Big Boxes and Shoppertainment: More Lessons for Web Design from Mall and Retail Design

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This three-part article attempts to add to web designers’ “bag of tricks”“Most innovation on the web will involve some element of risk. Most proposed innovations are years ahead of the available research on web design.” by suggesting lessons from bricks-and-mortar malls and stores that can be applied to web design. The first installment explored some broad issues of strategy. This one explores some tactical issues in structuring and presenting content.

Lesson three: Watch out for the big boxes
On display: After the first enclosed shopping mall (Southdale Mall, in Edina, a suburb of Minneapolis) appeared in the 1950s, the number of enclosed, regional malls in the United States skyrocketed, with the largest growth occurring in the 1970s and 1980s. Regional malls earned their name because they were intended to draw shoppers from the entire region that they served, which, in a typical suburban area, included anywhere within a 30-minute drive. In most markets, these malls were the only shopping centers of such size and caliber in the region.

Initially, regional malls had two or three anchor stores. An anchor store is a large store that “anchors” one end of the mall. Almost always, the anchor store was a department store (although this is changing today). Between anchor stores were several specialty shops, usually smaller local merchants who were relocating from older, declining shopping areas (or shopping areas that they anticipated would decline). But an increase in rental prices for retail spaces in the mall (which are usually based on a percentage of sales), coupled with more intense competition, changed the make-up of stores in malls. To ensure the highest possible rent, mall operators preferred leasing to stores with proven track records, especially those with prior success marketing in malls. Few small, local stores could match the track records of national specialty retailers —small chains of stores that specialize in a single product niche (but, despite the name, actually operate internationally). Popular national specialty retailers include Gap (clothing), Spencer’s Gifts (novelties), Nine West (shoes), and Williams-Sonoma (cooking supplies). As a result, specialty retailers thrived as the market became saturated with malls. Even when the number of new malls began to decline, national specialty retailers could still generate the revenues that mall operators sought.

By the early 1990s, malls began homogenizing, and eventually fell into one of three broad categories. “A” malls catered to upper- and upper-middle-class shoppers. These malls featured department stores that primarily catered to wealthier customers (such as Neiman Marcus, Saks Fifth Avenue, and Bloomingdale’s in the US, and Holt-Renfrew in Canada), broader-appeal department stores with an expanded selection of merchandise, exclusive national specialty retailers like Ralph Lauren and Kenneth Cole, and merchants of exclusive lines of household goods like Pottery Barn and Crate & Barrel. “A” malls also contained national specialty retailers, such as Gap and Lechter’s Housewares, that market to broader audiences. “B” malls targeted upper-middle- and middle-class shoppers. Department stores in “B” malls had large selections, but not as large or as exclusive as those in “A” malls. Similarly, although the mix of specialty shops in “B” malls was similar to that in “A” malls, certain retailers (like Tiffany & Co.) would not locate in “B” malls; others (such as Banana Republic) offered a reduced selection of merchandise. Finally, “C” malls catered to middle- and lower-middle-class shoppers. They generally featured department stores that targeted only people in that income range, and national specialty retailers that sought a mall audience, such as Regis hair salons, Gap, and The Limited. Many specialty retailers that aim at shoppers in higher income brackets, such as J. Crew, Banana Republic, Abercrombie & Fitch, and Crate & Barrel, did not locate stores in “C” malls.

This renting strategy, called the retail mix, significantly reduced the risk of mall operators, but resulted in a monotonous shopping experience for consumers, who sought larger and more varied selections of merchandise. Mall visitors also found that the convenience of one-stop, climate-controlled shopping in regional malls was offset by the inconveniences of hard-to-find parking, long hikes between stores in ever-expanding buildings, and the limited selection of merchandise in the sometimes too-focused national specialty retail stores.

Two approaches offered an alternative to the regional mall. One was the “big box” shopping center, which is essentially a strip mall that contains several very large stores. (The term “big box” refers to the immense size of the stores, which often have 30,000 or more square feet of retail space, compared to the 1,500-5,000 square feet of a typical specialty shop in a mall.) Shoppers park their cars in parking lots directly in front of the store in which they intend to shop and walk right into it. Examples of big box retailers include Circuit City and Best Buy, which offer appliances and electronics; Home Depot and Lowe’s, which offer building and other home improvement supplies; Barnes & Noble and Borders, which are book stores; Office Depot, Staples, and Office Max, which sell office products; and Old Navy Clothing Company, Marshall’s and T.J. Maxx, which offer clothing and accessories.

The other approach is the “main street mall,” which features a combination of big box and smaller shops, and is designed to resemble the fantasy of a main street in a small American community at the turn of the twentieth century. This approach borrows from some of the earliest designs for shopping malls, which appeared in Los Angeles in the 1920s (Petersen Automotive Museum). The storefronts in main street malls, like those of early malls, face a pedestrian walkway; parking is tucked inconspicuously behind the building.

Developers usually build big box and main street malls near regional malls, where they lure away shopping traffic. In addition, consumer fashion preferences changed, and after many years of success, mall-based specialty retailers have found themselves fighting to win back customers. For example, Gap has seen same-store sales decline for two consecutive years (at the time this article was written). Mall-based book merchants have fared poorly against the big boxes like Barnes & Noble and Borders. Lechter’s, a mall-based housewares retailer, recently folded as a result of competition from big box stores like Bed, Bath & Beyond, and Linens & Things. Bored with the increasingly homogenized malls offering limited selections of play-it-safe merchandise, consumers are choosing these big box centers and main street malls instead.

Lessons for web design: The challenges of regional mall-based retailers offer three lessons for web designers. The first is to constantly innovate. Mall-based retailers found that uniqueness and creativity eventually degraded into homogenization as malls matured and became risk-averse. Similarly, the web was first characterized by significant innovation, but now shows a high level of homogenization—certain approaches to common web site issues have become standardized. For example, HTML Help became standardized in look and style as everyone strived to mimic Microsoft and as Robohelp (a help authoring tool) began to dominate the market. On technical support sites, nearly everyone offers users a chance to browse through answers to Frequently Asked Questions and to search for responses, but few offer other means of getting direct assistance online. Certainly other approaches exist that can be adapted from print, such as “ask the expert” columns and “tips and techniques” articles.

A second lesson is to remain on the lookout for, and experiment with, new formats. The general public is becoming comfortable with browsing the web on PC-based devices, but newer devices offering different formats for web browsing are now hitting the market. One example is the Personal Digital Assistant (PDA), which features a smaller screen and a wireless Internet connection. Right now, a common way to “browse” the web using a PDA is to download news to the device and read it offline while commuting. This affects the design and presentation of that news. Another device format is the integrated PDA and mobile telephone. Users can interact with the web using a PDA/phone, but they can also speak to people with it. This device challenges web designers to find ways to let users speak and browse simultaneously, or let them receive data continuously as they move about town.

Finally, note that most innovation on the web will involve some element of risk. Most proposed innovations are years ahead of the available research on web design (research almost always explores existing trends). Those who seek research-based data on which to base their design decisions can conduct their own research, but must ultimately rely on their design instincts.

Lesson four: It’s shoppertainment!“Although individual web sites need to remain focused, they must also provide constantly changing information to keep users coming back.” On display: Regional malls faced stiff competition from big box shopping centers and main street malls, and mall operators realized that, because shoppers could find the same stores in any mall, people needed a more compelling reason to visit. So regional malls responded by re-inventing themselves as “destinations” that included dining, entertainment, and educational attractions.

At the least, malls significantly expanded their dining options, so that shoppers would come for a meal and stay for shopping. These new options included food courts, which offered a number of fast food outlets in a single location, many of which were only available at the mall. Or, shoppers could choose from one of the mall’s sit-down restaurants. Depending on the class of mall, these might be casual dining restaurants like T.G.I. Friday’s or Ruby Tuesday’s, which appear at “B”-class malls, or one-of-a-kind, white-tablecloth restaurants, such as Tom Tom at the upscale Lenox Square, and The Peasant Uptown in Phipp’s Plaza, both “A” malls in Atlanta.

At the most, malls added entertainment facilities. In some cases, especially at “C”-class malls and in some “B” malls, operators opened arcades that offered electronic games, Skee-Ball, and other amusements aimed at teenagers, especially boys. Some malls, like the Gallerias in Dallas and Houston, and Festival Walk in Hong Kong, offered ice-skating rinks. Many malls also added movie theaters. Some of these theaters were originally built as “outbuildings” (buildings on mall property, but not physically connected to the mall) but, as part of mall renovations, were brought into the mall. Malls also added other types of entertainment facilities like art museums (as in the mall in Bellevue, Washington (suburban Seattle)) and make-your-own teddy bear and pottery stores. Some malls also added bookstores and cafes, which remained open later than other stores in the mall. The Mall of America, in Minneapolis, and the West Edmonton Mall, in Canada, feature facilities like amusement parks and aquariums.

The move towards “shoppertainment” (as the Mall of America’s website calls it) started with big box retailers. For example, outdoor outfitters REI and Galyan’s have 50-foot-high climbing walls inside their stores so consumers can practice rock climbing. Similarly, Minnesota-based grocer Byerly’s has an in-store cooking school.

Lessons for web design: Although individual websites need to remain focused, they must also provide constantly changing information to keep users coming back. This content could take many forms. Some designers choose to increase the number of links to content on the site. But adding more links about a single topic often has only marginal utility to users. Instead, designers should consider providing companion services. For example, offers links to online technical training courses, so that job seekers can develop or improve the technical skills they might need in a future job. This is a sensible companion service, because training directly relates to employability. An e-learning site, in turn, might link to self-assessments, so users can develop their own career plans and identify future learning needs.

When designers seek to add links to a site, they should limit the links to those that are directly related to the mission of the site. One popular technique is polling users for feedback on the site. For example, the CNN website usually has a poll about a topic that generates polarized views (especially the Middle East conflict). The Boston Chapter of the Society for Technical Communication usually runs a poll about the chapter or about an issue in the profession. In fact, some web design sources suggest that every portal site or home page should have a poll on it because they draw repeat visitors. But eventually, polling has the same effect as the homogenization of shopping malls, especially if it doesn’t support the mission of the site; an online poll on a technical support site would just seem gratuitous, for example. Although polls can actively engage visitors, most do not pose questions that directly relate to the purpose of the site. Furthermore, visitor responses are not scientifically valid and are likely to be ignored by the product designers.

Lesson five: Shop by glancing
On display: In the early days of mall-based retailing, stores generally had one central aisle, and all of the departments were available off of that aisle. Small departments sometimes did not warrant space directly off of the main aisle, so shoppers had to walk through one department to get to another. The design was not intended to encourage browsing —it was merely practical. For example, shoppers in one department store in a small exurban (beyond the suburbs) community had to walk through the women’s underwear section to get to the toy department.

In the 1980s, the prevailing belief in architecture changed and advocated that the structure of a public facility should be immediately visible to all visitors. This is the general philosophy behind Richard Meier’s widely acclaimed design for the High Museum of Art in Atlanta, and it can be seen in most stores today. Rather than a single aisle cutting the floor space in half, the main aisle was a square or diamond in the center of the store, such as that shown in Figure 1. Shoppers could see and enter any department from this aisle. Additionally, clear signage made sure that shoppers knew exactly where they were.

Layout of a store
Figure 1: Layout of a store

This design offers the benefit of improving traffic flow through the store—because people are distributed among several aisles, they do not bump into one another in the crowded merchandise areas. Department stores and discount department stores adopted this design first, but eventually other retailers adopted it too, especially those with larger spaces.

Lessons for web design: Just as central aisles made all of the departments in a store visible to visitors, so can designers make the structure of their websites apparent to users. One technique is to use a two-tiered menu on the home page that shows users both the general and specific topic areas covered by the site. If users are interested in a specific topic, they can link directly to it, rather than guessing which general category will lead them there or using a search tool that may not be able to lead them to the exact location of interest.

A second technique is to use previews. Previews, such as thumbnail images, provide users with a general idea of the content available to them before they choose it, and provide a tool they can use to quickly determine whether the content will be of interest to them. Thumbnails are widely used in operating systems and software applications, such as the previews of slide designs offered in PowerPoint.

Lesson six: When you can’t beat them, merge with them
On display: As shopping patterns change in the United States, some established retailers find themselves challenged. For example, discounter Montgomery Ward closed after 100 years in business because it could not find a niche in the changing discount market, which is now dominated by deep discounters like Wal-Mart (whose low prices Montgomery Ward could not match) and cheap-chic Target (whose style it could not match).

Similarly, K-Mart, which was the largest retailer in the U.S. ten years ago, filed for bankruptcy protection earlier this year. It faced many of the same problems as Montgomery Ward, as well as a stock problem: Shoppers often found that the basic goods they intended to purchase at K-Mart were not in stock. The stores were also poorly maintained. As a result, shoppers shifted their loyalty to other stores.

A third stand-by of American retailing, Sears, is not facing bankruptcy, but it is facing other challenges. Sears is best known for its hardware and appliances. It faces stiff competition in these areas, but is working hard to retain its customers. Another significant part of Sears’ business is clothing and housewares, but in an increasingly fashion-conscious market, consumers are no longer interested in wearing clothes with the Sears label. For years, Sears has tried in vain to upgrade the perception of its fashion lines. It tried a catchy advertising campaign—“See the Softer Side of Sears”—that capitalized on its strengths in hardware, but ultimately it did not result in sustained increases in clothing sales. So Sears recently purchased a specialty retailer, Lands’ End. Lands’ End markets classic clothing to upper-middle- and middle-income consumers, primarily through its catalogs. Lands’ End has the consumer base and reputation that Sears was seeking. Although the merger is too new to report results, it seems like a good match, and should address the weaknesses in Sears’ product line.

Lessons for web design: As Sears addressed the weaknesses in its product line through its merger with Lands’ End, so web designers can address weaknesses in their content areas by partnering with, or merging with, sites that have complementary resources.

The news business has always relied on this type of relationship. Wire services such as Reuters and Associated Press provide stories to newspapers when they do not have their own reporters available to write them. Although many pundits of professional journalism thought that these services would falter with the rise of the Internet, it actually breathed new life into them, as they became the primary sources of news for non-news sites like Yahoo! and Lycos. In fact, newspapers and television news organizations post stories from wire services on their websites as soon as they receive them, so they can provide coverage of breaking news without taxing their own resources. Newspapers also use external services for specialized content. For example, several newspapers team with Internet sites like to provide online job listings, and with other outside services to provide personals advertisements.

These arrangements are not limited to newspapers and retail chains however. Some drug store chains team with medical websites to provide background information on medical issues. For example, the website for drug chain CVS relies on content from WebMD. Some of these sites, in turn, get their material from sites that are primarily intended for medical professionals, like

Rather than hiding these relationships, most websites promote the original source of their content. As specialized content providers gain credibility, citing the original source serves the same purpose as citing sources in an academic paper—lending authority.

Functional websites benefit, too, by sharing content with related sites. For example, many consumers believe that product information provided by a company has limited credibility, because companies are perceived to only present themselves positively. By linking to external sources that consumers value as credible, organizations can address this credibility gap.

Similarly, technical websites can link to scientific and professional journals to provide factual background for their content, and can link to e-learning sites to help users become sufficiently knowledgeable about technical concepts to fully participate in discussions on a particular topic.

One potential issue of concern in this area is the pending lawsuits that may limit this “deep linking”—i.e., linking to a specific article on a website rather than the site’s homepage, without express permission from the owner. Some copyright experts believe that deep linking may violate copyright rules, but as yet no legal ruling has been made.

Most organizations choose to license the content they get from other websites. The term content brokering has emerged to refer to this practice. By licensing content, organizations avoid potential copyright problems.

In Part Three
Sometimes, creating a community online is useless. Wondering why? Check out the next installment in this series.

(Part Two)

  • Mall of America. (2002.) Visited July 10, 2002.
  • Streetscape. Permanent exhibit at Petersen’s Automotive Museum. Los Angeles, CA.
  • Saul Carliner is a visiting scholar at the City University of Hong Kong. His publications include Designing E-Learning (ASTD Press), An Overview of Online Learning (HRD Press), and “Physical, Cognitive, and Affective: A Three-Part Model of Information Design” (Technical Communication, 4Q2000).