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Designing and scaling the cinema experience for mixed-use retail developments by Mitra Esfandiari

Today there is a significant buzz about designing innovative mixed-use developments that relate to retailers, placing a greater emphasis on cinema/entertainment and food and beverage components. This strategy is used to transform real estate, especially as retail continues to evolve and shopping centers continue to be redeveloped.

Developers, retailers, architects and planners create comprehensive mixed-use solutions that bring authenticity and experiences to the changing e-commerce landscape. The move to mixed-use is also in response to the demands of multi-generations, especially those who hold a strong purchasing power. Now, retail acts as the “glue,” binding typologies – residential, entertainment, workplace, food and beverage, hospitality and office – into one place.

While online shopping is geared towards the convenience of purchasing commodities, thriving brick and mortar environments are offering authentic experiences to engage the new generation; making them pleasant, memorable, interactive and multisensory. As architects, we create these vibrant environments by incorporating unique, architectural design elements into distinctive landscapes with the use of lighting design, signage and amenities.

This type of experience creates an emotional journey for the consumer. The key is to have a story and a vision about the place and the products offered, and if this story is told effectively through design and branding, the consumer will be inspired to engage in that experience. Thriving and in-demand tenants are those who have gone beyond just selling a product; having incorporated personalized and curated experiential touches or added-value services in their programming. It’s our job to help our clients explore design strategies and solutions that bring their story and experience to life for the consumer.

As a result, one trend taking effect is transforming underperforming malls into vibrant, mixed-use destinations. These places incorporate uses such as experiential food halls, non-traditional entertainment/cinemas, hotels, workplace, residential and fitness. Open-air environments are also designed to focus on the authenticity of each place.

Food has become a tremendous anchor of change. The previous developer model dictated about 90 to 95 percent traditional retail and 5 to 10 percent food and beverage/entertainment, which has completely reversed today’s model. Our model now thrives on a 70 percent retail to 30 percent food and beverage/entertainment mix and is predicted to grow.

A successful example of a non-retail model growth is cinemas in mixed-used developments. Cinemas have been anchors of experiential/mixed-use developments for many reasons. Cinema integration naturally pushes for customers to stay at retail centers longer. They also allow for an evening component, with a two to four hour stay time on top of the shopping experience, and now often include upgraded food and beverage components such as full-service bars, seat-side wait service and state-of-the-art technology. Since cinemas are typically built near retail, these nearby locations thrive off of the high-demand of moviegoers.

Movie operators are incorporating more food and beverage components into the theaters that spill into adjacent plazas, thus creating an activated indoor-outdoor environment. These trends cause retailers to want to be located in close proximity to theatres, ensuring an increase in customer demand and sales.

Inside, we are now also designing cinemas to include luxurious and comfortable recliner seats in an intimate environment, creating a hospitality feel. Online reserved seating has also allowed theaters to remain a viable destination. According to Statista, global and domestic box office revenues continue to climb. Box office revenues have nearly doubled since 2008 at $25 billion to now nearly $40 billion. These changes are working.

In developing strategies for the design of mixed-use projects, we find utilizing market and data analytics to inform the design ideas is what makes a difference in scaling for maximum development. Working with developers and brokers, we also discuss tenant mix and co-tenancies to further ensure the creation of a vibrant, unique destination that matches their brand. The concept of one-size-fits-all is no longer applicable.

Whether it’s Baby Boomers, Gen-X, Millennials or Gen-Z, with retail’s rapid changes, we must engage consumers in how they shop, live and play. Each demographic has a unique set of needs that must be considered based on the context for each development. Ultimately, cinemas and mixed-use destinations make up some of the most innovative, evolutionary real estate typologies. If we continue to implement these authentic experiences in our mixed-use developments, no matter the typology, we will remain ahead of the curve and continue to see customer demand soar.

Mitra Esfandiari is senior principal at Retail Design Collaborative