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MG2's MJ Munsell On The Direction Of The Retail Experience

Retail is becoming increasingly experiential across the country. That is true in Seattle as well, but the city has unique challenges when it comes to making retail work in certain settings.

MG2 principal MJ Munsell
MG2 principal MJ Munsell

MG2 principal MJ Munsell's expertise centers around retail and how to create the type of environment that draws in customers. As the company's retail market design leader, she sets the design strategy and direction to grow client brands and businesses.

Munsell answered Bisnow's questions about how retail is changing and what she anticipates lies ahead.

Bisnow: How is experiential retail becoming a factor in how retail stores and centers are designed?

Munsell: By definition, retail should always be experiential. The problem with retail pre-recession is that we, as consumers, lowered the bar so low we would buy anything, from anyone, in environments that brought little value to our lives. Experiential retail is what any form of retail should be. It is the marketplace and platform that bring a brand, product, adviser and customer together in a multi-sensory moment. Retail should always be about change, about advice and testing, about emotion and creativity.

Now that we, as consumers, have choices of making purchases anytime and anywhere, our expectations for the brick-and-mortar experience are higher. The experience must be worth our time and effort, with a clear value proposition for the expenditure of time and money.  

Tommy Bahama Coconut Point exterior
Tommy Bahama Coconut Point

Bisnow: What is the next thing on the horizon?

Munsell: We can expect to see the following in the retail landscape:

  • Short-term leases: Enabling retailers to be flexible in locations and formats. This does present new challenges for the management and leasing of retail developments.

  • Continued store closures: Retailers are becoming more selective about locations. Underperforming stores will continue to close, and the massive store openings seen by retail brands will slow ... This will continue to be a challenge for malls.

  • Multiple formats and more selective retailers: Retailers will test new formats (express, urban, full-service and specific location assortments) to reach customers in a variety of ways. Retailers who are expanding are more discerning — more demanding of landlords, quality of the mall experience and distribution of stores.

  • Flexible formats: To meet the changing needs of today’s consumer and marketplace, retail environments need to be flexible, [such as] being adaptable to new product categories, seasonal fluctuations, new ways of transacting and showrooming.

  • Less emphasis on higher-density merchandising: We will see less emphasis on product density and more emphasis, and space, given to service, to flexible areas within a store, to visual merchandising. Customers want the ability to see the full assortment, [but they] are more flexible in shipping goods home and asking for more experimentation, more information and more change.

  • More information and education: In the form of sales associates, graphics and signage and visual merchandising; customers want more information before making a purchase.

  • Changing role of the traditional salesperson: The salesperson is a brand ambassador, expert adviser and personal assistant.

Tommy Bahama Coconut Point interior
Tommy Bahama Coconut Point

Bisnow: Is there a project in particular you would single out as a prime example of where retail is heading?

Munsell: Tommy Bahama was one of the first retailers to develop a lifestyle concept. Bringing [food and beverage] to the original store in Naples, Florida, was, at that time, a risky move. However, as a lifestyle concept created to inspire 'one long weekend,' what better way to do so than to give your customers the feeling of vacation in the store, in the restaurant and in the bar? These elements, combined into a blended environment, really complement one another. More retailers should take a nod from Tommy Bahama on what they’re doing to provide an immersive in-store experience.

Bisnow: What is unique to retail design in Seattle? Are there particular challenges and some innovative ways of dealing with them?

Munsell: Seattle retail is tricky. In downtown Seattle, we have a blend of people working and living downtown, seasonal visitors and regional visitors. We have an influx of tech workers, who may not be at the point in their lives where they are investing in fine dining, home goods or apparel. Seattle sees an influx of tourists, who spend on average $195 a day in downtown Seattle (twice as much as local visitors).

We lack pedestrian density — longer stretches of retail and restaurants that combine to create a rich neighborhood. These neighborhoods need dense housing to balance the dependency on tourists, and we still aren’t there yet.

Yet we have some great pockets of both — Pioneer Square’s renewal (will Western Avenue become the next Pearl District?) extending to Pike Place Market on First Avenue. South Lake Union has yet to prove itself as viable for any form of retail or restaurant life past happy hour. Central downtown — Pine to Union from Fourth to Sixth — certainly is the highlight of our downtown corridor retail offerings with many larger-format retailers. The good news is that, according to Downtown Seattle Association, 'new net occupied retail space grew by nearly a million square feet from 2006 to 2017,' so we’re seeing more and more interest for retailers to be downtown.

To hear more from Munsell and other retail experts, join us at Bisnow's Seattle Retail & Mixed-Use Breakdown event Feb. 15 at Four Seasons Hotel Seattle.