Steve McKay, DLR Group Senior Principal, Assoc. AIA, LEED AP
It's a competitive market out there. Not only does today's shopper have a wealth of options available to her when thinking about stores and shops, but she also has choices in types of shopping experience; namely, open air centers vs. enclosed malls. With the malls now getting lifestyle village addition facelifts, it's clear that a shopper preference for the village experience is driving many development choices. So what is it about the retail village that proves irresistible to shoppers? Atmosphere. More specifically, for the purposes of this discussion, natural light.
That being said, atmosphere is not the be-all, end-all of shopping center success. The key driver in most shoppers' choice of destination is tenant mix; if a center doesn't offer a store that a shopper is interested in, they will likely go somewhere that does. But if we accept the observation that open air centers have successfully unseated the enclosed mall as the destination of choice, then we should not deny that a naturally light atmosphere plays a significant role in affecting some shoppers' willingness to linger in a shopping environment and explore some stores beyond the one that brought them there in the first place.
Not all shoppers will be encouraged by atmosphere to linger, but if we look at shoppers in three classifications, we can identify two types of shopper who atmosphere would impact:
1. The Bee-Liner: He knows what he wants, he knows where he wants to go to get it, and he gets the heck out when he's done. Nothing but the right tenant will attract him.
2. The Born to Shopper: She lives for wandering from store to store. As long as the tenant mix aligns with her tastes, she's happy in any environment. If this type of shopper has two destination choices with comparable tenant mixes, atmosphere can feasibly tip the balance when she makes a choice.
3. The Casual Explorer: She has a general idea of what she wants, and a pretty idea of which store(s) might offer it. This type of shopper is most open to explore alternatives to the store(s) that originally brought her to a center. With this shopper, atmosphere can have a direct impact on her willingness to move from store to store. If the environment feels good, she's more likely to linger and patronize other stores.
Likely, it is the latter two types of shopper that have been won over by the open-air center, contributing to its rise in dominance. Given that the enclosed mall continues to succeed---and continues to offer the distinct advantages of climate control and shelter from potentially adverse weather conditions---a natural light atmosphere alone does not merit a status of "if you build it, they will come"; rather, it offers a center distinct advantages in attracting the aforementioned types of shoppers, and when used well will offer a center a competitive edge over another where atmosphere falls flat.
For this reason, many owner, developer and design teams are exploring means to transform enclosed centers to create an atmosphere appealing to the shopping personalities who are drawn to open-air centers. But too frequently the most critical atmospheric design component---the incorporation of natural light in the enclosed environment---is value engineered out of the project scope for budget reasons; but this defeats much of the intent of conducting the improvements in the first place! If an enclosed center wishes to create a competitive atmosphere, it is important to implement a strategic natural lighting scheme.
Enter a typical enclosed mall, and you'll likely lose some of the spring in your step. Perhaps the entry features a respectable amount of glazing, allowing some daylight to fall at your feet, but within twenty steps you'll find yourself swallowed in a low-ceilinged, dim tunnel stretching on and on before you. Any sense of energy or vibrancy a shopper had while in the outdoors fades at this point.
While we have yet to see any studies of daylight on shopper behavior, those conducted in workplace and learning environments indicate that naturally-lit spaces engage the senses, spur productivity and achievement, and significantly reduce absenteeism. Extrapolate from these findings, and it's easy to believe that energizing a dim retail space with daylight will have a similar effect on a person's sense of wellbeing and willingness to linger and/or return to that environment.
The simplest solution is to conduct a renovation introducing glazing in common areas. For a current project---which, for confidentiality, we'll call Center A---on which DLR Group is working, the design team was tasked with revitalizing a classic low-ceilinged regional mall with a modest project budget. Skylights were out of the question, so the team explored a scheme of clerestory windows. Existing rooftop mechanical units provided an economical opportunity to punch through the walls and install clerestories at eight concourse locations. Although this scheme will not bathe the concourse in natural light, these punctuations will go a long way toward dispelling a shopper's sense of walking down a dark tunnel.
One could assume that if the budget allowed, the owner would want to puncture the ceiling with skylights and maximize the amount of natural light in common areas. But experiences with such strategies have shown that such assumptions are in error. That, in fact, in a low-ceilinged environment, an owner/designer team is better served to be modest with natural light introductions.
In late 2006, we completed an expansion and renovation program at Washington Square in Tigard, Ore. The existing portions of the center were in good condition due to a well-designed improvements program completed less than a decade prior to this one. Materials and finishes were in good condition, and ample skylights allowed in copious amounts of daylight. But the combination of low ceilings and skylights illustrate a counterintuitive experience: the center's atmosphere appears just as dim as an artificially lit concourse!
In tight confines, skylights serve as intense hot-spots in relation to which storefronts and concourse spaces appear darker. Such an atmosphere is a jarring experience and, despite copious amounts of daylight, largely ineffective in creating a competitively engaging mall environment. This lesson drives home that more delicate introductions of daylight (smaller windows at select locations) will better serve the center than big, bold punctures. Additionally, this lesson illustrates that daylight is not the lone key to success in creating a truly engaging atmosphere.
A shopper's experience of a retail village is not just that of natural light, but of vertical space; the simple, refreshing openness of space and skies above her. The scope of work at Washington Square gave us the opportunity to create a concourse environment emulating this experience. We placed a two-level184,000 SF expansion against the existing mall façade between two anchors; the expansion's ground level was built out for shops during this expansion, with the second level capable of accommodating a future second level expansion. The expansion included an extension of the mall concourse, two new entries, and the conversion of what had been an exterior anchor entry into an interior mall entry.
The exterior of this addition features an inviting mix of village-style storefronts that transformed the mall's exterior identity to appeal to shoppers' street-of-shops expectations. The new mall entries featured extensive glazing to bring daylight into the interior, and create transparency between the exterior and interior experience; but the gem of this expansion is the concourse atmosphere.
Building a two-level addition achieves a dramatic sense of volume, with space opening up above the shopper. Here, the light entering the space from numerous skylights is able to disperse and suffuse the entire concourse environment, achieving a genuinely breathtaking "open air" experience. A bright but sophisticatedly neutral color and materials palette enhances the lightness, and better allows storefronts to achieve visual prominence.
Although introductions of daylight into traditional mall environments will serve to alleviate claustrophobic (when compared by shoppers to open-air centers) conditions, the key to successfully day-lighting spaces is volume. In your next project, consider how much more enticing your center could be with high-volume spaces; or, if renovating a low-ceilinged environment, explore means of raising ceilings in addition to integrating natural light sources.
Volume. Turn it up to make it brighter, to attract your shoppers, and to keep them coming back.
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Published in Retail Construction magazine, October 2007