Shopping Center Soul Searching: The Value of Emotional Connections

By Robb Wagner

One of my most vivid childhood memories involves a shopping center. As a fourth-grader, I felt immense pride when my art project, which had won a local award, was displayed at our community mall. This experience didn’t just mark a personal triumph; it ignited my passion to become an artist. More importantly, it exemplified how shopping centers can forge lasting emotional connections by integrating personal experiences into their spaces. This essay explores whether today’s shopping centers are missing valuable opportunities to create these meaningful connections.

The Changing Landscape of Shopping Centers

In the modern landscape of retail, where every square foot is calculated for revenue, I often wonder if the space that once showcased student art is now occupied by digital screens flashing ads or perfume kiosks. While these changes are driven by the need to maximize profits, they may be overlooking a critical component: the emotional connection with visitors.

Revenue is undoubtedly crucial for business survival, but should it always take priority over creating memorable experiences? My career in experiential media has shown me that genuine emotional connections can significantly enhance customer loyalty, satisfaction, and ultimately, revenue.

The Role of Technology and Experience

While technology is a powerful tool in enhancing business operations, it should not overshadow the core of what makes experiences memorable. Steve Jobs famously said, “You have to start with the customer experience and work backward to the technology.” This principle has guided much of my work, where the goal is to evoke emotions first, using whatever tools are necessary, even if it’s just a pencil and a napkin. We should be wary of approaches that prioritize technology over the customer experience, as evidenced by the struggles of virtual reality platforms to gain widespread cultural acceptance despite substantial investments.

Lessons from Other Industries

Following the Great Recession, I observed the broadcast industry struggling with adaptability, prompting me to explore opportunities in the cruise line industry. Despite facing similar challenges, the cruise industry was actively investing in understanding and catering to its customers’ desires, which paid off significantly. Over a decade, these investments fostered deep emotional connections that propelled the industry to unprecedented growth, even post-pandemic.

This contrasts sharply with the linear broadcast sector, which continued to lose audience share due to a lack of emotional engagement. A similar pattern is evident with Pepsi’s recent decision to withdraw from sponsoring the Super Bowl Halftime Show, signaling a shift away from traditional broadcast towards more engaging and interactive platforms.

Implications for Shopping Centers

The decline of shopping centers isn’t just due to the convenience of online shopping; it’s also a failure to maintain emotional connections with consumers. However, there is a silver lining. Unlike the broadcast industry, shopping centers have shown greater self-awareness and a readiness to adapt. By investing in activations that not only increase dwell time but also resonate emotionally, shopping centers can potentially increase their relevance and consumer spending.

However, merely adding activations isn’t sufficient if they don’t genuinely connect with visitors. The most successful projects I have been involved with didn’t just merge digital and physical experiences; they created entirely new realms of interaction that resonated deeply with audiences, turning everyday visits into memorable events.

Conclusion: The Future of Shopping Centers

As someone new to the shopping center industry but experienced in creating impactful experiences, I see great potential for transformation. At recent conferences like EEE and ICSC in Los Angeles and Las Vegas, I discussed these ideas with industry leaders who are eager to foster deeper connections with their communities. These discussions have reinforced my commitment to helping the industry evolve, ensuring that shopping centers can thrive by becoming hubs of meaningful, emotionally charged experiences.

This focus on building emotional connections is not just a strategy; it’s a necessity for those looking to succeed in today’s rapidly changing retail landscape.