As the retail apocalypse for brick and mortar achieves thundering hoofbeat status, the consensus strategy for keeping malls and shopping districts vibrant focuses on a renewed emphasis on the “retail experience.” This isn’t a new idea. It’s doubling down on brand.
In the past, shoppers may have thought that they were entering into a transactional choreography - they enter a building in order to trade money for a shirt, say - but retail strategists have always been selling more than merely the product; they have been selling the brand, offering shoppers an opportunity to join the community defined by the brand’s values.
And while this strategy has been amplified by traditional brick and mortar retailers looking to maintain relevance despite the threat of e-commerce - Nordstrom Local being a prime example - it is not so clear how to co-opt this strategy if you’re not an individual retail establishment. What do you do if you’re a shopping district - a Downtown Association or a Community Benefits District - looking to ensure the continued health of your retail members while avoiding stepping on their branded retail experience toes? It’s not just a question of how to communicate your neighborhood’s brand via curated events (although that is inevitably a part of it), it’s a more fundamental question, and it ties into the place-based nature of any retail or cultural district. If you’re a standalone store, the experience you offer is portable and recreatable at multiple sites across the country with small tweaks to accommodate local audiences’ tastes. But if you’re a shopping district your brand is unshakably bound up with where you are. It’s simply not portable. And that means your brand needs to reflect both your component members (the rainbow of experiences that together combine to form the first layer of visitor experience) as well as the inherent personality of the place itself. You have to offer your visitors a sense of membership, not just to the brand, but also to the place itself.
This isn’t a new challenge; with limited variations, there are numerous other arenas in which organizations have been creating community, place-based or not, for years. So we’re going to investigate these other arenas and see what we can borrow. Each of the following sections will include a discussion of the borrowable tools for that particular category as well as a discussion of how the tool in question could be applied in an urban retail setting.
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Religion has been at this game for a while. For centuries, churches, mosques, synagogues, and temples have been crafting, adapting, and refining experiences that form the foundation of place-based community. They are in the business of making lives meaningful. Their tools include rituals, life-cycle connections, and what I’ll call enveloping architecture.
Ritual is the obvious one. Executing the same task repeatedly, in the same place and in the same manner, has three interesting effects. First, by engaging people in organized choreography it delineates membership. If everyone is doing the same thing at the same time, their actions demonstrate the visual boundaries of the team. Second, and a direct result of the first, is that repeated engagement in ritual over time encourages empathy. By becoming part of something larger than oneself, it creates an opportunity to escape one’s problems and instead empathize with one’s fellow practitioners in a way that, frankly, can be a relief. And third, the repetition of ritual causes increased awareness of the passage of time, which can be deeply satisfying in its ability to put the daily challenges of life into perspective.
Application: Alright, so this is all very philosophical. How to put any of it into practice in the relatively mundane world of urban retail? The trick is to strip away the connotations of religious ritual and instead focus on the core definition of the word ‘ritual’ itself: a series of actions performed according to a prescribed order. Some examples of public space rituals already exist - the weekly visit to the farmer’s market, the annual Black Friday pilgrimage, your commute. For existing rituals like this, the trick may just be to connect the activity with membership, or even to call attention to the overlooked fact that they exist. Could farmers market visitors all be given a t-shirt or hat to tout their loyalty, so that when they’re out and about in the community they are constantly stumbling across other members of the club they hadn’t previously realized they were a part of? This isn't as far-fetched as it may seem. Have you ever commiserated with a relative stranger after discovering they take the same perpetually delayed train in and out of the city as you? If so you were both affirming your membership in the same club.
Further, what new rituals can be created? The best rituals are serendipitous offshoots of necessary tasks because they carry their authentic roots along with them, but everything has to start somewhere and seeding ritual is possible. Organized morning tai-chi, monthly student field trips, periodic volunteer clean-up events. Most of these are already out there, but when viewing them through the lens of ritual, their underlying value to a sense of membership becomes clear.
Life Cycle Connections
The window of opportunity for forging relationships is not open the same amount all the time, and it’s not binary (either open or shut). There are moments in time when it yawns open invitingly, and religion has taken advantage of this. Lifecycle events - births, weddings, deaths - cause participants to be far more present than on the average day. They are aware of themselves and the role they play in the larger dance of life in a profound way.
Application: It’s tough to imagine a shopping district in this role. Normal people don’t go to Forever 21 for grief counseling. But there are opportunities for strengthening community ties through lifecycle events, especially if you target second-order life cycle events - occasions that are less fraught but still mark the passage of time or a threshold in life. Could your open plaza host a high school graduation, or even something so minor (to everyone but the parents) as a preschool graduation? Or could a street be closed to accommodate a drama or musical performance by a local school? Partnerships can be key here, with educational institutions (and their endless run of graduations, recitals, and other performances) and even with religious institutions themselves. Easter egg hunts and Christmas tree lightings are already common commercialized events that create positive associations to otherwise secular spaces, but consider other opportunities for an annual event that draws in people who are in a mood to form memories and relationships to place. Can you leverage a scenic spot and make it popular for formalized newlywed photoshoots? Not just a place where people come with their photographer, but a place where the newlyweds are given a unique keepsake that communicates your brand?
Whether it’s massively scaled cathedrals or the intimate space created by the overhanging chuppah at a Jewish wedding, religion often relies on formal and informal architecture to elicit the desired emotion in visitors, making them feel embraced and welcomed, or small and awed.
Application: Operating within reasonable budgetary bounds, there are numerous ways to create partial and/or temporary enclosures that create a welcoming, human-scaled spaces. Strung Christmas lights over an alley, for example, go a long way. Stevenson Alley, one block south of Market Street in San Francisco, is generally not a savory place. It can reek of urine. But the owners of Montesacro Pinseria, a little Italian place tucked away on the alley, have strung lights from building facade to building facade that somehow manage to transform the alley into a welcoming arcade. Borough Market in London thrives in its location under overhead train lines, emphasizing its workingman’s roots, cocooning it within the railroad cacophony, and sheltering visitors from the elements. Use whatever tools are at hand, and try to transform what might otherwise be your site’s physical constraints into unique features that benefit. Possibilities include bandshells, planter boxes, public seating, mature tree canopies (hard to achieve quickly, no doubt), even the use of light fixtures to mark the boundary of a space and turn it into an outdoor room.
There are few things in America people feel more passionately about than sports, which is absurd when you consider that it entails adults running around in coordinated outfits playing a game meant for children. But instead of viewing America’s sports obsession as an indictment on our culture, think of it as proof of that people are fundamentally tribal: they want to be grouped geographically and they want to cheer for representatives of that place. Which, if you’re a Downtown Association or a Community Benefit District, can be a good thing, given that your brand is a place.
There are two strategies that sports teams use to attract and deepen connections with their fans. First, they emphasize the cast of characters. And second, even though at its core watching sports is a passive act, teams encourage interactive fan culture.
It’s a Soap Opera
It can be easy to assume that all players on a team are interchangeable parts, since they’re all wearing the same clothing and to the outsider seem to be executing similar roles, but that misses a key element that invested fans know well: any sport season is a year-long episode of complex theater. Players are injured and struggle to return to their former heights (see Comeback Player of the Year Awards), young rookies look to unseat established veterans, coaches employ philosophical strategies in battle with their nemeses. As a sports fan myself, it wasn’t until my late 20s that I realized how similar it was to following soap operas, with myriad character arcs to follow. And it reboots every year. Further, like soap opera fans, sports fans choose their favorite players and form relationships with them, even if the players have no idea who the fans are.
Application: Translating this to real world retail and public space application isn’t as hard as it may seem. Avid shoppers have firm loyalties to particular stores due to pricing, customer service, accessibility, or even ambience. But that is not the purview of a CBD or BID. What we’re talking about here is leveraging a basic element of human nature: as social animals we form relationships, even when, as in sports fandom, targets of our bonding are ignorant of our existence. We instinctively create purely fictional relationships with ostensible strangers. Sometimes, in our day-to-day retail life, the relationships are two way, if shallow. Think of the patter of the quintessential small town grocer, or the barista who knows your coffee preferences and schedule. There is real value in making customers feel as though they are known, welcomed, and valued - ask any restaurateur.
But other times, as with sports, it’s completely one-way. And it is in these ways that we think there is an opportunity. Every neighborhood has its own cast of characters, and raising their profile, emphasizing the inherent theatrical nature of city life, can strengthen your visitors’ relationships with your site. If the characters are or will be employed by you, go out of your way to hire memorable people who are always aware that they are part of the theater of place. It’s not just the customer service of the ambassadors, but their willingness and ability to let their personality show in the way they carry out their job. And not only the street ambassadors but also the street cleaning crew and any other staff members who are in the field. Hire characters and encourage them to let their flags fly.
As for non-employees, seek out the characters and highlight them. Honor them at events and via social media, whether formally or tongue-in-cheek. Even if individually they do not align with your brand, the accumulative effect of characters creates a stickiness for your neighborhood.
It’s a Sing-Along
So much of being a die-hard sports fan entails signifying your loyalty through wearing the latest gear or having a mastery of arcane knowledge. And sports organizations have created an infrastructure on which people can climb and compete. Beyond the basic act of selling the brand through emblazoned clothing, there are choreographed cheers and songs that become similar to religious rituals in their ability to unite strangers around a common cause.
From the wave to college fight songs, there is a powerful transformation caused by choreographed activities executed by large groups of people. And it doesn’t have to be any sort of complex choreography, either. Think of the power of walking in a protest march.
Application: There are certain times of the year when shoppers come out in full force, and those moments should be leveraged for all they are worth. Not just for revenue for your members, but for the externalities that come with the crowds. Are visitors shoulder to shoulder in the outdoor corridors or your district? It can be unpleasant for many to be cheek to jowl; why not make light of it? Throw some beach balls in the air and encourage playfulness. Instead of hiring (or being inundated with) performance artists to entertain the crowds, bring someone in to conduct the crowds in massive singalongs as they march from store to store.
In America, particularly today, politics is both sport and religion. Like sport it has a regularly scheduled championship, complete with the semifinals of party primaries. And like religion it is deeply tied up with cultural identity; people vote for who they identify with. However, unlike die-hard sports fans, and unlike with most religiously observant people, it is strangely culturally acceptable for political advocates to knock on a complete stranger’s door and engage them in conversation on their beliefs. Political campaigns create a special environment that can be replicated within manufactured, campaign-like competitions to facilitate relationship building and highlight and cement a sense of ownership among neighbors.
Beneath the targeted tactics of precinct door knocking for Get Out The Vote (GOTV) efforts is a basic premise: all residents have an ownership stake in their community, and that power - limited as it may be - is exercised through voting. Campaign volunteers throughout the country squeeze themselves through that tiniest of cultural loopholes - “Ding dong! I’m here to remind you of your (limited) power and civic duty!” - in order to harass voters to get themselves to the polls.
Application: Fortunately, retail elections are more fluid and don’t all come to a head on a Tuesday in November (although one could argue for a Christmas parallel). But the grassroots nature of political activism is relevant to retail districts: both focus on the local. We would not be the first to point out that land use politics - NIMBY battles and the like - are essentially grassroots political battles, after all. But NIMBY battles are catalyzed by a common enemy - an interloper into a community that is perceived to threaten property values or something along those lines - and that’s not helpful to us here.
What is helpful is the sporting nature of voting. Everybody loves a contest. The Downtown Sacramento Partnership regularly runs a very clever contest offering a small storefront (along with a modest cash prize and a more sizable gift of pro bono assistance) to a local entrepreneur looking to launch a new brick and mortar enterprise. The catch? It’s a competition that comes down to a vote. Multiple entrepreneurs enter the competition and only the winner of a popular vote receives the prize.
The easy way to get people to vote is via banner ads, social media, and other online publicity. But what about door knocking? A voting contest creates an opportunity for a tongue-in-cheek GOTV push that is essentially an outreach platform that accomplishes three goals. First, it’s an opportunity to remind neighbors that they have an ownership stake in the make-up and culture of their local retail district. In the world of Amazon, and in a country that lacks the phrase High Street, it’s easy to forget that your local strip is, in a certain sense, the community’s. Second, it’s a chance for face-to-face meetings that are the backbone of human relationships; your door knocking volunteers are, in this example, the human face of your district. And third, voting can retroactively reinforce ownership. Think about how proudly people wear their “I voted” stickers on Election Day. Some of it is virtue signaling, but it also serves to reduce cognitive dissonance. If I bothered to vote, the internal logic goes, then I must actually care.
So whether it’s a competition to fill a vacant storefront or something more temporary such as a pop-up experience, create a campaign environment around the competition, and see if you can get some local students to volunteer to elicit participation from locals, whether by manning booths at the subway station or walking the neighborhood beat.
As the phrase “retail experience” becomes more common, it can start to lose its specific meaning. If you’re a place manager involved in retail districts, remember that creating a personality of place - a strong brand - is key to differentiating yourself from your competition. And the events and partnerships you launch are the face of your district and the emissaries of that personality. Make your visitors feel welcome and engaged, and they will reward you in return.