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'Small Is The New Big': Convenience, Safety And Flexibility Are Driving Placemaking Design


Architects, developers and brands have been forced to rethink their approach to retail design over the past year as the coronavirus pandemic prompted consumers to quickly pivot how and when they wanted to shop.

Large single-purpose spaces and close-quarter physical contact is giving way to smaller, more thoughtful use of spaces. MetroNational Chief Creative Officer David Glover said that the emerging themes are centered around flexible hybrid-use spaces and convenience, rather than size.

“Small is the new big. It's no longer about just being bigger and better,” Glover said during a Bisnow webinar on Feb. 11.

Glover said there is no longer a need for monolithic, single-purpose spaces, such as shopping malls. Instead, consumer demand is shifting toward mixed-use, multipurpose developments, where people can fulfill a variety of needs in one location.

“We're designing all of our retail, residential, our office, our public realm to accommodate that new way of living. And it's hybrid space for hybrid lines, is really what it is,” Glover said. “We're looking at it [from] a more philosophical standpoint of how do we really program this place to meet those needs.”

One type of retail asset that has seen its popularity soar over the past year is the drive-thru. Starbucks Director of Store Development David Lopez said the majority of the firm’s national development was already centered around drive-thru locations, but the pandemic gave the sector an even larger boost.

“For years, I kind of fought it. I was like, I don't understand it. I don't get the drive-thru. I go inside, I like to smell the coffee,” Lopez said. “It wasn't until I spent a lot of time in the financials that I quickly realized that it didn't matter what I thought. The customers were telling us exactly what they wanted.”

Lopez said Starbucks is now working on very small convenience concepts that are designed for customers who want to use the app to order and then briefly stop by to pick up their food and drinks. As a result, customers will be able to have some of the usual Starbucks experience, but in a way that is more convenient and safe.

“It takes a lot of partnering with developers and making sure that we find the right space and that we're capitalizing on the right mix of customer use,” Lopez said.

The pandemic spurred a significant amount of competition for available drive-thru retail space, creating fewer easy opportunities for Starbucks than what the firm initially anticipated, Lopez added.

“I was very optimistic a year ago. And it hasn't proved to be that beneficial for us,” Lopez said. “But, again, it also goes back to us looking at what other formats we can possibly deploy out there in available retail space that's not drive-thru that still appeals to the customer.”

The trend toward convenience is evident in the growing popularity of the 15-minute city concept, according to Midway Vice President of Strategic Leasing and Advisory Lacee Jacobs. Houston may be a little slower to embrace the concept because of the sprawling, commuter nature of the city, but Jacobs said the trend is still happening.

“Ultimately, I think we're just like all the other urban environments in the country. We're moving towards that 15-minute city, where everything you need, and everything you want, is within 15 minutes of where you live,” Jacobs said.

Jacobs noted that Midway has received lots of inquiries from new concepts, particularly entertainment providers, about occupying space in their mixed-use developments. Many of the new concepts are virtual reality or art-focused and are looking to backfill space that could open up as more big-box or fitness users begin to close.

“There's this whole bucket of entertainment users right now who are trying to take advantage of some of these larger spaces that are now dark or going dark soon,” Jacobs said.