The Role of "Place" in the Mall vs. "Tech Battle"
A couple of weeks ago, I went to Houston to attend the wedding of one of my dearest friends. All nuptials-related events went smoothly, except my trip to the (in)famous, Houston Galleria...but first, some context.
My Houston Love Affair
Now, as is the case with the groom, Houston has always held a special place in my heart. Many of you may not realize that Houston - of all places - was the birthplace of State of Place! Nearly 12 years ago, I attended a ULI retail conference in Beverly Hills and met three “urban brokers,” as they called themselves - early renegades in the fight to make Houston more walkable and livable. They wanted to tell the story of Houston's sense of place, or lack of thereof, and rank several neighborhoods accordingly. As the consummate academic, I asked them how they planned to do that. They had no clue – they were planning to have a group of “experts” subjectively judge these places. As a then budding entrepreneur and consultant, I said – so hey, I have this tool… I had been working on creating an objective audit tool to measure the built environment elements that make places walkable, that make them great. I came to Houston on a whirlwind week trip. And the rest is history.
What ensued was an odd-couple-like love affair with Houston - I mean, it’s not like Houston is exactly known for its “State of Place.” But I suppose I was endeared by the sense of exploration it engendered. I was constantly discovering hidden gems in the most unexpected of places: an edgy boutique in an otherwise run-down strip mall; an awesome, belly-busting authentic Mexican restaurant nestled within a quiet residential neighborhood; a pushing-the-envelope grocer with the best homemade, just-baked, bursting with melty chocolate chip cookies (man, I want one now!), holding its own in a quintessentially suburban, national-grocery-store anchored shopping center. I was hooked. And over the years, I have had the honor and pleasure to continue to court the city, thanks to my long-lasting friendship with those three urban renegades (who have since very much indeed increased Houston’s State of Place), several amazing consulting projects I have conducted; my old dear friend, Bill Fulton - a recent Houston transplant - who keeps finding excuses for me to come to the city; and of course, my two Houston-based State of Place customers!
So when I got the save the date card for my friend’s wedding, I was not just ecstatic that that day had come (I met his bride very shortly after I met him!), but that I would yet again be able to visit Houston. As is always the case, my visit untapped yet more urban gems, from the newly budding, downtown-adjacent neighborhood, EaDo (where one of the renegades graciously hosted me); to not one, but two, amazing hole-in-the-wall Mexican breakfast taco places (we need these in Shanghai!); to the groundbreaking, destined-to-be iconic, beer-garden and community space, Axelrad, indeed founded by my three “bad hombres.”
But then, there was the Galleria...
Let’s be clear. The Uptown District is one of our newly-minted, State of Place pilot customers. We LOVE them and are SO excited to have them onboard to help them make the case for investing in and transforming into great places! Of course, the Uptown District does indeed include the Houston Galleria. But our job is to provide an objective assessment of place, not necessarily to be “the nice guy” - indeed, that’s why they called upon us! So let’s just say that this commentary is coming out of that lens - but also from the deep expertise I developed along the years studying malls (I lived and breathed malls- mostly of the dying variety - for years; my dissertation focused on evaluating the economic and social impact of redeveloping failing malls into mixed-use neighborhoods).
Ay. Dios. Mio. Ok, so the day of the wedding, I realize 1) It’s unseasonably cold in Houston and I don’t have a proper coat/coverall that is wedding appropriate and 2) I need a new bra (sorry if that’s TMI!). I have a fixed, limited amount of time to find and purchase these items. So I have to forgo my preferred exploratory Houston shopping method.
Enter the Galleria: Huge, regional shopping mall + Easy access + Ample parking + Copious options. Surely that would spell success.
But really this translated to: 1) Everybody and their mother was at this mall on a Saturday at 12pm; 2) What was supposed to be a 15 minute drive turned into 30+ because all of the feeders into the mall were backed-up for what seemed to be miles (I could have walked it faster - I know because I personally collected State of Place data for Uptown!); 3) Add on 15+ minutes of trying to find a space in what was an incoherent underground, cannot possibly be enough parking for this massive of a mall, parking structure, only to end up paying $11 to valet it; 4) And now having lost over an hour just to get there, I longed for a non-techy, old-skool wayfinding map with the good-ole "you are here" symbol, but instead encountered a digital touch screen, too-clever-by-half map - an “orientation-challenged” person’s worst nightmare! (why are we women so bad at this? Almost every woman I know has this problem - Allison, can we get your Walc app to help us navigate the inside of malls too?)
Once I had more or less “downloaded” all of the options available, I went to Victoria’s Secret where the all-too-nice “perfect-fit” experts had a heyday with me and I purchased the first requisite item (actually, three). But after that, it was a complete flop. Nordstroms was all the way across “town.” I hiked my way over there like a crazy person, nearly at a jogging pace. While I quickly found a promising contender in the sales rack, alas, it was a tad bit too big. I then aimlessly wandered my way back toward whence I came (or so I thought), popping into several other stores; but with the clock winding down (it takes me awhile to get ready for a wedding and I was sharing one bathroom with two people, who were also going to the wedding, so I couldn’t miss my early time-slot to hop in the shower!), I was too frantic to make a good decision and hence left with nothing. And when I say left, I mean 10 minutes after I was ready to do so. I had absolutely no idea which entrance I had come in from! In my failed search-for-a-parking-lot-fueled frenzy, I did not note where I had come into the mall. Once I made my way back to the valet stand, I then battled 15+ minutes more of traffic to get out of the Galleria footprint.
Is the Mall Really Dead?
While I made it home in time for my allotted shower time slot, and managed to pull together enough wedding-acceptable layers so as not to freeze during the wedding, my trip to the Galleria was exasperating. There has to be a better way! And what’s worse, is that the holiday season is now upon us. There are 17 shopping days left till Christmas. So my Galleria experience - it’s likely that will be someone’s best case scenario (although, hopefully they’ll be more successful on the purchasing front)!
How do people do it? Why do we do it? Surely, as my research - which I began conducting over a decade ago - showed, the mall’s role in our society has decidedly diminished - or at the very least, transformed. We haven’t constructed a new mall in the U.S. in the last 10 (not since 2006) years. And in the decade since my dissertation was published, countless other malls have been converted into mixed-use neighborhoods or at the very least, drive-to-walk, park-once walkable lifestyle districts. In fact, shopping itself has transformed, with 78% of Americans over the age of 15 shop online. These trends speak to both the sense of wondrous discovery that comes with exploring more walkable, urban destinations; the shift in consumer preferences from product-based purchasing to experientially-based consumption; and the rise of virtual marketplaces.
That said, I do not believe that malls like the Galleria are all destined to become obsolete (even though I won’t be going there anytime soon, unless I need to collect more data!). But how can we manage it - and countless other successful regional malls like it - to offer a more user-friendly experience, or even an enjoyable, memorable experience? I do think there is something to be said about the convenience that the agglomeration of so many unique retailers in close proximity - even under one “roof” - ostensibly offers.
But maybe they need to take a page from Asia, with their smaller-footprint, multi-story malls (often as many as eight stories - which make it easier to see what’s in them and where) that are almost always a stone’s throw away from, or literally on top of, transit? And perhaps reshaping malls, so that they abut the street, with on-street parking, enabling access to some of the stores directly from the sidewalk (so that you can avoid the hellish parking structure to begin with)?
In fact, many of the adaptive-reuse mall redevelopment projects have done just that. Indeed, I am hopeful that the Uptown District’s new plan for its Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) system could ease some of the access and parking woes I encountered.
And the Data says...
Ultimately, my (good ole dissertation) research showed that the urban design of malls mattered - in fact, based on (an early version of) State of Place, I found that as the Index increased, so did walking, sense of community, and interestingly enough - consumption. And, access to gathering spaces - not indoor food courts but true, third-spaces where people could come together and spend time, especially without feeling compelled to purchase anything - was linked to longer visits, which of course translated to more purchases across multiple outlets.
I believe these findings still hold true today...
Perhaps the key to ensuring the success of traditional, regional malls is to move beyond transactional experiences. Yes, for me, my trip to the Galleria was purely about the purchase. And indeed, I chose it precisely because I thought it would offer the most efficient, high-chance-of-successful-purchase environment. But I don't believe regional malls should rest on those laurels too long. With the impending rise of on-demand everything apps (seriously, there's even one for cannabis!), malls will eventually lose their instant-gratification, agglomeration-economy competitive advantage. They must offer more than the ability to purchase to remain relevant. They must offer an experience - a pleasant one. They must offer Place.
What do you all think?
What's your place of choice to visit for all of your holiday needs? What's more important? On-demand or Shipping? Physical or Virtual? Transactions or Experiences?