For more than 60 years, malls have acted as the backdrop for communities throughout America. As de facto “town centers”, these downtown destinations brought people together for communal activities and entertainment purposes. But the digital era changed the way cities, businesses, and people operate on a global scale. In retail, e-commerce disrupted traditional modes of shopping, leaving communities marginalized and in need of spaces for interpersonal interaction.

Vintage Main Street/NYC

Despite the disengagement e-commerce has signaled for local communities across the globe, shopping centers (also known as strip malls), in particular, are better positioned to harness the power of community by reinventing themselves into lifestyle centers with emerging technologies like artificial intelligence, virtual reality, and big data.

With the help of advanced tech tools, their unique value proposition should focus on one major principle: community. In the future, local shopping malls will lead the way as high-tech, community epicenters for local consumers who will, in turn, provide stability for local culture and business.

Rebuilding Local Strip Malls as Experiential & Communal Destinations

A typical strip mall in a downtown suburban district.

Malls of the past often created the mass appeal to generate long-term impact that improves the economic stability and the socialization of neighboring communities. With the advent of e-commerce, the disappearance of malls could potentially disintegrate communities because they have no communal hub to coalesce. The success of local shopping centers directly affects the health of the local communities and economies surrounding them. In addition, experts predict outdoor shopping malls and centers are positioned to succeed as long as they create a sense of communities that off higher-quality experiences.

The World Economic Forum states in its Shaping the Future of Retail For Consumer Industries report, the physical store will remain a channel that offers the most revenue for the majority of multichannel retailers at least until 2026. But the report also indicates that physical retail stores will need to reshape their value propositions from pure distribution channels to platforms for “discovery, engagement, experience and interaction.”

Strip malls, in particular, are better situated to directly respond to community needs and build upon a greater sense of hyperlocal behaviors and expectations. They’re geographic proximity, ability for personalized service, and reach within the local economy provide the keys to keeping up with global competitors like Amazon. The differentiator continuously relies on the power of building communities.

The Senior Vice President of CBRE, Christian Williams, mentioned in 2017 that the performance of inline strip malls remains extremely positive and ranks only second in retail after high street opportunities. However, the shifting demands of retail need to take into account how shoppers use digital tools and how it can empower local consumer choices to drive people to their stores.

Digital Stores Harness the Power of Community


Technological updates can transform ordinary strip malls into living community centers which help community interaction thrive. According to a KPMG Global Retail Trends 2018 report, AI will gain more importance in retail, using machine learning so businesses can manage customer management and improved data analytics to discover and enhance information about customer needs and trends.

But retail spaces are using high tech to create a new vision of convenience. Realtor Magazine indicates how shops are utilizing AI to offer interactive features like touchscreen mirrors with automated fashion suggestions. The mirror’s interface can also provide information and text details of the item to the user’s phone for them to make future buying decisions.

Companies like Personali are using AI to offer better behavior economics principles to personalize the e-commerce shopping experience. Their platform features optimal pricing offers and incentives to each consumer, based on patterns of their shopping behavior within current and past shopping excursions. Other startups are creating an equal playing field for traditional retailers through AI apps that adjust prices automatically according to non-store data like competitor’s deals, weather and local events. For example, Wise Athena’s app identifies data from competitor’s products through different category, region, and retailer segments. With the use of AI-enabled and big data apps, stores can help appeal to the interests and needs of locals to harness the power of community.

A Unique Value Proposition

Digital Mall Center

Brick and mortar retail stores are creating differentiated customer experiences due to the choice overload created by online retail. For example, “search results burn” occurs when consumers search for items online, but are left more confused about which products to buy due to the overload of information. Increasing the value proposition of community within local stores is a way to combat choice overload that comes with online shopping.

Online shopping sites use chatbots to create that “sense” of personal touch. However, physical stores can not only utilize AI and big data so local shoppers can access information, but store workers also help provide more hands-on support while providing personal interaction during the shopping experience. Ultimately, personal interactions can go a long way in establishing a loyal customer base.

Strip malls and the mom and pop stores located in these spaces can also utilize pop up shops and events. Mixed with revelatory features like AI-enabled customizations, location-based VR entertainment, and big data analytics, consumers will find personalized experiences and products that they can’t find online. As a result, these centers create a demand that builds a strong sense of excitement that attracts diversity and creates a local identity. With this heightened appeal, consumers will focus on these retail districts that allow them to help support local businesses and each other.

Shopping center owners say that trends will continue to stabilize in retail with the adoption of such technologies because they deliver personalized experience with the support of real people in brick and mortar stores. Just as technology has helped form the downfall of the traditional mall, it can also help retail spur the rehabilitation of local communities. They can reap more benefits as strip malls increasingly change into the lifestyle centers that offer valued community interaction and unique retail experiences. In essence, the strip malls of the future will build a high number of touchpoints for people —  and where communities thrive, businesses can too.