Building social currency through design in the new digital era

Retail and technology today are synonymous. Over the next three years, e-commerce retail sales are set to rise by over 250 per cent according to Statista. With 5G already on our doorstep fuelling the way, the ‘new normal’ is that physical retail environments need to adapt to and complement their online presence. 

Building brand authenticity and social currency through design is a defining movement for clients. In the age of social media and mass communications, brand experience has never been more important for consumers. To keep pace, retail designs today need to tell stories, create emotion, deliver ‘Instagrammable spaces’ and perhaps most importantly, go beyond the traditional retail model to create shared experiences, meetings grounds and community interactions.

The idea of experiential retail may bring to mind co-share shops, entertainment and interactive technology. However, rethinking strategies to create memorable, playful and inspiring experiences that transform the real-world shopping realm is defining success in the sector.

Retailers have seen this shift play out through the demand for smaller physical spaces and short-term leases which can be used for product launches and seasonal changes. For developers, we are seeing traditional retail malls conceived as destinations where the experience draws consumers alongside marquee retail tenants. 

There are several developments currently under construction which are exploring this sector shift in detail. One such scheme is the future MixC Ningbo which will feature the city’s first ferris wheel to be designed within a retail development, as well as a rare 24-hour outdoor public space that runs through the heart of the destination by means of a ‘vertical walking street’. The design is centred on creating a space for families and communities to come together through multi-level public open spaces and grand entertainment opportunities. 

Connecting with nature

Connecting with nature is another strong investment by developers with one of China’s largest indoor botanic gardens due to serve as a centrepiece for a future retail-led destination. Being developed by Hongkong Land, ‘Yorkville – The Ring’ is set to launch in Chongqing at the end of this year. 

Recreating the feeling of walking into a rainforest, the indoor botanic garden will feature distinct themes and areas for visitors. The garden has a 24-metre airborne waterfall that will nourish more than 70,000 plants of more than 300 different species. Specialty activity hubs such as the ‘Free+’ dynamic sporting facility and ‘Open Lab’, a calm space for reading and gathering, help meet the diverse demands of a wide consumer profile. 

Blurring boundaries, the airport sector is also following suit. Lead8’s designs at Hong Kong International Airport’s SkyCity are set to deliver a captivating line-up of experiences, within the development and also the brands it will house. As Hong Kong’s largest retail complex under construction, the approach is visionary with 350,000sqm under development for new and captivating shopper-tainment experiences.

Together with experiential shopping, SkyCity will feature a diverse dining options that re-invent and celebrate the art of gastronomy, as well as mega-scale and advanced entertainment facilities. 

Designs like these put the consumer experience at their core, responding to the changing demands which are defining the retail sector. The digital world may be a major disruptor in the market but it has also been a catalyst for how we approach our built environments. It has pushed us to conceive and design a future where our shared experiences and connections are put firmly at the forefront. 

Claude Touikan is co-founder and executive director of Hong Kong-headquartered architecture practice Lead8. He believes that sustainable design and community integration are key influences of the future and works with developers to deliver successful projects for clients across Asia.


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