Shops at South Town

Center Attraction: Retailers pull out the stops to attract consumers back into stores

Given the option of going out or staying indoors in your pajamas, which do most people choose? A few spry individuals aside, most people opt for comfort and convenience.

That very choice is what many retailers have to fight against. When your customer can stay at home in their pajamas and order their goods from Amazon, driving down to the mall, finding a parking spot, walking to the store and rifling through goods just doesn’t seem as attractive. For years, analysts have anticipated the death knell for brick-and-mortar retail.

Instead, retailers are fighting back. Experiential retail—retail that is focused on the shopper’s experience within the retail space, rather than the perfunctory sale of goods—is rejuvenating many shops and centers across the country.

“We want people to try something new, to gather together. Even though we want people shopping and going into the stores and spending their dollars, we also know that the reason they came to the mall was to have an experience,” says Heather Nash, marketing and business development manager for The Shops at South Town. “They could have done the shopping online.”

Come on in

Why go to the Shops at South Town? Surely you could order the same things online, right? But here’s what a website won’t give you: monthly free community events that bring people together, large motorized stuffed animals for your children to ride around, or the first taste of new local restaurants.

The Shops at South Town is embracing change. A new renovation of the space is centered around creating areas where people feel free to sit and gather together. Light pours into the shopping center, and the aesthetic of the space is “bringing the outside in, with a mountain-modern look,” says Nash.

Everything is designed with the shoppers’ experience in mind, she says. The Shops at South Town have a lot of early mall walkers, so the doors open at 7 a.m. to accommodate them. The area has a lot of young mothers, so there is a renovated fountain with a children’s play area planned beside it, and where concerts take place some evenings. Another sitting area has chairs that look like spinning tops, where groups of young friends dare each other to sit in the wobbling artistic chairs, laughing and taking pictures of each other as they try to gain balance and spin. Large digital screens sometimes show sports events—but sometimes feature digital art from local artists instead. A digital directory is fitted with a camera that allows patrons to take selfies and emails the photos to them with the hashtag #shopsouthtown. In one eating area, children can play an interactive, competitive game on a giant screen as their parents or siblings enjoy a meal behind them. If anyone has any questions, there’s no call to go search for guest services if you don’t want to—you can simply text the center’s concierge instead.

The point, says Nash, is to help people connect to the center and have fun while they’re there, rather than waste time on frustrations. Answers to questions should be almost immediate, she says, so the actual experience of shopping at the center is enjoyable and leisurely. It’s about making the best use of people’s time and giving them a good experience, she says.

“It’s giving people a reason to just gather, be with their families, be with their friends,” she says. “We are trying to do things that give immediate reactions to questions, for what people are trying to accomplish. We want people to spend a long period of time here; that’s why we’ve created these areas.”

The Gateway, once a jewel in downtown Salt Lake City, has taken a similar approach in its rejuvenation. Vestar, the development company in charge of the Gateway’s renovation, intends to incorporate murals, statues and other public art, as well as miniature parks complete with swings and seesaws to draw visitors. The idea of creating experiences in an urban playground, with outdoor concerts, movies and even an outdoor ice-skating rink, is what Vestar hopes will resurrect the area, according to Jenny Cushing, vice president of leasing.

The trust factor

Smaller companies, like kitchen supply company Orson Gygi, are also ordering from the experiential retail menu. Starting with the rise of channels like Food Network and extending now to the love of Pinterest-perfect meals, home chefs have been sprinting back to the kitchen—and back to kitchen supply stores. For a specialty store like Orson Gygi, trust is a huge factor. After all, why go to them and not to, say, Macy’s or Bed, Bath and Beyond?

“Home cooking wasn’t [seen as] as much of a chore as it used to be. Let’s make it a fun thing!” says Heather Smith, culinary director of Orson Gygi. To that end, the company started allowing people to cook in its demonstration kitchen, to test out ranges and ovens and other cookware. That in turn became cooking and baking classes offered several times a week—sometimes with well-known local chefs or food and baking bloggers.

“We wanted people to be like ‘I know what I’m buying,’” says Smith. And when people learn from someone they trust, when they’re able to use the items they’re thinking of purchasing, a bond is created. “That’s our philosophy with Orson Gygi. I want people to feel like, ‘That’s my friend. I can trust them to tell me that that spatula is OK, but this one is better.’”

The result, says Smith, is a devoted following that informs the company about what products they should carry, as well. One class, a cake decorating class with cake-blogger Courtney Rich of Cake By Courtney fame, has over 250 people on its waiting list. The secret, says Smith, is all about making a genuine connection with customers and giving them an unforgettable learning experience.

“We look for good cooks, but also someone who can engage with our students. It’s one thing to be able to teach, but it’s another when people want to come back and learn from that person again,” says Smith. “It’s fun to see people connect on a personal level and then on that cooking level. They want to come back. They say, ‘This is so fun!’”