The creators of the Dubai Hills Estate Mall knew that in a city already boasting almost 70 shopping malls that they had to dare to be different when it opened earlier this year.
In fact, the design team from CallisonRTKL wanted it to be a game-changer, a recreation of the street-shopping ambience of a European city. Throw in a first-of-its kind, indoor twisting roller coaster at the heart of the development and shoppers know instantly that they are in Dubai’s latest mall to bend the typical enclosed retail experience of a modern Gulf city to the limit.
As one of the first retail destinations to open in post-Covid Dubai, the mall is both the culmination of the story of the big multi-purpose shopping as entertainment developments that have dominated the market in the past two decades, but also a test of how retail can adapt in a very different climate.
Beyond their steel and marble atriums and thoroughfares, retailers are facing the serious challenge of serving the many shoppers and customers that have moved online.
A 30-year retail veteran and CRTKL associate principle, Paul Firth is one of the leading experts on retail and mixed-use environments in the region. He believes that many retailers are now exploring ways to turn floorspace into delivery hubs and click and collect centres to keep physical stores viable. He also argues that retailers should combine this shift in priorities at the back of their stores with an emphasis on
“So basically, what’s happening and – Covid kind of accelerated it – customer habits and guest habits are changing significantly. As it stands right now, people are moving online,” begins Firth.
According to Firth, we are now almost fully into a world where shopping is done digitally and retailers can’t rely on customers to come back to the stores – even if they are promising to elevate the actual shopping experience. Firth points to examples elsewhere to demonstrate how far this revolution in retail could go.
“Our shopping centre design business in the UK, for instance, is effectively gone,” he muses.
“The Middle East changes much faster than anywhere else in the world and what is basically happening out here is that the market is being driven a lot by the younger generation and they are looking for experiences…however…” he pauses midflow to highlight the downside of this phenomenon. “To give you an example…people in adventure sports are generally worried because younger people want to do an adventure sport once for the experience, but then they don’t want to do it again.
“If somebody wants to take up scuba-diving, they will do it once, but they won’t do it again. So, that’s what’s happening with retail right now. [We are seeing] people below the age of 40 doing everything on their phone including their major purchases…even including buying property. They look at it online and then they’ll go for one visit just to pick it up.”
Firth may sound like he his ringing the death knell of venturing out into shopping malls, but he sees a role for them if they can recreate the sense of community of our traditional urban city, town and village centres.
“People want to be social so now projects are evolving and developing, and becoming more like city and town centre’s where people can be together to trade, to eat, to drink and be entertained.”
Looking at Dubai Hills, he says the amount of green open space in the design helped to encourage retailers to take up units and space soon after the masterplan was first published five years ago. The consumer market may have changed considerably since then but the freeing up of potential retail space has turned out to be a major strength of the project.
“It’s so successful with tenants and residents and visitors because of the green spaces and post-Covid people want to move outside,” Firth affirms.
He says that the shift of role for malls and shopping areas means that the trend towards last mile deliveries will accelerate even further. It also requires a rethink of the infrastructure required for retailers to accommodate their burgeoning delivery operations.
“For most of our projects, the average store size used to be 300 sqm ten years ago, now it’s 100 or 150 sqm. Just half the size because things can be delivered,” he notes.
CRTKL is not only working closely with retail developers but also with local authorities and government agencies to ensure that road links and vehicle traffic are prioritised in the retail hubs they are designing. The goal is to ensure goods and people are able to move fluidly.
“We always push the most in terms of the right of way on the roads. We will also try and build in as much flexibility as possible. For example, when we did Dubai Hills, we planned for mobility with path works, cycle networks….Gone are the days of… pavement, lamppost, that’s it! Now we have cycle tracks for example.
Frith continues: “At the same we’re designing buildings to be more flexible. It can be a hotel, a hospital, a residential building. Depending on how it is designed it can deal with all those uses. That was kind by a project we did for a major developer four years ago in Dubai; during the design phase it started out as a hotel, then became service apartments, then apartments and then to offices. That was all during the design phase and the construction of it. From an infrastructure, point of view, the trick is just to have the most energy you can have and the easiest way to get to things as possible.”
“In the UK and the US, we are used to chopping and changing things. Whereas here the infrastructure tends to be more restrictive, but at least now we’re managing to change that. In some of our masterplans we’re trying to get the infrastructure moved out of the road and into the green or paved areas so it can be adapted,” he stops to note an example close to where we are talking.
“The cool thing is when it comes to the pace of change, if you look at Silicon Oasis right here, the roads been redeveloped three times in the past two years and are now almost finished, and it’s really servicing this community and the people here have changed and evolved as a result.”
While establishing the right infrastructure can be an enabler for business and operators using them, it also needs to suit the vehicles they drive. Firth says that the steady growth of electric vehicles is presenting a fresh challenge for designers like CRTKL.
“The biggest trick isn’t that the parking spaces is a problem. If we want to encourage everyone to have an EV car more, all, of the spaces have to be charging spaces. Landlords, developers will need to put in more infrastructure until we get superfast charging. The other thing, in terms of mobility, is that we are making sure we spaces for bicycles and electric scooters at all of our projects. Now, depending on the size it can be anywhere from 100 to 200 spaces.”