There is no doubt that improving in-mall customer experience is key to Unibail-Rodamco’s strategy. It is a must-do for any agent in today’s retail sphere to remain competitive and address the challenges of the rise of online commerce and the digital shift. This turn is not a threat: it’s an opportunity. Looking back in time and studying the history of retail is a great way to learn from the forgotten best practices of the past, rethink the purpose of today’s shopping centers and build better places at the centre of tomorrow’s cities and communities.
Shopping was already a full-time leisure: store managers pulled all the stops to keep the customers in the store the whole day. And if they needed someone to take care of their children, if they wanted a place to meet friends or to rest, the House would happily satisfy them.
Just like in the 19th century, improving what we now call the Shopping Experience is still a challenge for most retailers, all the more in a world where the rise of online commerce seems to threaten brick-and-mortar stores. Thus, today, retailers need to take the pains to engineer, plan, and stage customer experiences in stores and shopping centres. Now, the example of the Bon Marché department store, where shoppers enjoyed spectacular layouts and delightful experiences, shows us that the past has a lot to teach us in terms of customer experience, and can help us Create Better Places for Tomorrow. As Christophe Cuvillier, CEO and Chairman of the Board at Unibail-Rodamco, puts it: “Shopping centres are places to live, where families can spend the day, where people can socialise and where you can find human contact.”
So let’s take a step back in time. Exploring the history of retail can actually be a great way to elevate today’s shopping centres to another dimension and recreate the magic of shopping.
The Origins of Shopping: at the Heart of Public Spaces
Well before the rise of shopping centres, the Ancient Greek Agora in the centre of Athens was one of the first shopping place in history. Women used to frequent the outdoor marketplace, buying pastries, sweets, shoes, dresses, jewelry, while men would typically meet there and discuss politics, mathematics, literature or philosophy. It was a true place of sociability, where all the important decisions were made.
The Roman Forum had a similar role, just as the Trajan Market during the 2nd century BC, where customers could buy what they needed, but where people could also eat, drink and party all night. All major social experiences in cities took place near the central marketplace. Equally, during the Middle-Age, merchants thoroughly competed to attract customers, with music and shows. Fairs were great festive events where people met, exchanged products and were entertained.
The Greek Agora, the Roman Forum, the Medieval Fair, but also the Eastern Bazaar, show how in the beginning of history, commerce has always been at the heart of urban and public spaces, where people socialised.
The 19th century: the magic of shopping
In the beginning of the 19th century in Paris, retailers opened their stores in covered passages and galleries, arcades, which were the ancestors of today’s shopping centres. Those galleries were very much appreciated by the Parisian elite, as traffic was high in the city, and streets were muddy and dangerous on rainy days. They actually were the first places dedicated to shopping and attracting throngs of customers. Those arcades showed that there really was a demand for memorable shopping experiences, events were regularly organised and some people were ready to pay to enter the galleries. They were marvellous, state-of-the-art places, with complex architectural features such as iron and glass roofs.
As an illustration, in London, Harrods was home to 100,000 visitors every day, who had a marvellous experience in what looked like an amusement park, with alligators, cobras, baby elephants and other animals. Visitors could walk in the famous Food Hall, buy designer clothes, furniture or art… Harrods’ motto was actually “All Things for All People, Everywhere.”
“The department store tends to replace the church. Women go there to pass the hours as they used to go to church:an occupation, a place of enthusiasm where they struggle between their passion for clothes and the thrift of their husbands.”
- Emile Zola, 1883 cited in Lancaster 1995, p.19
French author Emile Zola wrote many lines about the shopping innovations of the time. He imagined the Bonheur des Dames department store in one of his novels, managed by Octave Mouret, a quite colourful character, whose “golden rule was that not a single area in the Bonheur des Dames should remain empty; he wanted noise, people and life everywhere; life, he said, attracts life, generates life and proliferates.” The intuition Zola has in his novel is that the shopping experience goes beyond a mere transaction. People enjoy the magic of shopping, and Octave Mouret strived to create memorable and multisensory experiences in his department store.
The fall of the experiential nature of shopping centres during the 20th century
Shopping malls as we know them today started thriving after World War II. In the 1960s, the number of visitors skyrocketed. The centres were increasingly welcoming, with activities such as playgrounds or cooking classes, and facilities such as cinemas, restaurants or nurseries. One of the first French shopping centres is actually Parly 2, which still belongs to Unibail-Rodamco.
However, this rise of shopping centres was quickly followed by the emergence of big-box stores and discounters, around the principle of “build it, they will come!” Those stores, such as Best Buy in the United States, or Carrefour and Leclerc in France, focus on the simple pleasure of buying a product and taking it home.
Thus, in the 70’s 80’s and 90’s, retail was only about the mere acquisition of material goods. The search for better shopping experiences stopped, and stores lost their beauty and their soul.
Shopping places became increasingly isolated and enclosed. They no longer acted as places for communities to spend time in. Shopping centres were more about places to go and get something you needed.
Learnings From the Past: Striving for Better Shopping Experiences
Online commerce is often considered as a powerful competitor to physical retail. Nevertheless, it might also be the best opportunity to start building better shopping experiences and focus on how we sell stuff, as much as what stuff we sell. Again, the Past remains a great inspiration to do so!
The past teaches us that commerce has always been a major social agent, bringing people together at the heart of cities. Retail, dining, getting entertained,… all these are part of a global social experience that can be combined by shopping centres. Thinking about the Greek Agora or the Medieval Fairs can inspire shopping centres to build places which are genuinely at the heart of cities and communities. Actually, the Forum des Halles, at the heart of Paris, is, in a certain way, a modern version of the Roman Forum, with its gardens, its restaurants, its exhibition centres and its library!
Indeed, Unibail-Rodamco has already started to apply this knowledge to its mall and embrace the turn for better shopping experiences. Thus, the Group multiplied digital “Unexpected Experiences”, constantly offering immersive and outstanding and surprising experience to guests. It has also developed the Dining Experiences, increasing the place of restaurants in its shopping centres. As Christophe Cuvillier puts it: “We have insisted on the rise of dining in our centres, because this is typically something you like to do with other people.”
Obviously, looking back to the past doesn’t mean that shopping centres don’t have to embrace the digital shift. The digital transformation must therefore be seen as an opportunity to rethink experiences in shopping centres, as it is a great way to create memorable experiences, to build seamless shopping experiences and rethink the urban role of malls; equally, the group has recently inaugurated an impressive digital installation in the “agora” of the CentrO mall near Düsseldorf.
By introducing elements to gather communities in the centre of cities, Unibail-Rodamco is building new types of shopping centres, which truly bring people together.
Therefore, Unibail-Rodamco has now committed to bring urban activities and experiences back to shopping malls. Shopping centres were about 80% retail and 20% food and entertainment, which is now changing and about to be inverted. This is the direction Unibail-Rodamco took with its Better Places 2030 strategy, striving to build community hubs, social gathering points, and entertainment facilities within shopping centres, along with top quality retail. Shopping centres must revert to being places for communities to gather.
In all its new projects, such as the Val Tolosa centre in the Toulouse region, Unibail-Rodamco committed to leverage technology to make shopping centres more welcoming and sustainable, reconciling cities, environment, leisure and retail. On that matter, Ludovic Flandin, Managing Director CSR and Innovation of the Group, explains: “We realised that what people need are places to gather and meet in a safe, pleasant and comfortable atmosphere, where they can consume better.”
To learn more about the subject
- Daphne Howland, RetailDive, “Beyond walls: How retailers can bring back the magic of shopping”, 2016
- Virginia Postrel, VNews, “The Future of Retail May Be in the Past”, 2017
- Buket Ergun Kocaili, Evolution of Shopping Malls – Recent Trends and the Question of Regeneration, 2010
Harvard Business Review, The Future of Shopping, 2011