The mall of the future

The rapid pace of change in the UK retail sector over the past 20 years has utterly transformed what people expect from their shopping experience. In a challenging market, with increasing competition from online shopping, shopping centres and retail-led developments need to be able to adapt quickly, and that means that they need to anticipate developments in the sector. In this paper, Chapman Taylor Director Hilary Clayton-Mitchell outlines some of the key trends to look out for in coming years.

Looking a dozen years ahead requires some imagination, particularly if one looks back over the equivalent timeframe and considers what changes have occurred in retail during that time.

In 2014, reported on the “Death and Re-birth of the American Mall”, noting that the last new enclosed mall was built in 2006, and that 2007 marked the first time since the 1950s that a new mall wasn’t built in the United States.  Malls have certainly seen troubled times in the past twelve years, with 25% of large US malls closing, and possibly up to 50% being in danger of closure in the next 15-20 years.

What hope, then, for retail centres in the future, and what current factors ought we to be considering to ensure that they remain viable in the future?  Here are a few trends and emerging ideas that will start to gain momentum in the evolving market of malls.


This will be the key feature of many future redevelopments – the major cutting and carving of failing sites to improve both their architecture and customer experience, creating destinations of retail and human interaction. There is no magic, across-the-board solution to such issues, so bespoke, site-specific answers will be needed for each location.

“Part of the community”

The role of the shopping mall is changing; to remain successful, it must be at the heart of people’s lives, offering a cultural and social hub that is relevant to them and their local surroundings. Socially conscious projects will dedicate some of their space to work for the community. From recycling distribution centres to drop-in hubs for the elderly and civic uses such as a library or surgery, such elements will become key parts of the mix of these new campus-style environments. Becoming part of the urban fabric will be vital to the mall.

“Upscaling the urban village”

The idea of truly mixed-use planning integrating living spaces with the high street and its retail and workspaces is by no means new; living over the shop was once the norm for many. This will be scaled up to living over the mall. Britain is a densely populated country – a factor magnified by increasing levels of single-occupancy. 34% of all households in the UK now have a single occupant, an increase of 80% since 1996. By including co-working studio areas, co-living spaces on multi-level developments provide social hubs in which people can live, work and interact. Commuting will change, and getting to work will mean stepping into a lift and arriving at your office on another floor. People want convenience, not a long commute to work. Living and working like artisans in one space will create a new definition for the urban village, with hyper/local convenience in demand.

“The chameleon centre”

To support the desire to create new customer experiences, mall theming must become more sophisticated. Even now, digital technology exists that can create extraordinary environments which have the ability to change colour and imagery. The possibilities offered by virtual reality and immersive media could take this ability to a new level. Such theatrical environments, real or digital, can provide a backdrop that will merge the mall and its retail and leisure elements into a combined space.

“The return of the market square”

This concept involves creating high-quality civic spaces within malls, creating sites for pop-ups and temporary retailing. These spaces will embrace the “not-on-the-high-street”, crafted products which have largely become the preserve of e-commerce for want of an affordable physical home. Providing a place for exchange commerce, where people can swap goods with each other or sell bespoke home-grown produce, will form part of the social space within the mall.

“The camomile mall”

Sustainability in construction is now such a commonplace part of the developer’s brief as to no longer generate comment. However, just as key are physical green spaces and the wellbeing of the customer.  Some major projects, such as the pedestrianisation of Oxford Street in London, foresee civic space as landscaped and populated with art, paving and planting to create, not just a traffic-free boulevard, but a place to rest and unwind right in the heart of the city. Malls should follow suit, linking their closed spaces with the external environment and creating campus-style, traffic-free “high streets”.

“Buying a lifestyle”

The world of social commerce, on platforms such as Pinterest and on blogs, sees individuals share their experience and knowledge of products with other like-minded groups of people, creating group endorsements. Social media has seen a clustering of people who share similar values, outlook and expectations, and this ‘new’ way of life has now become a ‘brand’ that people want to belong to.

Concept stores have sprung up where curated objects offered for sale are displayed in multifunctional spaces that can double up as event spaces or nightclubs when the shop has closed. The spaces are designed in such a way that people almost want to live there, or, perhaps more accurately, will try and make their lives like the boutique by buying the products. It is sophisticated act of scene-setting that makes a lifestyle “real” more emphatically than any Homes & Gardens or Hello article ever could. Mall operators will have to act creatively to style their interior environments to compete with such ideas.

“Experience is the new product”

Millennials are a group which will invest in an experience that reinforces a lifestyle, rather than buying objects. Stores like Apple lead the way, with clever initiatives that appeal to this mind-set – offering free events in their stores from music-making to photography lessons. Interaction helps establish a loyal following, which will later lead to purchases. The challenge for the mall environment will be to create spaces that can host such events, and to foster the events themselves to capitalise on this trend.

“Mixing interactive art to promote famous brands” - Drip-Dry Hermes

Hermes’ very own pop-up laundrette, not a likely series of words to find in the same sentence, is named Hermesmatic, a retro-styled, vibrant orange, corporate-branded installation offering customers the opportunity of tie-dyeing their old Hermes scarfs in vintage-styled washing machines.  The innovative art installation travelled around the USA, promoting this upmarket brand in an unexpected manner. Such installations create interesting talking points that can be shared on social media, capitalising on social commerce to boost the brand. Malls that embrace and encourage this type of activity will be the ones which keep their own market presence to the fore.

“Relationship retailing”

Creating a sense of exclusivity is a good sales technique; twinning that with accessibility is, of course, the trick to pull off for the mass-market retailer – “exclusively for everyone”, one might say. So, imagine an establishment, called “The Mall Private Members Club”, which could offer different levels of customer experience, from the luxurious to the mid-range, where customers would be able to enjoy personal shopping delivered in a bespoke manner – a tailored service to suit different membership levels. Loyalty points would help to generate repeat business, and a sense of belonging would boost attachment to your mall.

 “Fast Track and Dwell”

Retailers are beginning to understand that their customers want different experiences when they venture into the world of retail, and are embracing the twin pillars of ease and inspiration.

In the USA, the discount retailer Target has developed a new shopping format, configuring its stores with two entrances. One is a fast-track route, allowing the customer to pick up items they have pre-selected or repeat purchases – they know what they want and, as such, benefit from a quick and efficient service. By contrast, the second entrance caters for the more leisurely shopper, encouraging browsing and offering inspiration in the display of their products to encourage people to purchase.

 “Up-cycling the recycling experience”

People’s attitudes towards recycling and the second-hand – or ‘pre-loved’, as some people try to spin it – are changing, and must change. Double-standards abound here – who, for example, would baulk at buying a second-hand house? In Sweden, the world's first recycling mall, ReTuna Återbruksgalleria has opened – dedicated entirely to repaired and up-cycled goods, be it furniture, computers and audio equipment, clothes, toys and bikes or gardening tools and building materials. The mall features a café/restaurant, an exhibition area, conference facilities and a training college hosting recycling classes. This style of operation will evolve, and there are already plans to help the local community and charities.

 “Big-box architecture”

While traditional big-box elements, like department stores and cinemas, still provide the key anchors for malls, there are new ideas and players entering the field. From South Africa, the Big Box Company is challenging entrenched shopping centre models by creating a campus of retail boxes tailored for their surrounding areas, with each box generating an individual shopping experience. Using standard components, construction is quick and easy and can be adapted to suit varied sites.

“Deconstructing the department store”

As the dominance of the department stores as key anchor tenants begins to slip – and market research suggests that the likes of John Lewis are struggling to attract the millennial shopper – some brands are taking steps to reinvent their offers. Saks breathed life into its department store model by opening an independent women’s speciality shoe-store, selling several brands in one remote retail unit. By removing that department from the main store, a smaller, standalone entity, named 10022 SHOE, was created – a multi-brand destination which proved to be popular with customers. Offering experience spaces, such as living-room-styled relaxation areas, then stirred interest and directed it back toward the main stores.

Other significant reinvention may focus on the reuse of empty department store spaces. Another US example has seen WeWork acquire redundant department store space to convert to co-working/start-up office space, with others repurposed for capsule hotel sleeping.

“Walk-out technology”

Amazon Go has been pioneering a “frictionless” retail experience, allowing shoppers to walk out with their goods by tapping their smartphone on sensors placed in strategic positions around the store. The technology for grab-and-go retailing is here, and will only spread, just like the self-service till has.  Eventually, this type of technology will negate the necessity for boundaries and edges within which to contain stock, and the mall will begin to resemble a landscape, not a series of self-contained boxes linked by covered “streets”.

“The thrill of it all”

As click-and-collect and other e-commerce off-shoots continue to grow, for the retail mall to remain viable, it will need to evolve into more of a showcase for retail, rather than a model driven by purchases on site. Thrill-driven shopping experiences will continue to draw crowds for pleasure-purchasing, as will the lure of choice and variety. However, for the mall as we know it to have a future, it must become the mall as we don’t yet know it. 

About the Author

Hilary Clayton-Mitchell (BA (Hons), Dip Arch, MA RCA, RIBA)

Director, London

Hilary joined Chapman Taylor in 1994 to strengthen our interior design offer. She became a Director in 2002, and has been instrumental in developing our world-leading shopping mall interior design expertise. Hilary works on many significant international projects and has an established track record across the retail and leisure sectors.  

With over 25 years of experience in the design industry, she is both an interior designer and an architect.

Areas of expertise:

Interior design

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