November 22, 2021

Designing the Retail Experience of Tomorrow

We live in a time of community soul searching. In 2020, global capitalism was taken to its knees by the pandemic, and while the world is slowly making its way back to normal, things like climate change and social unrest have also created an uncertain future. In our role as designers of mixed-use and retail environments, it is our responsibility to contemplate how we move forward in a healthy way for business, our customers, and the communities that we serve.

During this time of evolving working conditions, considerations like walkability, equity, sense of security, and personal space have all come to the forefront within the built environment. The percentage of people using online shopping has also increased. All these factors contribute to carving out customers from a live retail environment. Much of the talk to resolve this issue revolves around experiential venues. When approaching this strategy here are a few things to consider:

1. The experience needs to be authentic

As people travel and experience different retail environments, they are searching for experiences that are unique to the local community. These experiences become ingrained in the memory of that place. When the environment is positively enhanced for those dwelling there and it has variables that create an evolving space, it drives the desire to return again and again.

The Domain—a high-density office, retail, and residential center located in northwest Austin, Texas

At The Domain, the city of Austin required that the project design integrate and protect the 100-year-old oak trees on the site. Working with an outstanding local landscape team and referencing the organic feeling of the Hill Country architecture in the region, design architect Rand Harder and his team let the streets and architecture meander around the trees. The result is a project that could only be placed in that community and is an instant classic.

2. The experience needs to be comfortable

This includes integrating the online shopping experience with the street experience. It is important to utilize technology that enhances the customer's life instead of making it more confusing, so choosing products that are simple and intuitive is essential.

At Sonic EchoPark, technology enhances the space and makes it easier for customers to browse the used car retailer's stock of vehicles

In her opinion piece, “Putting people first: the key priorities for a post-pandemic smart city,” Westminster City Council’s chief digital and innovation officer Aruj Haider described a vision that applies well to healthy retail/mixed-use developments.

“The successful cities of the future will be those that place their people first,” she wrote, “We believe a truly smart city is one that works for everyone. Ultimately, technology comes second to the people it serves.”

3. The experience needs to be flexible

The Innovation Barn in Charlotte, NC is designed for flexibility and disassembly. All materials are “circular” meaning they are either recycled, sustainably sourced from renewable sources, or designed for longevity and reuse.

As the retail environment continues to transform, the ability to adapt to a new way of shopping and spatial experience needs to be thoughtfully integrated into future retail and mixed-use developments. The idea of foundational elements that are repeatable and familiar provides a framework from which an environment can shift and adapt in response to the needs of its patrons. Columns, neutral piers, consistent signage concepts and lighting all help in wayfinding, clarity, and familiarity. Layering unique components on top of that foundation creates flexible and dynamic variations within the environment. If those components are flexible, they change the environment every time a person moves from point A to point B. Some examples include retractable storefronts, on-street dining, and pocket parks with movable sculpture or furniture.

4. The experience needs to be inclusive

The focus and drive for equity and inclusivity have never been more relevant than they are today. The very concept of mixed-use development comes down to the idea of designing spaces that serve a broad spectrum of users for a variety of uses. Providing equitable spaces that are inviting and can be experienced by all people regardless of ability, culture, age, and gender is a powerful design tool to create inclusivity within our communities.

One measurable strategy is adopting the principals of Universal Design (UD) in the planning and operation of retail spaces. UD is the idea that a building or space can be built and designed in a way that makes it inclusive, equitable, and accessible for a wide range of people. UD dares us to look further than differences in physical and cognitive abilities, to create an environment that is designed with everyone in mind. In short, Universal Design has the potential to make life healthier, more productive, and friendlier. It promotes continuous improvement toward the goal of full inclusion.

With the recently completed Miracle Park in Rock Hill, SC, UD principals incorporated into the project resulted in Rock Hill being selected as the 2019 National Civic League “All American City” winner due in large part to the community embracing inclusivity. The result is a community asset centered around a Miracle League sports complex, with a mix of retail, playgrounds, parks, athletic facilities, and café spaces that are accessible to people of all abilities—breaking down cultural and social barriers to provide an experience that is memorable and magnetic.

Miracle Park in Rock Hill, SC is designed with Universal Design principles so that all may participate


The future of retail mixed-use environments is an exciting one. The pandemic has allowed us to take a step back and reflect on a path forward. By incorporating the smart design strategies of authenticity, comfort, flexibility, and inclusivity, we can shape environments that enhance the community, bring people together and create an experience—attracting patrons and creating destinations which are important in the fabric of our communities today and beyond.

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