilities, transportation improvements and a flexible public plaza.

What remains to be seen in the region is who will go that extra mile to create a destination beyond commercial needs, where leisure, health and entertainment play a part in a more holistic and essentially efficient experience.

The evolution of the mall was in the works long before COVID, which brought safety and convenience to the forefront. “At the end of the day the customer experience is the most important consideration,” says Hollstein. “Those that excel will be the leaders in the future of retail.”

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