Local Influences in a Global Mall
Designing a successful retail project in a rapidly emerging industrialized nation, such as the United Arab Emirates, requires more than knowledge of local culture, customs, history, and architecture. The ongoing expansion and renovation of the Mall of the Emirates, for example, with 2.4 million square feet of retail, addresses more timely issues such as the region’s rising middle class, tourism, and future paradigms. While the mall may carry several brands familiar to U.S. visitors, its differences from those stateside abound. Our recent $300 million expansion, completed in 2015, added a movie theater, six new sit-down restaurants, and 387,000 square feet of additional retail.
Unlike domestic shopping centers, which seek to broaden a customer base by becoming destinations in themselves, the Mall of the Emirates and others in the region already function as a kind of mainstay in the community. This is not only for shopping and entertainment, but also regular social interaction among friends and family. It’s not uncommon for entire families to spend their evenings or weekends at the mall. Stores stay open until 11 pm or midnight, or even later during the holiday season.
The mall offers a full complement of food and beverage options for every budget, as well as a movie theater, gaming center, and indoor ski environment. Retail remains an important component at the Mall of the Emirates, as residents still enjoy the ritual of window-shopping and purchasing goods from brick-and-mortar stores. Tenants span the entire economic spectrum, from value to super-luxury, and generous corridors accommodate a flow of 42 million visitors a year.
Because cultural values and mores have made shoplifting a rare occurrence, storefronts are wide open with few physical barriers—with the exception of luxury goods. The 2015 renovation changed the way storefront glazing was addressed, maximizing width and height for tenant displays. This lends more opportunity for retailers to display their wares and design displays, inviting shoppers to wander leisurely in and out of stores. To complete this project in such a way that didn’t significantly disrupt our clients’ business required a comprehensive understanding of what it takes to get work done in Dubai. Though contracted for design services, we worked closely with the local architect of record and contractor. We reported regularly to the job site for design supervision, reviewed samples, and applied our knowledge of local product availability working with manufacturers and distributors in line with the project schedule.
Anchors and Drivers
Carrefour, a 220,000-square-foot French hypermarket (supermarket + department store), serves as a major driver of traffic to other value tenants on the lower floor. Its more-than-20 checkout stands open directly onto the mall, so after making their purchases, customers can take their shopping carts with them as they browse other stores. In contrast, U.S. malls have only begun flirting with anchor supermarkets and big-box retailers.
One strategy that is effective the world over is investing in redefined food and dining experiences. For its next decade of evolution, the Mall of the Emirates is looking to redefine food and beverage beyond food courts with an eye for café courts, food halls, and more sophisticated dining options that become an anchor in and of itself. The pace of change in retail, hospitality, and transit requires a dedication to flexibility for not only relevance, but success in the global economy.
The number of cars owned has doubled in the last eight years across Dubai, according to Gulf News, increasing traffic and creating a shortage of parking. Although the expansion adds several levels to an existing parking structure, resulting in over 7,000 spaces, the design plan is also looking ahead to when autonomous cars become commonplace. Ideally, the solution will address the immediate need for parking but also be convertible to other uses in the future. The solution must address not just private vehicles—the “right now” is about ride share services. Uber and Dubai’s local service Careem have emerged in the last three years, well after planning for mall transit concluded, and has created a demand for change in transit infrastructure. Will ride share continue as a more economic choice? In 2030—maybe earlier based on Dubai’s aggressive development and testing—will the mall be equipped to manage driverless cars? While we can’t predict those outcomes with 100 percent certainty, we can design a flexible transit solution for the mall, so that when everyone leaves at closing time in concert, all vehicles—no matter how they operated—can move passengers safely.
The old adage, “the only constant is change,” rings true around the world for both retail and technology. But in Dubai, and at the Mall of the Emirates, this idea drives large-scale economic development, supporting a new cultural paradigm in the dynamic United Arab Emirates.