Clothing, Cafés, Cars and Culture — How centers of commerce can become centers for community

Today’s shopping malls can trace their origins to the town squares and open-air markets of the ancient world; public places that have long been hubs for commerce… but also for arts, communication, and the open exchange of ideas. We are now on the cusp of a transformation that may, once again, see these commercial hubs become more than just a place to buy jeans and grab a latte.

After a year of dealing with the global pandemic, we have experienced isolation and restrictions that limit our ability to travel, gather or interact face-to-face. But it’s not just individuals who are feeling these negative effects. Brands and organizations have been equally isolated from their customers and audiences. The cancellation of live events and the difficulty of activating in public places has left many brand marketers re-evaluating how they engage with people.

Enter the shopping mall.

Experience retail is nothing new. Even before the coronavirus changed the rules, there were many examples of bricks-and-mortar retail spaces being transformed into places for engagement rather than selling. In fact, many bore a greater resemblance to a trade-show or gallery experience than a store. Today, additional forces are at play that continue this trend of re-imagining traditional retail environments.

According to Forbes the malls of the future “will no longer be ‘shopping’ centers. Instead, they will be ‘dining, leisure and entertainment’ centers, where shopping is an adjunct (and a desirable outcome) but not necessarily the reason to go there in the first place.” Deloitte also recently released a report on the future of retail shopping centres in the post-pandemic economy and what they must do to succeed. Deloitte concurs, “Most of all, the mall must become the new meeting place for the community—a multi-purpose destination that offers extensive leisure activities as well as other functions, like office, residential, and cultural amenities. Shops should be mixed in with other complementary uses, giving visitors an interactive experience in which the entire environment comes into play.”

On one side, you have brands desiring new avenues for engaging with people. On the other side, you have retail property owners who are eager to fill empty real estate; but who are also looking to create a more diverse destination for their patrons. Add to this the fact that retail is likely to be one of the first areas of the economy to re-open, and you have a perfect solution for all parties.

Consider this: Canadian Geographic reports that the busiest shopping mall in North America is Toronto’s Eaton Centre, which receives 57.3 million visitors annually — more than Walt Disney World and about as many as Times Square in New York City. So how can brands take advantage of this kind of potential audience?

Recently, Nissan approached kubik to develop an alternative to auto shows. With cancellations to their primary public events, the focus turned to reaching an online audience. Kubik helped develop a strategy to create a vehicle showroom to host live one-on-one product demos over the internet. Nissan Studio became part of kubik’s new G-Commerce (Guided Commerce) platform; a strategy for providing high-quality online engagements with live product experts in real-world showrooms and briefing centers. The physical Nissan Studio space could easily have been created in a warehouse, sound stage or other industrial building. However, kubik and Nissan opted for a location with a higher public profile. Partnering with Oxford Properties,  Nissan Studio was launched at the beginning of 2021 within Toronto’s Yorkdale Shopping Center.

Deloitte’s report echoes the Nissan Studio strategy, advising that shopping centers need to “embrace technology, capitalizing on digital tools to…create experiences that are dynamic and engaging” and “rethink their rental models to allow for different types of retail experiences, such as showrooms, short-term pop-ups or exhibitions and other innovation formats.”

Speaking of exhibitions, Oxford has also embraced new arts and cultural experiences by partnering with the Art Gallery of Ontario and playing host to a number of experiential art installations and exhibits. In Fall 2020, they welcomed the Neil Dankoff–Kandy Gallery, featuring the photographer’s stunning landscape photography, and joining existing galleries in New York, Montreal and Memphis. Recently they welcomed an on-site gallery for Peter Triantos, a contemporary abstract artist who has been featured in numerous shows and exhibits across North America, Europe and Asia.

Art was also at the center of the Baycrest Brain Project, which involved a three-way partnership between The Baycrest Foundation, Yogen Früz and Yorkdale, to amplify awareness and fundraising opportunities. The Brain Project invited shoppers to view 50 brain sculptures, transformed into striking works of art. Each artist applied their own unique medium to create a piece of art telling the story behind their support of the cause. The unique exhibition prompted conversations about art, brain health and what these mean to each individual admiring the various personalized sculptures.

Mall goers are getting accustomed to seeing unique shops like the Tesla Store or Nestle’s Kit-Kat Chocolatory, but imagine taking in a performance or visiting a travelling museum display or an art installation on your next trip to the mall. What if unused storefronts were transformed into a modern library or a science lab? As unlikely as some of these ideas might seem, the private sector is full of brands that are always looking for ways to align themselves with something that is near and dear to their core values. So, why couldn’t a bank host an art space, or a pharmaceuticals company promote a youth chemistry and science camp?

The future of retail is already here for development companies like Westbrook, who are partnering with QuadReal Property Group to redevelop Vancouver’s Oakridge Center, slated to re-open in 2024. Westbrook is reimagining Oakridge with the goal of transforming it into a major cultural hub and a new municipal town centre.


Savvy brands can leverage the nation-wide reach that property owners (like Oxford, Westbrook and others) can offer, in order to reach a larger audience and target consumers who are lured by fresh experiences, new ideas and exclusive finds.  Strategic brand partnerships are certainly nothing new but partnering with progressive retail locations to reach new customers and extend brand reach will be the way of the future.

Whether you employ the arts, science or cultural experience, or you just want to create a unique brand experience, the bottom line is to start thinking outside of the retail box – not all shops need to be stores, and not all brand interactions need to sell something. By taking a new perspective, real estate owners can create more unique experiences for their patrons, brands can find new places to reach a wider audience, and we can once again create central community spaces that are more diverse and enriching to us all.

kubik is an experiential marketing agency that creates physical and digital brand platforms of all types and sizes for a multitude of industries.

 Ready to explore how you can leverage commercial and retail space to create an unforgettable customer experience? Our retail and event specialists can help you to strategize, design, execute and manage a successful, high-impact program.

Contact us today, via email at info@thinkubik.com or by phone at 1 (877) 252-2818.


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