16 Nov Mixed-Use or Mall?

As I was traversing the dozens of stores and restaurants in Ponce City Market, a thought crossed my mind. “Isn’t this basically a mall?” The decline of shopping malls in America is nothing new, but I’ve found myself fascinated by their epic demise when mixed-use spaces often feel like an upgraded reiteration of the same concept. So seriously, what’s the difference? Why are mixed-use spaces blooming while shopping malls are withering away?

When you think of going to the mall, you think of spending. But spending money isn’t the only thing that comes to mind. You’re also spending your time. In the past, many people considered a day at the mall a good use of both time and money. The mall’s big box retail stores, fast food options, and expansive layout were a playground for consumers who had become indifferent to the run-of-the-mill shopping experience. It was in fact, an experience, which was a marked difference from the status quo at the time. Shopping at the mall was not just done out of necessity for a particular item, it was meant to be fun. Shoppers could browse at stores they would otherwise never visit, teens could meet up and goof off, and families could enjoy a meal in the food court after a day of Sunday afternoon shopping. The all-in-one component of malls created more than just convenience for shoppers. It cultivated a new leisure experience. So what’s changed? People still enjoy convenience, they still need to buy things and want to browse, and teens still want a place to goof off. Well, people may have the same needs, but their tastes have drastically changed.

Big box stores have famously served as the anchors of shopping malls. These large establishments were a major draw for consumers and securing their tenancy was the key to pulling in other retail stores and restaurants. Today, buyers can purchase products from big box stores online. As a matter of fact, many prefer to do so. Online shopping never closes, you can often find better deals, and for some, going into a physical store is inconvenient. Big box stores are product-focused and the experience factor is secondary to the sale. This approach is reasonable from a business perspective and if you know your products will always be in demand, there may not be an incentive to change. But this doesn’t mesh well with the increased interest in experience-based shopping. If consumers take the time to visit your store in person, they want to experience something unique.

The smaller boutique shops that fill mixed-use spaces often go the extra mile to create a shopping experience that is personalized to their clientele and intriguing to newcomers. Chubbies at Ponce City Market, for example, is unique in product offerings and customer service style. The store offers fun, casual clothing with a humorous affinity for sweat shorts, or as they describe it, “the greatest innovation in lounging since hammock cup holders were invented in the early 1780’s”. As you shop, you’re greeted with lighthearted conversation and friendly assistance from laidback bros who sport the very clothes you see on the racks. Their style choices don’t feel like a corporate mandate, they seem genuine, along with the décor, music, and personality of the shop that is as comfortable as it is authentic. While you shop for clothes, you can sip on a beer from The Tap on Ponce downstairs or munch on safe to eat cookie dough from Batter Cookie Dough Counter just a few doors down. The food court of today forgoes traditional fast food in favor of unique food and drink choices you won’t find anywhere else. Needless to say, shopping at Ponce City Market and other mixed-use spaces is a new, refreshing experience.

In the modern age, big box stores also suffer from the stench of soulless corporatism. High profile cases of low wages and employee mistreatment haunt many popular franchises along with dated layouts and bleary fluorescent lighting. As online options get cheaper, shopping at these hubs can feel draining and even problematic. Now more than ever, consumers are principled purchasers, increasingly wanting to invest in companies that contribute to the public good. When building out a mixed-use space, consumers want thoughtful tenant choices that showcase diverse and ethical brands. These small-scale, often lesser known businesses don’t carry the same negative reputations and generally have a moral initiative baked into their mission statement. For their design, mixed-use developers frequently acquire older properties that give the space cultural significance, a retro flair, and a combination of outdoor and indoor amenities. This look is a far cry from the boxy, enclosed design of malls.

Perhaps one of the most important elements of mixed-use success comes down to better marketing. Mixed-use spaces sell the shopping experience, the ethical and environmental impact, and improved designs of these developments. When viewing the two through a marketing lens, I’m reminded of the conversation about tiny homes versus mobile homes. Essentially, they are the same thing. But tiny homes seem to have a better ring to it for buyers with higher incomes and unique tastes. By changing the packaging of an existing product and upgrading the quality, marketers have managed to sell consumers on something very similar to what market trends say are the demands of yesteryear.

The mall as we’ve always known it may be on the decline, but the desire for shopping centers that serve as hubs for gathering, consuming, and creating experiences are here to stay. With malls serving as the blueprint, mixed-use spaces are the new physical place to be for consumerism. So when I find myself asking, “Isn’t this basically a mall?” The answer is, well kind of. But the differences between the mall of the past and the contemporary mixed-use space are just distinctive enough to lead modern consumers away from one and towards the other.

Bruce Freides