Transforming Tired into Inspired Retail

Posted on June 26, 2014

As place-making has become an increasingly important element in creating value in today’s retail environment, are older shopping centers really able to compete? The answer is absolutely, as outdated shopping centers from coast to coast have been reborn through updated graphics, lighting, signage, landscaping improvements, and minor architectural updates. Such improvements have not only increased consumer traffic, but helped to sway shoppers to stay longer and spend more.

Why do elements that many regard as simply “cosmetic” provide such a lift to older retail centers? Do they really attract shoppers in sufficiently high numbers to make older or underperforming retail sites popular – and profitable?

Graphics, lighting, signage, and architectural detailing possess the ability to radically alter the physical presence of any place. Done well, they can animate, direct, inspire, comfort, and engage. As a result, embracing a new color palette, paying attention to detail, or updating the graphics and signage literally can transform the identity of commercial and mixed-use space from tired and dated to inspired and attractive.

Reinvesting in existing retail properties in this way has become increasingly commonplace in the U.S., particularly given the fact that the country is over-retailed and the economy, while somewhat better, remains sluggish. Reinvestment clearly represents a significantly less expensive option than constructing new retail space. It is also environmentally friendly, reducing pressure on natural resources by not developing on Greenfield sites further outside the suburban sprawl. As a result, it is typically welcomed by communities which recognize the benefits reinvestment can bring.

Linden Square, a 218,000-sq.-ft. mixed-use development outside of Boston, offers a good case in point. While boasting a promising demographic profile and an appealing mix of uses (bank, fitness club, pharmacy, and restaurants) that complement a diverse selection of national retailers, the project had been criticized for a bland design aesthetic that lacked character. A new signage and graphics package complemented a few strategic elements, such as storefront canopies, new plaza and landscaping, to reinvigorate the space in a way that engages and reflects the surrounding community aesthetic, while simultaneously conveying a fresh and instantly recognizable identity.

Similarly, full scope signage and graphics were used to bring a strong project identity to the main thoroughfare at Rockville Town Square outside Washington, D.C., where the project brand previously was nearly non-existent. New signage and thought-out wayfinding locations were used on both interior and exterior areas to increase project awareness, create greater navigation into and throughout the site, and elevate tenant presence. Paired with a new identity and marketing program, this facelift helped to re-launch the property to the neighborhood, to passer’s by and, ultimately, significantly increase consumer traffic.

Signage, décor, and graphics, in fact, tend to define how visitors to a shopping center perceive, interact, and engage with the space. It is often the first thing shoppers see when they arrive and the touchstone to which they return throughout their visit. From wayfinding and directional signage to recognizable symbols of recognizable tenants and cultural icons, the writing is literally on the wall when it comes to the shopper experience.

Projects like Linden Square and Rockville Town Square exemplify the degree to which a few strategic improvements to the physical characteristics of a place can improve the feel of that place and can have a dramatic impact on the corresponding psychology of the people who move through that space. Bottom line: happy, comfortable consumers stay longer, spend more, and visit more frequently.

Crisp, clean, style-conscious signage and graphics and a well-maintained environment, in fact, can play a huge role in making a retail center feel like a safe and appealing shopping destination. Numerous studies of human psychology have reinforced the notion that cleanliness, order, and style are directly associated with comfort, safety, and security.

It has been said that true innovation comes not just from creating something new, but also from re-arranging familiar elements in a new way. For many commercial centers, an eye-catching swath of color atop the existing architectural canvas can accomplish exactly that.

As developers and property owners around the country turn to new signage and graphics, vibrant colors, improved lighting, and fresh landscaping in lieu of the wrecking ball to attract customers and invite them to have a memorable experience, they are not just making an innovative and cost-effective investment in their retail and mixed-use portfolio. In recognizing that it is not the site plans but the sightlines, psychology, and signage that define a space, they are also celebrating the pageantry and power of visual identity to energize and inspire.