Four Lessons U.S. Malls & Retailers Can Learn From Abroad

by Nate Hunter

While retail development was stalled in the U.S. during the recession, it boomed elsewhere. 



Imagine sitting in a serene and aromatic lounge filled with flowers designed just for women at a favorite mall, with favorite stores just steps away. Or stepping from a private entrance into an area created for luxury retailers and the jet set who can afford them. Finally, picture taking the whole family to a mall for a satisfying day that leaves everyone feeling cooled off from the summer heat, relaxed due to the serene environment and refreshed from the spacious room to roam.

You would think you’d find these innovations at American malls. But instead these are creative approaches we’re seeing our clients — mall developers and retailers from Mohali, India to Santiago, Chile — are using these creative approaches to attract tenants and customers. Innovation and risk taking are occurring at a fast pace with mall developers and retailers overseas. In our practice, we’re seeing our clients respond to their customers’ needs for tranquility, as well as customized and convenient shopping experiences. In some cultures, like in India and Latin America, shopping is an activity for the whole family as they escape the bustling city outside a mall’s walls. So our task, and our clients’, is to create an experience that addresses the unique way people shop close to home even as they seek global brands.

U.S. retailers and developers can learn from the way malls and shops are evolving internationally. Ultimately, these design innovations are generating improvements in key metrics such as sales and occupancy. Here are a few lessons we’ve learned from our work in China, India, the Middle East and Latin America that could translate to the American retail experience.

“District” Special Spaces for Special Customers

At North Country Mall in Mohali, India, developed by Gumberg India, we created a separate entrance for high-wealth clientele. They emerge from their cars in a special parking lot, take a nearby escalator and arrive at shops and services that suit their needs. While this area of the mall is open to everyone, it was designed to cater to the mall’s toniest customers, therefore creating a natural attraction for those who can afford it. Those who can’t afford it enjoy other parts of the mall.

Similarly, at Aires of Mall Plaza Vespucio developed by Mall Plaza in Santiago, Chile, women have their own unique space to relax and recharge while shopping. The colors and lighting are softer. Comfortable and inviting sofas are surrounded by flowers, and we use aromatherapy to further enhance the experience. Women’s stores and services also are clustered here, for a convenient shopping experience.

We call this approach “districting,” meaning we group stores geared to a certain demographic in one area. Then we create a common space that corresponds to the group. For example, we create charging stations or a juice bar for teens, with relaxed seating that has no backs and are movable for the younger demographic.

In a “luxury district,” we plan for an upscale coffee shop or nice restaurant that offers a place to meet friends like the one in Mall Plaza Trebol. Seating areas should be carpeted and the restrooms should be more upscale.

These design features show the power of design for return on investment. They’ve helped create a place that women can meet and shop in an area that was made just for them. The rising middle class shops in these areas for special occasions. It becomes an aspirational experience. As a result, stores that appeal to this demographic are requesting space in these exclusive areas. International brands are more interested in entering these malls.

EganaView webBecause Mall Plaza’s Plaza Egana in Santiago, Chile, is located in the middle of a neighborhood and faced houses on some sides, it was necessary to create the facades that had sensitivity to scale and aesthetically-pleasing materials.Unclutter Mall Exterior Façades

In China, we worked with Tianjin LeCheng Real Estate Development to make sure the Galaxy Mall’s façade remained uncluttered. We did the same for North Country Mall in Mohali, India. By working with all the anchor tenants to create a uniform design with specified and intentional areas for signage, the result is a distinctive mall, especially compared to counterparts in the region. We didn’t want to leave signage as an afterthought. Instead we incorporated signs into the overall design. As architects and designers, we love the opportunity to have more of hand in determining the final appearance of the mall. Galaxy Mall is experiencing 100 percent occupancy and other signs of strong return on investment.

Innovate on Dense Urban Sites

As many international cities are dense and urban than those in the United States, we’ve seen mall developers create beautiful malls on small sites near transit. It’s important to create “breathable” buildings and accommodate families who may shop there all day when a mall is in a very populated area. Here’s one way we used design techniques for a more than 1-million¬-square foot mall in a residential district: Mall Plaza’s Plaza Egana in Santiago, Chile, is located in the middle of a neighborhood. It was with great effort that we created the facades adjacent to houses to have sensitivity to scale, aesthetically-pleasing materials coupled with a living wall that will be a lovely sight from one’s living room window. Renderings of the mall, which is still under construction, were received warmly from neighbors during focus groups who appreciated how the mall would fit into their community.

“Explode” Stores for the Experience

The way department store makeup counters work is something to be studied by developers and tenants alike. Taking down walls allows customers to enter the store like a showroom with vignettes creating a better customer experience. This concept allows the retailer to envelop the guest with their brand without having a screaming overhead sign. We’ve noticed when we visit malls across the globe that this was a refreshing way to experience a space. Sometimes, it’s so subtle we didn’t realize we were entering a store. The flow from mall to store was seamless and calm.


We believe all of these innovations have a place in U.S. retailing, given the considerable success and financial results they’ve experienced in other global markets. Importantly, it doesn’t take building a new shopping center to integrate these concepts into the shopping environment. Many can be used by existing retailers and malls. Just as we see global brands resonating everywhere, from Mumbai to Miami, we also see trends these retail trends making the shopping experience fun (and profitable) across the globe. International trends are going to find their way to the United States. The question is: which developer is going to be forward-thinking enough to make it happen first? 

— Since joining Atlanta-based tvsdesign in 1985, Donna Childs has worked exclusively in retail interiors and been an integral part of building the tvsdesign retail portfolio.

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