HOW TO REVIVE IN-STORE SHOPPING IN THE AGE OF THE INTERNET

·      Shopping malls can attract customers who would otherwise shop on the internet by providing ambient space

·      Ambient space offers elusive, affective dimensions of experience that the internet cannot provide: inspiration, contentment, wonder, conviviality and fascination

·      A three-dimensional multi-sensory environment has a much greater ability to impact on experience than a screen. The affective dimensions of a well-designed commercial space facilitate the ‘wandering’ behaviour usually associated with ‘browsing’ the internet much more fully, and thus better placed to introduce shoppers to new products and lifestyles. 

 

Taobao, a Chinese online retailer, has forever changed the dynamics of in-store shopping. Taobao is comparable to both Amazon and eBay, because it offers products from large commercial retailers as well as individual sellers. Taobao has a staggering 370 million registered users, meaning that 80% of the Chinese retail market has an account with the retailer. This presents unprecedented challenges for shopping malls and other commercial spaces.

 

How can commercial spaces respond to this revolution in shopping? And what would make commercial space thrive in this new environment?  

 

It is too crude to suggest that shopping malls might be revived by offering local, specialised or craft merchandise, rather than the impersonal or generic goods of the internet. Globally, the internet has been much more enabling for small business or individual craftspeople, and sites like eBay and Etsy are testimony to this. Although the costs of electronic business can be significant, and large scale electronic business still squeezes small business out of the market place, the internet offers small, specialised businesses unprecedented access to niche markets. 

 

Online retail will always offer more efficient forms of shopping and better variety for customers with niche interests. But commercial space can integrate shopping into social life and the service economy, thereby providing a convenience that is limited on the internet. 

 

Most importantly, commercial space offers access to ambient and aesthetic experience that the internet cannot replicate. The primacy of ambience in actual rather than virtual space can facilitate social and experiential dimensions of retail behaviour that online space lacks. Ambient space offers elusive affective dimensions – inspiration, contentment, wonder, conviviality and fascination – that will continue to attract customers and provide an impetus for understanding new products, and exploring desires, styles and images. This allows shoppers to encounter new products, and can make shoppers more likely to complete purchases.

 

There are three key strategies that create ambient space: 1) the integration of services and entertainment with retail experience, 2) the integration of public amenities with retail space, and 3) the use of curation as a means to create ambience.

 

The first two are well known, if often badly executed, strategies. Placing carefully chosen shops alongside services such as hairdressing or dining out enable the sort of retail experience that is often difficult on the internet: serendipitous discovery and ‘browsing.’ In order for this to be successful, stores need to prioritise their branding and storefront presentation, with the intention to spark intrigue. 

 

Integrating public amenities like children’s play centres, outdoor seating and gardens with shopping outlets allows shopping centres a rare opportunity to offer the kind of convenience that the internet might. For instance, traditional shopping centres are not necessarily child-friendly and there is significant impetus for parents to opt to take their children somewhere enriching and stimulating and then simply buy groceries or other amenities online. If shopping centres can become rich sensory environments and offer social and play centres for children, then these centres would attract a key market: parents. Shopping centres need to providerich environments for relaxation, socialising and playShopping centres need to understand themselves asholistic environmentsMeetinghuman needs for ambience and stimulationwill ensure that these places continue to attract shoppers.

 

PRINCIPLES OF CURATION FOR COMMERCIAL SPACE

·      Plan for serendipity

·      Understand browsing

·      Quantify the value of ambience

 

The internet and the supermarket offer unparalleled efficiency for shoppers. If you want to buy something quickly, then a site like Taobao, where postal addresses and credit card details can be preloaded, is ideal. Once this efficiency would have been counteracted by slow postal delivery times. But increasingly sites use cheap courier services that can often get the product to the consumer on the same day, for a charge that is only marginally more than the bus or taxi fare that would have been associated with a shopping trip that would have taken much more time and effort. Although commercial space needs to be well organised, so that consumers can access what they needwith ease, it must also be designed to facilitate and activate spheres of desire that exceed the necessary and the efficient. 

 

This means that shopping malls must be designed to facilitate wandering or browsing, which allow for serendipitous encounters with products or lifestyles that the consumer had not anticipated or imagined. Wandering offers an imaginative experience that produces desires, rather than satisfies them: it gives customers new ideas for what they might need, want, or how they might organise their lives. Carefully calibrated landscaping facilitates this ambient experience. As such, design is paramount to the survival of the shopping mall in the contemporary era. 

 

The internet does not offer customers a sense of place or a varied environment.If a commercial space can provide for customer’s ‘environmental needs’ then it will further supersede internet retailing.There are two dimensions to this: rich landscape aesthetics and interaction with broad space and natural space. The former is the purest form of urban ambience: an intriguing, aesthetically rich, stimulating and balanced environment delivers sought-after affective states: contentment, calm, relaxation, happiness. Broad space provides a type of environment that contemporary homes and offices do not: a wide ground to roam, see new things, and have new experiences. 

 

French philosopher Jacques Ranciere has theorised the ‘distribution of the sensible’, which is ‘a system of a priori forms determining that which is given to sense’. To use the phrase a little infelicitously, this is also the object – not at all a priori - that landscape architects modulate. We analyse the distribution ‘of the sensible’ – of all that is given to sense in an environment – and modulate it to enhance it or tailor it to certain ends. Landscape architects are capable to paying attention to the ‘invisible’ aspects of a space that lend it is character and that contribute to the way people relate to the space and use the space. It is these ‘invisible’ aspects of a space, this ‘distribution of the sensible,’ that defines the affective response to a place. In this sense, ‘ambience’ becomes an identifiable, measurable goal for commercial space, which can be programmed using cutting edge design strategies. 

 

WHAT IS AMBIENCE?

 

Ambience is passive

20thcentury artists, including John Cage and Brian Eno, have worked with ambient music. For Cage, silence is “the presence of ambient and unintentional noise rather than the complete absence of sound.” We might compare the environment to the silent moments interspersing the noise of activity in daily life. The environment must be subtle enough to be the conditionof experience without always providing the content of experience, in the same way that a climbing frame might provide the conditions of play for a child without proscribing the way in which the child should play. Landscape and urban design carefully calibrates our environments – natural and artificial – to program the subtle conditions of experience. 

 

Ambience is part of the infra-world

“If perception is a sieve, what can be said of that which slips through its net, how does one speak of what escapes?” asks the French philosopher Francois J. Bonnet. He calls the parts of the world that ‘escape’ perception the ‘infra-world’. The ambient dimensions that structure the spaces we use every day are part of this ‘infra-world’. Landscape analytics attempts to measure and understand the ambient features of a space that structure our ‘sense’ of it, and then modulate these features to create conditions of perception. 

 

What is landscape ambience?

Musicians have an intimate understanding of the frequencies and echoes of difference spaces whose sum total results in ambience. A piece of music will sound different in La Scala, the Sydney Opera House, Shanghai’s Super Brand Mall and a children’s playground in Central Hong Kong. Subtle aspects of space or environment, which condition our experience, can change our behaviour, mood, and modes of interaction, just as the structure of a concert hall will change the way that music sounds. This is landscape ambience: the imperceptible features of a space that structure experience.