The mall in 2029: A future reimagined

Speaking at the recent South African Council of Shopping Centres Research Conference, Doris Viljoen - a senior futurist at the Institute for Futures Research based at Stellenbosch University – shared an imagined future for malls based on current retail trends.

With consumers moving from experiencing products in stores to ordering them online, smartphones and wearables play a big role in providing customised assistance while physical stores are already morphing into lively, immersive environments that rely on sensors to capture and analyse data in real time.

What is the next step? Presenting four different futures for the shopping mall, Viljoen’s work as a futurist often involves interpreting the history of retail – so what has happened until now – creating deeper layers of understanding, and then building a collection of plausible futures for consideration.

“It’s important to remember that people will still have an influence on the future that eventually unfolds. We cannot predict the future. We don’t know what is going to happen, but through the imagination of the different futures that could happen we can be prepared, and being prepared is more valuable than being right. All four of these futures could be wrong – but at least we then spend time thinking about what is possible,” she says.

Imagine a mall that recognises you the moment you walk through the door. As you enter the mall, your phone buzzes with a message from the mall, greeting you by name.

In this space, you are able to do anything with the smart device in your hand. If you see something you like, you can instantly get extra info about the product, where it comes from, pricing, and if you want to buy it, you can pay and arrange delivery from the palm of your hand.

Consumers can tag items they’re interested in, with notifications alerting them to the availability of these products in the mall, even guiding shoppers to their exact location – particularly useful for those instances where people still want to touch and feel before they buy.

Imagine meeting a friend for lunch at a restaurant and getting notified when she arrives, or even better, the restaurant using data smartly to predict what you want to order before you arrive.

Trends fuelling this scenario include consumers’ growing tendency to do their chore or convenience shopping online, saving their visits to the physical store for items they want to see and feel before buying. The growing use of facial recognition technology and customisation of both products and services have also contributed to the possibility that this could be the mall of the future – where people are able to directly influence their own shopping experience, creating useable data with each visit that retailers can effectively interpret thanks to machine learning analytics.

This may look like a normal mall, but some malls may start to empty, sitting with more and more vacancies as they struggle to fill the space. There is an opportunity here for developers to recreate these spaces into a gated community – where stores are repurposed and refitted into apartments, served by suitable retailers – think convenience and a place to socialise with friends and family.

In this future, Viljoen sees the rooftop parking converted into several green endeavours, including solar farms, running tracks and community gardens – building communities that thrive off the grid.

“And while this is a living space, there are still stores that provide food and personal services – so there is a lot of retailing and transacting is still taking place,” she says.

“South Africa is ranked sixth for the most shopping centres in the world, but urbanisation here is very rapid – in 2014 we had 34.2 million people living in urban areas, and by 2050 this figure will jump to 49.1 million. We need housing, and gated communities are becoming increasingly popular from a safety perspective, as well as the perceived value of going off the grid.”

Imagine a mall with a 2,000 seat auditorium for sports, where sport related retailers and activities become what the grocery anchors are now.

This mall consists of modular units that can easily move around, allowing retailers to continuously recreate the whole centre. Visitors might not be sure if it is a gym, adventure or a sports store. Here, they can eat a very healthy meal, or have personalised sports gear made specifically to fit them thanks to scans of their proportions.

This mall is built squarely on the concept of customisation, where experts are on hand to design programmes for you, while you have a new pair of running shoes 3D printed directly on your foot.

Connectivity, a major role-player in all four of these futures, will feature heavily here, but it is the rapid growth in the health and wellness industry that will bring this mall to life.

“People are looking for experiences, not things, so that they can share and post on social media.”

Here we’ll see a space filled with apprentices and trainees, from food and hair to graphic design and drafting – customers can go here and experience or buy from trainees.

This allows trainees to engage with real customers, while customers actively contribute to their learning while also benefiting from these services or products at a slightly cheaper rate.

“The population in sub-Saharan Africa has seen huge growth. There are a lot of people who need to be skilled, and people are living longer than ever before. In South Africa, our qualification status is also worrisome – only 13% of the people in South Africa have a post-school qualification. As business and the economy changes, we are going to need more and more people with qualifications, and for that, we need more places suitable to upskill the people we need,” she says.

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