Raise your hand if you ordered something online in the past 12 months that you would have gone to the store for pre-pandemic.
While online shopping was commonplace prior to COVID, it’s fair to say the pandemic has accelerated where it was already headed. A number of already struggling major retail brands saw the pandemic push them into bankruptcy (J.Crew, Neiman Marcus and Pier 1 Imports, to name just a few) while consumers, afraid to venture out, found themselves ordering from Amazon and other online retailers in even higher numbers.
But analysts say this doesn’t spell the end of in-person retail. It just changes the experience.
“Retail that survives is going to be much more wrapped around an experience,” futurist Robert Moran says. “The retail mix becomes more about bars and restaurants and niche brands that are harder to get online. Open-air malls are going to be a big draw. You’ll see the retail mix change. In the old days, the anchor was the department store. Now, it’s going to be experience zones, things like ax-throwing.”
What Moran is describing aligns with Fairfax’s Mosaic District, an open-air mall that has—yes—an ax-throwing bar, along with (pre-pandemic) a full calendar of events and pop-ups.
Tysons Corner Center—the most heavily trafficked mall in the region and among the most heavily trafficked in the nation—has, like all malls, struggled throughout the pandemic. While the mall itself was never ordered closed by the governor, many stores closed temporarily early in the pandemic, and all remain operating with limited capacity.
“there’s that portion of the public that hasn’t gotten out of the house [in a year], so we think there’s still some pent-up demand.”
Todd Putt, senior marketing manager for the mall, says the Macerich-owned shopping destination put a number of protocols in place early on, including helping tenants manage curbside pickup and instituting robust cleaning procedures to help shoppers feel more comfortable.
Over the holiday season, the mall actually extended its hours in order to spread out crowds and offered entertainment (i.e., those aforementioned experience zones). The mall, says Putt, is well positioned for a post-pandemic world.
“I think one of the best things about Tysons in general [is that] we were a pretty early adopter of the idea that customers value experience,” Putt says. The mall completed a major renovation in 2015 that added an open-air plaza and began producing about 150 events each year (think outdoor concerts and movie nights). During the pandemic, the mall pivoted to events like drive-in movies and virtual concerts, as well as some smaller in-person events that allow for social distancing. Putt says they hope to return to pre-pandemic events as soon as it’s safe.
Another trend Putt says he’s seeing at Tysons? Online retailers that want a physical presence. Tonal, a popular home gym, did a pop-up at Tysons during the holidays and is set to open a full brick-and-mortar store in the mall, for example.
“There’s still a good amount of people that find value in in-person shopping,” he says. “Plus, there’s that portion of the public that hasn’t gotten out of the house [in a year], so we think there’s still some pent-up demand.”
Look for more experience-driven programming as soon as it’s safe, says Putt.
“We have to be really flexible right now because we don’t know when [people will be vaccinated], but movie nights, bingo nights, live entertainment and other activations is our focus this year,” Putt says. “It’s something that we’ve definitely been a pioneer in and hope to continue to be.”
After the Pandemic
- What will change: Online retail will continue to grow in popularity; contactless pickup and deliveries are here to stay.
- What will return to normal: Shoppers will return to brick-and-mortar stores but will be looking for experiences, not just things to buy.