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Transforming Brick-and-Mortar Stores in the Online Era

Colorado shopping centers are prioritizing community to bring in consumers


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Despite the ubiquitous impact of online shopping, brick-and-mortar stores are proving foundational to the contemporary shopping experience. Given the pervasiveness of online retailing, that resiliency may be surprising. But the numbers back it up. It appears that people still want to see, learn and purchase in-person — or return with ease what they don’t want. 

“Physical retail settings are one of several channels retailers are utilizing to reach their shoppers,” says Heather Drake, senior manager in marketing for FlatIron Crossing. “And the most successful retailers today are using their stores to build and deepen their relationships with their shoppers.” 

More than ever, stores are places for discovery, she says. “People can touch, feel and try merchandise — often in fun and experience-forward settings — and also connect with store associates, who often are true brand experts.” 

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Malls and Stores Responding — and Surging 

According to the U.S. Department of Commerce, total retail sales were up by nearly 4 percent last year. Online retail sales have grown strongly and steadily over the last decade, up 15 percent last year alone but down slightly over the year before. But online shopping remains a big chunk of more than $3.6 trillion in U.S. retail sales. 

Still, that hasn’t sabotaged storefronts. Brick-and-mortar or physical store sales rose by 3.7 percent last year, the highest growth rate since in-store sales started dipping in 2012. It’s an upward trend for a retail segment that once appeared doomed to a quick death by internet.

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The Social Component of Storefronts

Few people are shopping exclusively from behind their computers. It seems consumers crave something else: social experiences. 

And Denver malls are not just surviving but thriving. The occupancy at Cherry Creek Shopping Center, which turns 30 next year, is at an all-time high, according to General Manager Nick LeMasters. 

“Demand on space has never been better,” he says. “We don’t measure traffic, but rather sales. So for what it costs for a brand to build a store and the labor involved, the sales performance in Cherry Creek is typically among the very best in a given store’s portfolio. We’re just a more profitable location.”

LeMasters points to a hard-earned reputation for exclusivity, including 40 stores that picked Cherry Creek for their sole store in the six-state region surrounding Colorado. Brands also realize they must be omni-channel, or everywhere customers are, he says.  

Even digitally derived brands like eyewear extraordinaire Warby Parker, indoor bike trainer brand Peloton and mattress maker Casper are enjoying huge success after opening brick-and-mortars. 

“You want to put eyeglasses on and see how they feel. At Casper, they have these sleep nodes in the store where you can actually take a nap. It’s all about product experience,” LeMasters says. “Stores afford the customer a way to experience merchandise that internet will never be able to deliver on.” 

Fulfilling that need for niche brands, Cherry Creek has traditionally ranked in the top 1 percent of revenue-producing malls in America. But Cherry Creek has a lot going for it: a prime location, affluent regular shoppers and, party because of it, exclusively curated brands that make the mall a shopping destination for tourists and locals alike. 

Malls Capitalize on Community and Entertainment 

Malls throughout Colorado are capitalizing on explosive population growth. But they’ve also evolved with other trends in retail, namely brand diversity and experiential shopping. 

“Twenty years ago, most malls focused on apparel,” says Drake of Boulder’s FlatIrons mall and Twenty Ninth Street. “Now shoppers find all kinds of retail, from health, beauty and sporting goods to home furnishings and accessories, along with more exciting food and entertainment options than ever before.”

Both shopping plazas plan big outdoor entertainment activities each summer: concert and fitness series, family-fest events, even Wonder Wonder, a 5,900-square-foot immersive “playground for your imagination,” Drake says. 

Likewise Southlands, in Aurora, has benefited from being in the center of one of the nation’s fastest-growing cities. “Southlands continues to experience strong leasing momentum as retailers and office tenants want to do business in such a vibrant location,” says Martin Liles, regional vice president and general manager.

High occupancy in malls is ideal, but the customer experience is vital, too. Without it, shoppers won’t come back. In that vein, Southlands is adding new amenities to the property and modernizing common areas to meet the changing tastes of the consumer, according to Liles. 

That includes new-to-market retailers and restaurants, as well as entertainment venues and community events like the Wine Walk. Recent additions have included a diverse mix: Dick’s Sporting Goods, Lazy Dog Restaurant, Bent Barley Brewing Co., Cycle Bar, Club Pilates, Lash Lounge and Advanced Orthopedics & Sports Medicine Specialists. 

“From children playing in the fountains or ice skating on the pond, to dining at exciting restaurants or catching a concert in Town Square while shopping,” Liles says, “Southlands provides a unique outdoor adventure and shopping experience that online shopping simply can’t replicate.” 

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