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Pushing the mall envelope

Shopping center store design is a true reflection of the times in which we live. Consumer shopping habits have become more selective and time-constrained; the retail industry continues to consolidate to where competition is equal on national and local levels; and the Internet and mail-order industries give consumers ideas and opinions before they even leave the house.

These concepts combine to create a landscape of sophisticated retailers, where retail is now set in a global marketplace. Retailers compete not only with the store next door or across the mall, but also across town or even across the country.

Today's time-poor shopper wants a focused design presentation rather than unlimited choice. They do not want the daunting, jam-packed selling floor where there is little focus on the merchandise and only a faint distinction between departments. Today's consumer also wants to see the merchandise out of its inert state and into an active selling environment, through which the brand's personality can shine.

For example, jewelry should sparkle through its cases; lingerie should be sexy; and swimwear should be wet - not in a benign fashion sense but as the focus of a moment or scene in which the shopper might envision themselves. Today's customer wants to shop in a place that connects to their interests and the way they live.

Keeping the box neutral also can eliminate visual confusion with the department icons. Happily, some department stores are rediscovering daylight as an essential ingredient to the social experience of shopping, making environments feel warm and inviting.

As department stores become more like in-line stores, the latter will distinguish themselves by becoming more of a multi-sensory experience. Sound, touch and smell will give specialty stores interactive, more lifestyle-focused shopping environments. In-line tenants can distinguish themselves by creating an atmosphere that brings the merchandise into an active state, where people want to touch, sit next to or hold the merchandise.

The most effective store front over the last 20 or 30 years belongs to Tiffany's. Each show window brings the merchandise to life, while the surrounding materials are neutral yet as elegant as building materials can be. The light is spotted only on the merchandise, with no wasted motion.

Mall design rules are essential to the creation of "place," and a mall today must have that sense of place to survive. While department stores and freestanding stores are becoming more like in-line stores in retail strategy, they also are becoming more like the mall itself as a reflection of the center's design envelope.

Rules don't inhibit creativity as long as the rules don't change along the way. Even prototype stores, in all their glory, should have inherent flexibility to contribute to any mall's sense of place.

Robert L. Rich, AIA Baxter Hodell Donnelly Preston 3500 Red Bank Road Cincinnati, Ohio 45227-4188 (513) 271-1634

* Number of years in the industry: 19

* Recent retail project(s): Joslins, Park Meadows, Denver; Gayfers, Marketplace at Oviedo Crossing, Orlando, Fla.; Sycamore Plaza at Kenwood Mall, Cincinnati; Tri-County Mall, Cincinnati.

* Upcoming project(s): Fifth & Race Tower/Parkade Redevelopment, Cincinnati.

* Favorite retail store(s) Virgin MegaStore, Orlando: The store represents a seamless synthesis of marketing, retailing and architecture as a unit. No one characteristic is stronger than the other.

* Favorite restaurant design The Blue Door, Delano Hotel, Miami: This choice has more to do with the dream-like experience of walking through the lobby to the restaurant.

* Most improved retail image Joslins, Park Meadows, Denver: Daylight, water falls, atria - the newest stores have energy befitting Denver shoppers.

* Most admired industry figure(s) Les Wexner, founder and chief executive officer, The Limited Inc., Cincinnati: "Les has put into place many ground-breaking idea which integrate powerful design in a variety of store concepts."

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