news • Oct 04 2023

From Vacant to Vibrant: How Experiential Retail Transforms Empty Storefronts

Retail is changing. In cities across America, vacant storefronts have become de rigueur. From San Francisco to Boston, the spots that previously served as hubs for daily office workers have transformed into dusty venues for real estate companies to post their ads in the hope of securing new tenants. However, this isn’t an entirely new concept. 

Over the years, the retail sector’s success has ebbed and flowed. Yet each time, creativity and innovation has served as a beacon that brought it back from the brink. By taking cues from some less-traditional sources, the retail world could achieve a renaissance once again.


Vacancies, Vacancies Everywhere

The pandemic had a devastating effect on the commercial real estate market, and a large number of employees who used to traffic the pharmacies, coffee shops, dry cleaners and delis on the ground floor of metropolitan-area buildings are still working remotely, rather than returning to the office. 

But experts say it’s not just the pandemic that’s to blame for the proliferation of empty storefronts. Before COVID-19 hit, traditional retail was already facing struggles. Plus, experts assert that many cities had overbuilt ground-floor commercial space, the New York Times reported. In conjunction with the increasing accessibility of online shopping, that had a devastating effect on the economies of downtown areas that relied on foot traffic. 


Where Retail is Thriving

While some retail sectors are certainly struggling, others are in a renaissance. Experiential retail is transforming the industry. To get an idea of where experiential retail is thriving, consider the Memphis location of Bass Pro Shops, the popular hunting, fishing and camping store. But as the venue demonstrates, it’s so much more. Equipped with a 35-story metal pyramid, the 535,000 square feet of retail space is almost five times the size of the average Walmart… and it’s a major attraction that has demonstrated how people want to test things out before they buy them. 

“As it turns out, lots of people still want to try on new shoes or lie down on a new mattress in person,” The Atlantic confirmed. This desire to have tactile contact with an item before purchasing it is universal, taking place everywhere from clothing stores to furniture showrooms. Consider the Wayfair Digital Design Studio in the brand’s Dedham, Mass. store, where customers can play around with products using a virtual program to see how each item would look in their home. From switching colors and patterns to changing the lighting as it would look in their home, it’s giving the shopper the opportunity to bring their own personal lives into the shopping experience


The Power of Placemaking

Looking forward is the path to retail success. This means gaining a unique perspective of the industry, which is already starting to take form across the country. According to the New York Times, cities are already experimenting with spaces, “pairing vacant storefronts with pop-up galleries and businesses, courting college campuses, creating new grants and tax credits.”  Continuing to embrace this sense of potential will only lead to more innovation and success. 

Consider the trend of creative conversions, in which companies are transforming everything from a Texas shopping mall into a community college and a vacant Macy’s store into a creative office campus. Add in how direct-to-consumer brands continue their expansion into brick and mortar, and the future of retail is exponentially bright. It may not be in the most traditional manner, but it’s certainly an exciting one.


The changing face of retail will be navigated best by those who are willing to think outside the traditional spectrum.  “Now many of the stores that want those people’s business are going to need to figure out how to retrofit a genuinely good shopping experience into the real estate they’ve left languishing for years,” The Atlantic continued. That statement is exactly on the nose. By focusing on the emotional connection that experiences provide the customer, retailers can find new and innovative paths toward success. 

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