Themed Retail: to theme or not to theme

Themed Retail: to theme or not to theme

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 digitalizing their product offer and promotion activity.

As globalization advances and retail-led mixed-use developments continue to appear in every corner of the world, there has become an amazing similarity in the tenant-mix of each shopping destination. 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 order to differentiate an offer and give it a core competitive advantage. An inviting and intriguing theme that 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, like 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 on their food theme throughout the interior and beyond, giving the customer a feeling 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 architectural theming has always been with us and 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, Regency’s Brighton Pavilion, an exotic Indian themed social venue. And at the birth of modern retail theming there was the ‘Egyptian Staircase’ at Harrods. Indeed even Harrods itself now has become a globally recognized 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 to 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 straight forward, 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 needs with a considered designs that can stand the test of time. Of course, themed centres are bound to alienate some shoppers who will not approve of thematic retail experiences, turning their noses up. (These shoppers will often be trained architects.) They will sway towards a more simple / white palette environment in which to shop, yet even these type of malls, such as Westfield in the UK, have a more subtle thematic element that lies within i.e. ‘The Shopping Village’, where high end labels are placed, 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 that 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, we cannot 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. Certainly 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 in 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, Tenant mix, 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 that 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 acts as a unique features that attracts people, and 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 the Europe’s longest indoor skiing track, so sports as a theme was embraced by the design.

Bangkok’s ‘Terminal 21’ as the name suggests is themed as an airport targeting tourists with its global cities experience by placing several world-famous cities under one roof. The Golden Bridge of San Francisco is down the mall from a London double-decker bus and photo opportunities abound. Another key target audience can be children and young people who increasingly have grown up being 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 Exeter UK 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 (建筑学职业深造文凭)

董事, 上海 and Beijing






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