A Moral Obligation: Retail Is No Longer Retail


Retail is no longer simply retail. Retail is experience.

Throughout Southern California, we've seen brick and mortar stores and restaurants close their doors, open new locations, relocate to shiny new mega-developments, upsize and downsize their leasable square footage, renovate their spaces, and explore rebranding an effort to stay relevant in their local communities. They have worked tirelessly in a stagnated traditional mindset to increase their street presence and visibility by cutting back landscape and building bigger, brighter signage as they are forced further and further from street frontages to accommodate massive parking lots and structures required for peak days.

Main streets have been struggling as these mega-developments continue to take a majority share of patrons in our car-oriented world. Strip malls and neighborhood centers only survive thanks to their anchoring supermarket tenants that provide immediate and necessary services to the local community.


We often market large retail centers with images that spotlight the singular people space or amenity space, but how does the center as a whole connect with the community it is a part of?


Retail is no longer simply retail. Retail is changing.

But, we feel there is amazing potential in the opportunities ahead.

From "Brick and Mortar" to "Clicks to Bricks" to "Bricks to Clicks" to, finally, "Clicks AND Bricks" we are watching immense and rapid technological advancement alter the way we access, process, and interact with our retail environments.

Everything we want is at the click of a button, a Google search away. You can be told where to find it, how to find it, how to get there, when to get there, at what price it's offered, and what to expect when you receive it.

The digital era driven by online markets and overnight deliveries, by Yelp reviews and social media influencers, by sales content and world maps in the pocket of every consumer has deconstructed the concept of physical retail and, in turn, reconfigured it to fit our new virtual reality. We go where we're told to pick-up what which we've already purchased. We order food to-go, to be delivered, in order to eat when and where we feel. And we take other people's opinions for fact before finding truth for ourselves.

So what does this mean for physical, brick and mortar, retail?

It means the competitive market has diversified and increased, and the necessity of window shopping has diminished. It means that destination and experience is more important than presence along a street. It means delivery has begun to out-compete, or add dimension to, in-store commerce and dining. It means, to be successful, our retail centers hold a moral obligation, and require perseverance to, provide something for the community that cannot be solved on our mobile device, in our car, or at our home. It is one of the last of its kind in a commoditized world that is capable of providing a publicly engaged social space.


Due to codes and development standards, it's not uncommon for the reality of retail centers to feel like it's disassociated from the user they're meant to attract. Given recent trends in how we research, navigate, shop, and relax -  how can this change?


Retail is no longer strictly selling a product to a consumer market. Retail is selling a concept, an idea, a vision that creates one of the few true "social spaces" we have left. It's an entertainment and lifestyle hub, a place for people to gather, to retreat, to interact, to act. It's a place that welcomes all, turns away none, and is rewarded by doing so. It has the power to sway public opinion, encourage social change, and promote environmental - and economic - well-being.

We as developers, investors, and designers need to make sure it gets there.

We can apply levels of sophistication to our retail environments that previous generations couldn't. We can influence and integrate them even more so with both the community and the environment than those before. And because we're changing the way we perceive retail by providing true social space, we have the opportunity to think beyond the traditional mentality that may have inhibited creative development of the past.


What draws people to retail centers these days? Is it solely the specific stores that attract shoppers or are they looking for something more?


Every city, every neighborhood, will require a different approach. But, the mentality will be consistent and the question we ask will be the same: How do the values of our retail centers align with, and anticipate, the values and desires of our visitors in an evolving digital age?

What could we do if we realized we didn't need visibility from a street to attract visitors? What could we do with the space lathered in asphalt dedicated to row after row of 9'x20' striped rectangles? What if we realize we don't require "peak" days due to mobile orders and delivery, but rather access to entertainment, clean air, filtered air, and respite from an otherwise concrete jungle? How does changing the way we view our retail developments allow us to drive social and environmental change amongst our communities with private equity while still finding a return?

We have the opportunity to make a difference and give back to our neighborhoods, communities, and cities. As the old saying goes: the more you give the more you get. What if the more you give isn't a sale, it isn't a discount, it isn't "free stuff." What if what we give people is what they've ultimately craved all along: a publicly accessible social space within their communities in which they can feel proud.

What started this discussion at LandStudio360 was a simple question, one that wasn't initially intended to revolve around the impacts of technology on retail. However, with our experience both as designers of these spaces and visitors within them, the answer was eventually extrapolated to create this very journal post - as well as subsequent future journal posts.

We asked ourselves: How many people do we know drive or travel solely by Google Maps or Apple Maps?

Our most common answer: The majority.

With a massive inventory of internet data literally at our fingertips, we've become accustomed to looking down rather than up, asking a question to Google we already knew the answer to, researching opinions and advice before experiencing something for ourselves. We've expanded our reach, yet become complacent. Or, perhaps we've simply become resourceful in a new way.


Retail centers have begun to provide more than just the ability to exchange money for goods. Retail centers are now providing an overall experience that invites people in to shop, stroll, eat, play, and socialize.


We don't need to reinvent the past. We need to understand it, but simultaneously move forward based on what we've learned. All the "free resources" we have at our fingertips has opened doors that allow us to reassess what we value and what we provide back to the communities that support us.

The values of our recent past put a heavy emphasis on privatized transportation, commuting, and personal space. Our retail centers and local agencies followed suit. They put a heavy emphasis on grand signage and vehicular wayfinding, on maximization and prioritization of parking spaces, on industrial grade material to minimize maintenance. They were large stores to accommodate large inventory to accommodate large populations of people. A higher inventory meant lower relative manufacturing cost with the ultimate result of a lower cost to consumers. The competitive advantage. The competitive advantage meant higher volumes of people, higher volumes of product, larger loading bays and trash enclosures, and an insane acreage dedicated to peak parking days that sat fractionally occupied the remainder (and majority) of the year.


Can retail centers evolve to match cultural trends? How do we integrate retail and commercial into neighborhoods, create opportunities for social interaction, and adapt the experience to support technological trends through well-designed commercial centers?


Within the last 20 years, online retailers have steadily taken bites out of the physical retail environment and altered the way the average consumers approach commerce. In 2019, e-commerce made up about 14% of total US (and Global) retail sales. This figure is expected to increase closer to 16% by the end of 2020 (which may see variation by year-end with respect to the impacts of COVID-19), and if that trend continues a significant overhaul of physical retail may be in store (no pun intended).

Our priorities are shifting. And it's time we start to catch on. It's time we look at what physical retail can provide to align with our societal values that no other place can. We have a moral obligation to - because retail is no longer simply retail. Retail is changing.


At LandStudio360, we are grateful to have a diverse group of people that allow us to use each team member’s experience and network to grow. The unique circumstances of working remotely while remaining connected have encouraged our team to think strategically and expand our knowledge of the industry and possible ways to re-think exterior spaces going forward. 

We're here to help assess design challenges and provide creative solutions for this constantly changing world. Connect with us and let's get working together.