CallisonRTKL has harnessed the power of more than five decades leading the way on design trends to shape our predictions of where the shopping mall and the retail experience are heading for the next 20 years and beyond. Originally based on a commission from Ivanhoé Cambridge, our designers, architects and planners from all over the globe have combined efforts and expertise to create this forecast. As we outline our top predictions, we look at where we’ve been, where we are now and where we’re going, pinpointing the cutting-edge trends that will take off in the coming years to give the ever-changing consumer an extraordinary retail experience.

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Old Mall Model vs the New

Starting as far back as the 1950s and into the 1980s and 90s, the traditional American mall was the hub of activity and social life for many people, but today, the mall has to compete with other channels, venues and activities to attract a new kind of consumer. A consumer who has more options than ever before but is also less interested in spending hard-earned cash on accumulating more “stuff.” Today’s consumer is after the experience and buying things that serve a purpose and make the world a better place, while also having the ability to compare options at the touch of a button.

The empowered mall consumer

Shopping by the Numbers

Malls annual revenue per customer chart

Let’s start with a few facts. There are about 1,200 malls in the United States and one-third of them are dead or dying. The best ones, the ones that people return to again and again, are the ones that offer something more than a typical shopping experience. And the numbers bear that out for developers and retailers — customers who have the best past experiences at a retailer spend 140% more than people who had the worst experiences. [Source: Medallia Analysis]

These great shopping experiences don’t happen by chance. They are carefully crafted based on consumer trends and changes in how many Americans live their lives. We are seeing tremendous shifts in cultural, socioeconomic and life-stage demographics across the United States. These shifts will continue to have innumerable effects, but a few already stand out. The current generation of American youth is the most diverse in history, giving everyone the opportunity to be exposed to new ideas, new cuisines and new ways of doing things. People are not just getting used to trying new things all the time; they seek it out. This translates to retail and shopping centers through flexible spaces that host changing brands, food options and activities that add something more than the national chains found in every city.

Mallgoer Diversity in the United States
Mallgoer Age in the United States

The Incredible Traveling Consumer

Mall neighborhoods report

The way people get around is changing too. The United States has been slow to adopt public transit and infrastructure compared to other parts of the world, but many cities and a huge swath of people of all ages are coming around to the idea. Last year, the United States saw the highest public transit ridership since President Eisenhower signed the Federal Highway Act in 1956, and this is not a Millennial versus Gen X versus Baby Boomer trend—people of all ages now say that their ideal neighborhood is a mixed-use neighborhood.

That also ties into a cross-demographic desire for walkability, with a majority of people saying they prefer walkable neighborhoods and nine out of ten saying they want to live within a short walking distance of activities in their communities, including shopping. For the future retail experience, that means the mall is not just a mall, but an entire community center with access to transit, offices and co-working facilities, apartments and townhouses, museums, childcare and outdoor spaces. What was once a mall is becoming a micro city, or a “city within a city” depending on the surroundings, and it is changing the face of American retail.

Walkability Report by National Association of Realtors

The Mall’s Swan Song? Hardly.

USA Mall Consumer Expenditures

Finally, we've been hearing for at least a decade that online shopping is going to kill brick-and-mortar shopping centers. The fact remains that our country still has a very healthy retail outlook, both online and in person. Overall, retail sales grew almost 2% last year and online sales grew about 15% [Source: U.S. Census Bureau]. Online sales are predicted to be about 11% of all retail sales by 2018 [Source: Forrester Research]. Notably, food has become a major solution for saving brick-and-mortar retail; consumers can sign up for an online subscription for household goods from batteries to diapers to paper towels, but they still have to leave the house to check out the hottest new restaurant in town or indulge at a local food or wine festival.

For the first time ever, in 2015 Americans started spending more money on dining out than buying groceries. For retailers and developers, the race to getting more customers should be based on offering the kinds of novel, creative and varied dining experiences that make people come back again and again. That goes double for the retail experience as technology advances more quickly every year and customers start to expect an integrated, exciting in-person shopping experience to lure them away from their computers. At the same time, retailers will significantly up their games online with technology that provides online shoppers with the perks of shopping in person, creating even more competition for brick-and-mortar retail.

The Mall of
the 1990s

Let’s start at the beginning. The first American malls started springing up in the 1950s and took over the retail landscape. These malls were suburban, required customers to drive to them and park, and had a standard lineup of mass market chain stores, not to mention the ubiquitous food court with all the usual suspects. The department store was the main shopping attraction and allowed suburbanites to avoid going into the city. Malls had a heyday through the 1990s and have become the symbol of American consumerism that everyone loves to hate and hates to love. Consider this a love letter to the mall of the 1990s—an old friend who has seen better days but can rise again with some futuristic thinking and some elbow grease.

The Mall of the 1990s

The Mall of the 1990s

  • The familiar suburban shopping mall was shaped like a dumbbell, typically with a large department store anchoring each end.
  • The ubiquitous mall atrium seals the shopping center off from the elements while letting in sunlight, attempting to recreate Main Street indoors.
  • The traditional food court was a true innovation at one time, encouraging people to stay at the mall longer and offering a social component to the shopping experience.
  • The mall of yesterday is surrounded by sprawling parking lots and parking garages, catering to customers in the market to buy anything from a prom dress to hand towels.
  • Driving is still the only way to get to most older malls; their suburban locations mean extremely limited walkability and public transit options.

The Mall of

Today’s top performing shopping centers are a mix of ground-up, mixed-use districts, traditional high-streets with a unique appeal, or existing malls owned by developers with the ability to anticipate changing consumer needs and adapt accordingly. Some of the most innovative existing developments have integrated public transit, multi-purpose spaces and a sought-after mix of national brands and local stores.

Mall of the Today

The Mall of Today

  • Consumers are favoring a flexible food model over traditional or even “deconstructed” food courts, with higher-end restaurants mixed with mid-market options, creating a neighborhood feel.
  • Unleased spaces are being repurposed as temporary incubators and pop-ups for food, local retailers and even national brands.
  • Newer in-mall technology includes interactive maps and wayfinding, and digital tabletops at restaurants. Some brands are looking to the future as well with apps that allow shoppers to “try on” different shades of makeup and mirrors that show customers what they’ll look like in selected items of clothing.
  • Today’s malls have more of a community focus with charity restaurants, and programmable spaces for events like farmers markets, community gardens, and amphitheaters.
  • Depending on the market, some top malls are building in culture like art exhibits and installations.
  • Mall owners are using unleased area as warehouse space for “click and collect” merchandise and same-day delivery for online orders.
  • Malls are starting to integrate technology to encourage shoppers to engage digitally.

The Mall of
the Future

What we know for sure is that the mall of the future is not a mall. It’s an entirely new retail experience—one that will change throughout the year and even throughout the day to keep people coming back for new, fresh experiences. These advancements will affect developers, consumers, retail brands and designers, from the smallest neighborhood strip mall to the most impressive Class-A regional shopping center. The future of retail is ever-changing and ever-evolving and it’s up to developers, retailers and designers to pinpoint what fads will fade and what trends will cement themselves and flourish into the future.

The big picture for malls

The big picture for malls

The Big Picture

  • The future mall is walkable, accessible by car, bike, and train, and we will see an even bigger increase in retail around airports, bridging the gap between the retail, food and travel industries.
  • Nanotechnology will transform exterior materials, providing enhanced plasticity for concrete, resistive carbon nanofibers that repel ice and snow on roads and sidewalks, and small nanotubes that will replace traditional steel cables.
  • Retail is just the start—the new mall will have residential components, office space, co-working areas, and civic and event spaces for individuals to customize to their needs.
  • Advances in green energy mean the mall of the future is net zero.
  • Smart parking garages will house electric and self-driving cars with elevator parking and, of course, shoppers can call up their vehicles via app.
The Retail Lineup

The Retail Lineup

  • The mall of the future is anchored by food and experience. That means food halls, unexpected restaurants, urban farms, cooking classes, pop-up vendors and specialty food stores. These are even programmed to change with the time of day, attracting visitors beyond the standard office lunch and quick dinner.
  • The food experience is everywhere and nowhere. Customers experience the sense of discovery of a food festival or street food in a new city, rather than a boring food court.
  • Idealism is alive and well. Streamlined sourcing labels, vetting processes and increased connectivity will make it even easier for consumers to vote with their dollars and choose retailers and products that have a positive effect wherever they can.
  • The future mall is ever-changing, constantly evolving and programmed year-round to make sure customers come back for the experience instead of heading online. This pop-up infrastructure is anchored by a pre-set retail common area and experience to maintain quality control, and flexible storefronts that facilitate plug-in retail and entertainment. Design-wise, malls will require twice the common area of the typical malls we see today.
The Tech Component

The Tech Component

  • In vertical malls, cable-free elevators will move shoppers vertically and horizontally.
  • “Click and collect” will remain a must, but will take mere moments.
  • Bigger, better connectivity. It’s not about gadgets, it’s about infrastructure. Consumers and brands will be able to access reliable warehouse data, past purchases and other details for a totally customized shopping experience.
  • The rooftop will be activated for entertainment, dining and gardens. This takes advantage of wasted space, reduces runoff and flooding, reduces heat transmission, saves energy, increases building lifespan, reduces dust and increases moisture in the air.
  • Customers can access app-based delivery for food and goods anywhere in the mall, with alerts that pick up is ready at one of several food stations. Robot delivery will be an option in some shopping centers as well.
The Customer Experience

The Customer Experience

  • Shoppers will seek out educational experiences like a rotating schedule of cooking classes, language courses and thought-provoking lectures to keep life interesting.
  • The future mall provides an authentic “taste of place” rather than the standard retail chains found in every city. Diners can grow their own dinner with on-site vegetable gardens and urban bee hives. The move toward local eating and re-entering our place in the seasonal eating cycle will fuel this trend well into the future, along with conscientious dining materials that can be composted or recycled.
  • Interactive fitting suites allow customers to select items online from any brand at the mall, then head to their private “suite” to try on their choices.
  • Seamless check-out makes shopping feel more like stealing.
  • Stores will have a smaller footprint but extra square footage will continue to be used for warehousing of inventory for same-day drone delivery.