How to turn a visit to a shopping mall into an entertainment-orientated day out was a major part of a discussion called “Beyond Retail” which was staged by Middle East Architect.
Taking part were Patrick Bean, design director at Lacasa, Islam Mashtooly, senior architect at Perkins + Will, Tobias Honey, design manager at VE Experts and Joe Tabet, founder of JT+ Partners.
The discussion opened by asking the question: what makes people want to shop in an age when so many goods and services are available online?
Honey said: “People are attracted to entertainment and food and beverage outlets. Traditional retail is not such a big deal with so many shopping malls being the same.
“People get drawn to a place which offers an experience. We [as designers] need to work with clients to educate them more on the entertainment spectrum.”
Bean said there was a cultural aspect to the attraction of people in the region to retail outlets.
“Historically people here are drawn to shopping malls,” he said. “The desire in the Middle East is for a family day out. But malls have the same shops, so there has to be something else which drags you in. Maybe themed malls – giving you a reason to go to that specific mall.”
“We have an opportunity to develop shopping areas into an entertainment zone. Some of the older malls are very boring. They use materials which are not that interesting. The fact is that here we have got the biggest indoor aquarium in the world and people do come to see it. Things like this and the ski slope, they are what bring people into the malls.”
Looking to the future Mashtooly asked: “Will there become a need to open ‘destination malls’ across the region? Personally some places I will just go to shop for a few minutes. But others I will go and spend time atbecause there is an attraction. The mall has to be a destination. if I have to spend two hours parking, then go and buy something in five minutes I am not going to visit.”
Another factor which can attract people to malls is similar outlets. “You can have clustering of similar outlets but the stores must be complementary,” said Honey. “When you have direct competitors next to each other that doesn’t really work.”
Tabet said he felt that the heart rather than the head sometimes guides many people in the Middle East when it comes to making decisions about retail development and the panel agreed that what has worked in the past is frequently replicated in the future, leading to a level of homogeneity in design with a consequent loss of local identity.
“I believe that people in this part of the world use their emotions,” Tabet said. “You look at the population of Dubai [around 4m] and they are building more malls but the malls are working. You see a mall with five or six Starbucks but people are in them. “The issue is what is going to happen in the future. Retail is a need, but it also creates a place where people get together on a social level for entertainment. Another issue is where the malls are located, several of the new planned ones are within five minutes drive of each other.
“If you want to extend the city of Dubai – take that new mall to Jebel Ali, close to the border[with Abu Dhabi]. Create another anchor and social space.”
The panel looked at some recent examples of new retail areas in Dubai, which are in the open air. Members agreed The Beach has “five good months”, but during the rest of the year people only really gather there in the early morning and the evening.
Tabet cited another project: “City Walk open at the end of summer, so its first impact was extremely good. But at the urban level a lot is happening. City Walk opens you go and visit. But then something else opens so it might be a long time before you go back again.
“Everything is emotional – it’s emotional decisions again. Grab opportunities and don’t worry about the future.”
Flexibility is the key to successful design in retail if facilities are not to be rendered obsolete in quick time, the panel agreed. Honey said: “Adaptability is the key. Developers all want the next big thing but they have to be careful that it is not yesterday’s thing. Quite often a big empty space is a good thing as it allows the opportunity for different themed events to run throughout the year.
“A lot of developers are now trying to find ways of creating spaces where changeable activities can take place. Not just fixed rides.”
Bean showcased Marina Mall in Dubai as one of the places which has managed to achieve this with its street events – although he added that one such event was actually rained off. “The mall lets people know about what’s going on via social media which I really like. It makes you feel part of a community.”
The panel agreed that the size, easy access and location of Marina Mall has made it a success, although members understood that in its initial stages this had not been the case, It was the density of population which has increased notably over recent years that has made the mall boom. Now the mall is looking to expand by taking space from the adjacent Address Hotel.
Bean said this could be a mistake: “But that’s not necessarily what we want, it’s a good size, it’s easy to get around.
Mashtooly agreed with this sentiment, using another example in Dubai.
He said: “Festival City was one of the best malls around but then had a large extension which meant it lost its unique experience. It doubled in size and now it’s out of scale.”
Bean agreed pointing out that many shops their have closed.
Tabet said the shape of a mall is also a key to its success or otherwise – and this is an area in which architects can make a major contribution.
He explained: “Dubai Mall is a success as it is a loop. If the structure takes the form of a straight line you go past the same shops twice. Ibn Battuta is a case in point. They are trying to bring in some loops but it is really a lot of shops in a line.
“It is the responsibility of us as designers to say no to clients, You can’t just keep on saying yes to keep the cash flowing.”
However developers are getting more sophisticated, said Honey. “In some cases they know more than the consultants,” he said. “They see the monetary success of their developments more than the consultants so they understand more. Often consultants will design something but never understand the commercial success of it as they never get the feedback.”
Smaller retail developments rather than mega-malls are also a way forward for retail, the panel members agreed.
They were asked: “Does everything need to be biggest and best? Some smaller malls out in the suburbs with a dozen or 20 stores seem to be successful.”
These outlets tend to not be the high end stores traditionally associated with Dubai. Instead they include food stores, clothing outlets, sports goods retailers, a bookshop, coffee shop and a couple of restaurants, the panel heard.
Bean said: “That is exactly the market developers are trying to hit, a sort of town centre. You know when you go to such a mall there will be a place to park and it’s not miles away and you don’t have to struggle in the heat. Lastly it’s not going to take you two hours to get out.”
Mashtooly said retail in the region has a couple of contrasting outlooks which can complement each other.
He said: “Emaar want to build the tallest tower in the world with the most impressive fountains outside. Other developers may want to build something for everyday use. These are two different scenarios. Greater emphasis needs to be placed on traffic and infrastructure.