Commercial Signage: The evolution of shopping malls

Photo courtesy National PR

By Craig M. Berger
These days, it seems like shopping malls are frequently spoken of in life-and-death terms. Financial analytics firm Credit Suisse, for example, recently issued a report predicting between 225 and 275 enclosed malls—comprising roughly 25 per cent of those across North America—would close in the next five years.

Those that thrive, meanwhile, may be subject to major changes. IHL Group, a global research and advisory firm that specializes in the retail and hospitality industries, estimates 10,000 stores will close during the same five-year span, while 14,000 new ones will open.

This is an unprecedented degree of ‘churn’ for shopping malls. Many of the vacating tenants will be traditional department stores and clothing retailers, while newly introduced businesses will include specialty stores, restaurants, theatres and other venues offering social experiences.

This trend is significant for the sign industry. For one thing, churn represents a major opportunity, with large numbers of new signs needed for new mall tenants. For another, many existing malls are being redeveloped in ways that place greater emphasis on the importance of their façades and signage, encouraging more creativity and innovation.

Turning inside out
Modern shopping centres were pioneered in the U.S. by Austrian-born architect Victor Gruen in the early 1950s. The earliest of these were open to the elements, but Gruen also went on to develop the first enclosed mall in 1956.

While some malls have returned to the open-air approach (such as Toronto’s Shops at Don Mills, which replaced the enclosed Don Mills Centre in 2009), others have remained enclosed but added more stores with their own dedicated façades (such as Pennsylvania’s recently renovated King of Prussia Mall, which has expanded the number of stores and restaurants with their own external entrances, providing more locations for signage).

This process has only been accelerated by the closing of department stores, which previously served as anchor tenants, and their replacement by flagship retailers, restaurants and entertainment venues. As mall owners seek to break up large spaces with blank walls along their exterior and interior façades, the number of opportunities for signmakers has increased dramatically. Indeed, these opportunities have yielded substantial growth for fabricators specializing in mall signs.

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Replacing old with new
As both larger department stores and some smaller shops close, they are being replaced by a new breed of flagship stores, such as clothing retailer H&M, which can occupy a fairly large space with plenty of creative control, while still enjoying the amenities of being part of a mall.

In the latest renovations to Toronto’s Yorkdale Shopping Centre, designed by locally based MMC International Architects, existing store spaces have been doubled in height, allowing for much greater visual impact with their indoor signage and façades. Unlike many older malls with tight design standards, out-of-the-box thinking is actively encouraged by the mall’s owner, Oxford Properties. This strategy has helped Yorkdale maintain higher sales per square foot—according to data from the Retail Council of Canada (RCC)—than any other mall in the country.

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