Themed Retail: to theme or not to theme

In this article, written in 2015, Director Peter Mackey, based in Chapman Taylor’s Shanghai studio, discusses themed retail spaces and why he thinks ‘theming’ retail is the way forward.

The growth of online shopping means that shoppers no longer have to venture outside to make their retail purchases. In response, retail tenants themselves have had to adapt by digitising their product offer and promotion activity.

As globalisation advances, and retail-led mixed-use developments continue to appear in every corner of the world, an amazing similarity in the tenant-mix of each shopping destination has emerged. Invariably, you can find the same outlets such as Pizza chains, Zara & Uniqlo in every major shopping mall.

What implications does this have on Retail architecture?

This means that unique Shopping Centre design plays an increasingly vital role in differentiating an offer and giving it a core competitive advantage. An inviting and intriguing theme which offers an experience is part of what draws people to shopping malls these days. No longer are malls somewhere to nip in and out of, and, increasingly, shoppers are spending an entire ‘day in’ to shop, eat and be entertained.

‘Retail-tainment’ is to add something fun and exciting to the retail mix, and the themed environment stems from people wanting to be entertained in a memorable, unique and friendly leisure surrounding. Most retailer brands are ‘themed’ nowadays to distinguish themselves from their competition, such as the clothing companies Diesel, Hollister and Superdry. These tenant brands can still sit easily within a different theme which defines the shopping centre. Even Apple should be considered as a ‘thematic’ idea with its slick clean lines, which are an environmental embodiment of their brand. Yet even this brand/theme statement can sit easily within most centres.

Our world is, in fact, a series of themed experiences - from Edwardian costume dramas on TV, thematic branding of products, ‘healthy’ food markets like ‘Wholefoods’ categorizing products into nutritional themes, through to Wahaca & Gauchos taking their food theme throughout the interior and beyond, giving the customer the feeling that they have been lifted into Latin America. The Kidzania concept draws children inside to role-play amongst familar branded shops, with a chance to work in McDonalds. Often these themes nest in the no less subliminal theming of a major retail centre’s food areas such as Manchester’s Trafford Centre where a luxury cruise liner is the back-drop.

Shanghai’s themed ‘Thames Town’, based on a quintessentially British market town has been exceptionally successful, transporting visitors to somewhere different whilst still inhabiting suburban Shanghai. Similarly, with thematically-designed malls, families can go on holiday and experience different cultures without actually crossing any borders.

Historically, in the discipline of architecture, theming has always been with us, often tied to spaces of entertainment and social interaction. In the UK there were a number of themed environments, such as the early eighteenth century Vauxhall Gardens, and the Regency’s Brighton Pavilion, an exotic Indian-themed social venue. At the birth of modern retail theming there was the ‘Egyptian Staircase’ at Harrods. Indeed, even Harrods itself has now become a globally-recognised thematic brand. The grand, covered shopping arcades of Leeds city centre are another Victorian themed retail experience.

A homage to themed environments would not be complete without an acknowledgement of the mega-projects which bear the very name of the experience as a proud prefix: THEME PARKS, and greatest among them, Disneyland. The intent of a Disney theme park is simple and straightforward - to give the user the most memorable, happiest day of their life. To impress upon every child, big and small, an indelible, positive impression that they will associate with all components of that brand for the rest of their life.

Are there disadvantages to theming?

When theming a shopping centre the key is to capture your target audience's needs with a considered designs that can stand the test of time. Of course, themed centres are bound to alienate some shoppers who will turn their noses up at thematic retail experiences (often trained architects). They will sway towards a more simple/white palette environment within which to shop, yet even these type of malls, such as Westfield in the UK, have a more subtle thematic element that lies within (e.g. ‘The Shopping Village’, where high-end labels are surrounded by champagne bars to give a distinct feeling of a luxurious space).

What to consider when defining your theme

When theming, there are several questions which need addressing, such as what theme will attract the target audience? Will it appeal to eventual tenants? Will it be cost-effective?

We must also consider the shelf-life, because we should not design a theme that will become out of date within a few years. There also needs to be a fun factor, and amusement that adds value to a place as well as in some cases the seasonal adaptability of the theme. Certain themed environments may be more costly, and therefore it is crucial to get the theme right. They require a challenging and well-considered design from the architect involving all stakeholder input into the project - the developer, the leasing team, the designer, the operator, brand consultants, engineers, the local authority, the tenants and known and identifiable user groups.

Have a checklist: Look at your whole offer; think of your brand; think of your customer base; think of your tenant mix; think of your management capabilities; DEFINE YOUR U.S.P.

So to theme or not to theme?

The evolution of ‘retail’ or ‘retail-tainment’ can only mean that our shopping experiences will become more animated, ‘smart’ and entertaining. As architects and interior designers we need to ensure that the quality and layout of buildings are a priority and that these buildings can adapt to change, but we also need these buildings to become social, leisure environments meeting the customer needs and desires of today and tomorrow. Let us entertain you!

The themed success stories

Chapman Taylor’s Shanghai office designed Global Harbor as a large scale, mixed-use development which uses classic European architecture styles as the main theme, with various subthemes, different but coherent. Beyond the style, memorable and playful architectural events, such as the much-discussed glass bridge, act as a unique features which attracts people, embellishes the visitor’s experience, and extends ‘dwell-time’. Global Harbor recently won the pretigious 'Best retail archiecture in the world' award at the International Property Awards 2014-15.

Madrid Xanadu, whilst being a fully operating shopping centre, also has Europe’s longest indoor skiing track, so a sports theme was embraced in the design.

Bangkok’s ‘Terminal 21’, as the name suggests, is themed as an airport targeting tourists, with its global cities experience placing several world-famous cities under one roof. The Golden Gate Bridge of San Francisco is down the mall from a London double-decker bus, and photo opportunities abound. Another key target audience might be children and young people, who have increasingly grown up subliminally surrounded by themes. At ‘Siam Paragon’, again in Bangkok, an aquarium wonderland occupies the basement of this glitzy shopping centre, and a ‘Kidzania’ occupies the top floor, with ‘props’ for both anchor tenants placed in the floors between.

Shanghai’s ‘Joy City’ circular mall is a landmark for China’s young and fashionable, with trendy catering, video games, entertainment and cinemas.

Some retail themes derive instinctively from their location, such as Manchester United’s Megastore, with its location in the well-known “football city” making it inevitable to choose football as the theme of the store.

Some centres will have a historical theme to reference, such as the Chapman Taylor scheme Princesshay in the UK city of Exeter, which blends both historical and contemporary buildings around a Cathedral at the heart of Exeter’s conservation area.

St. Pancras Railway Station in London, with its new role as Eurostar terminal, serves a functional, transport-driven purpose where travellers converge, but does so set within the elaborate heritage theme setting of the original gothic monument of George Gilbert- Scott.

About the Author

Peter Mackey (Dip Arch)

Director, Shanghai and Beijing

With over 25 years’ professional experience, Peter is responsible for Chapman Taylor’s Interior design projects across China.

He qualified in 1993 from Sheffield University with a Diploma in Architecture and spent several years working in the UK and Hong Kong before moving to Shanghai in 1997.

Peter has worked with Chapman Taylor in China since 2007, is one of the founding Directors of our Shanghai studio, and has delivered some of Chapman Taylor’s largest and most successful projects.

Areas of expertise:

Masterplanning / Architecture / Interior Design

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