While offering a selection of dining and entertainment options is a step in the right direction for shopping malls, they must start thinking about what people in their communities want and value.

The International Council for Shopping Centers describes malls as “integral to the social fabric of communities by providing a ‘third place.’ They offer space to be with friends and family when not at work or at home.” What makes a community center thrive? It is partly shops, partly restaurants and movie theaters, but so much more. Thriving communities are public hubs that include schools, libraries, government offices, post offices, hospitals, churches, museums, historical societies, banks, transportation centers, parks and more that serve the needs of people in the community.

Elements of each of these can be brought into the mall. For example, a recent Gallup Poll found that more adult Americans visited libraries last year than went to the movies, live sporting events, museums, concerts, amusement parks and casinos, among other activities. Further, the most active library users were women and young people ages 18 to 29, just the kind of potential customers that malls need to cultivate in their communities. So why don’t malls invite the local library in as a public service?

To become a true community center, not just a place for people to spend money, malls need to adopt a public service approach. That represents a radical shift for malls, but one that is right for our time. Consumers today are more involved than ever in social and political causes. Malls can play in that space with additions such as post offices as well as offices for elected officials and public services. Malls should provide community event space to create learning spaces for children, and support local museums, historical societies and nonprofit groups with space for special displays and community engagements.

And, of course, malls can reach into the community to sponsor fun special events, such as art shows, live concerts, craft demonstrations, exchange events, wellness and sport clinics. The manager in charge of special events, programming and public services should have just as much clout in the mall organization as the manager in charge of leasing.

Malls are changing

Industry leaders foresee this shift, predicting that the mix of tenant to public spaces will shift from the current 70% tenant to 30% public mix to 60/40 or even 50/50. When this happens, these expanded public spaces will need to be planned and programmed over the year, much like an exhibition. They will be managed more like content and media, instead of real estate.

Industry leaders say what’s needed are new ways of organizing and arranging the mall environment, or “dynamically recalibrating spaces.” Malls should think of their spaces as places to “leverage different content platforms,” content being the collection of stores, the restaurants, the special events, and other tenants and attractions that make up the mall.

By providing more meaningful experiences to people in the local community, malls will deliver the most meaningful experiences their retail tenants want: a place for customer acquisition, not just a place to conduct transactions.

More than commerce

Mall owners, developers and managers need to think of their malls as content platforms that support the many facets of people’s lives. In that way they will facilitate retail sales by recognizing and understanding the mall’s place in the community and connecting with that local community through shared core values and aspirations. Malls must become the new American “Main Street,” where people feel a real sense of community and belonging, not some faux approximation of it.

The future of retail real estate is as robust as the industry’s imaginations. Future success depends to a large degree on being able to “unlearn” the lessons of the past. Tomorrow’s success will belong to those operators and tenants willing to break from yesterday’s patterns and practices and fully embrace a consumer-driven future. Is Grand Island ready for this?

Raymond O’Connor is a developer in Grand Island. O’Connor Enterprises is at 2502A N. Webb Road. This is the second of two columns. The first was in Sunday’s Independent. To read it, go to www.theindependent.com.

Load comments