Since Amazon came on the scene in the mid-1990s, the retail landscape has been radically reshaped nationwide, but some regions have been more directly impacted than others. Most notably, storefront retail has suffered in major urban centers such as Manhattan. After years of retailers pulling out of New York’s most popular retail districts—or choosing to maintain a single flagship storefront while shutting down smaller outlets—the effects of online shopping on retail real estate are crystal clear. According to Cushman and Wakefield, retail vacancies in SoHo are currently hovering just under 25 percent and in some major shopping districts in New York City, nearly one third of retail spaces are currently vacant.
With shoppers increasingly doing their shopping online rather than in store, retailers are naturally looking for ways to lure shoppers back. Tactics deployed by retailers include everything from complimentary wine at happy hour to intensified personalized service to off-beat in-store experiences. At the Yeti store in Austin, for example, one can hang out at the store’s bar, catch a concert on the store’s stage, or take selfies next an eight-foot-tall stuffed bear. Until recently, one Saks Fifth Avenue location even tested the waters with an in-house psychic who proved wildly popular until she was charged with extorting the store’s customers. In addition to complimentary drinks, experiences, and gimmicks, some retailers are also attempting to lure shoppers back with retail locations designed by top architects. But do starchitect-designed stores actually attract more customers?
Starchitect-designed retail projects
Over the past decade, a growing number of retailers have been investing in retail projects that aim for more than utility. Consider, for example, Moshe Safdie and Peter Marino bold collaboration for Louis Vuitton at Singapore’s Marina Bay Sands’ Crystal Pavilions. The Louis Vuitton store, however, is just one part of a larger mixed-use retail and entertainment venue designed by Safdie Architects that is essentially comprised of two glass buildings hovering over the water on the Marina Bay waterfront. Visitors can access the retail and entertainment pavilion either from a bridge or via underwater tunnels. While certainly the sort of retail venue likely to lure shoppers away from their screens, the cost of the Safdie project in Singapore is also notable—the project reportedly cost $5.7 billion.
London-based David Chipperfield Architects have been exploring the retail landscape. Among their notable designs is the Valentino store on New York City’s Fifth Avenue. Another star architectural firm leaving their mark on retail design is OMA led by Rem Koolhaus. OMA has designed stores for Repossi, Samsung, and Hyundai, and Coach. Daniel Libeskind who is best known for his more serious works, including the Jewish Museum in Berlin, has also been dabbling in retail design over the past decade. One of his most notable retail projects to date is Las Vegas’ Crystals at CityCenter, which reportedly cost $1.13 billion. Like Libeskind, Frank Gehry may be primarily known for his work on museums and cultural venues, but this hasn’t prevented him from also working on retail projects. At 89, Gehry is still bringing turning out bold designs, most recently unveiling plans to transform Los Angeles’ Sunset Strip with a new mixed-use retail and residential project. Unfortunately, to make way for Gehry’s new development, at least one notable mid-century modern building will be demolished.
While most starchitect-led projects continue to be based in urban centers, in recent years, at least a few suburban projects have also been launched. Toronto-based Adamson Associates Architects—who also designed the entry pavilion at the 9/11 Memorial Museum—is currently just one of the firms participating in the completion of the American Dream Meadowlands in New Jersey. When complete, the suburban mall will cover more than three million square feet. But it hasn’t been easy; the $5 billion project, which is expected to be complete in 2019, has had three developers and taken over 15 years to complete.
The long history of architecture and retail
If retailers are betting on architecture to lure customers back to stores, it is not entirely surprising. In fact, architecture has long been used to lure customers and bring certain types of consumers together in the same location.
For example, in the 19th century as iron and glass construction—along with the arrival of gas and eventually electric lighting—were dramatically changing all types of architecture, elaborate indoor arcades were constructed in Paris. These arcades are often cited as a notable precursor to the modern shopping mall since they enabled shoppers to explore shops freely whatever the weather. More importantly, however, unlike the pre-modern city where shops were typically grouped by type or function—hat makers would be found on one street while butchers would occupy another—with the rise of Paris arcades, shops increasingly became clustered together on the basis of the customers they sought to serve. Strolling through an arcade in Paris wasn’t simply about shopping. People also went to the arcades to simply to see (window show) and be seen. In many respects, this tradition is simply being revised in the current retail landscape.
There are strong indications that even online shoppers often visit stores first to experience a product firsthand. One recent study found that 55 percent of online shoppers visit a store before making online purchases. In a retail climate where many people want to touch, feel and/or try on products but still purchase them online at a later date, stores no longer primarily function as small warehouses or supply centers with showrooms. In short, retail spaces are no longer places where inventory is stored and distributed but increasingly places where people can experience products in order to make future purchasing decisions. Given this notable shift, it seems likely that moving forward, retail closures will continue but that we will also see more starchitect-led flagship stores—stores designed to lure in customers and offer a memorable experience but not necessarily drive immediate sales.
Lead image: 8150 Sunset Boulevard by Frank Gehry, courtesy of Visualhouse