March 18, 2007

Watertown Mall: ’70s-Concept Retail Struggles in the 21st Century

Changes in retail trends have taken their toll on the Watertown Mall, which is now only about half capacity, according to a story in today's Globe West Weekly:

"What people used to buy at the mall, they are now buying not only on the Internet but at new outdoor complexes known as 'lifestyle center.' The enclosed malls of the 1970s and '80s, consequently, are being torn down. Or they're being gutted and rebuilt as outdoor plazas, accompanied by big-box stores. The industry has even coined a term -- de-malled -- to describe the process."

The photo accompanying the story says a lot about a fundamental problem: It shows a huge, ugly expanse of unbroken asphalt. It's not human-scaled. It's not someplace that has a "stop for 5 minute" kind of feel; going there is more like an outing than quick stop, yet the experience and ambience are not appealing enough for an "outing."

And make no mistake: Well-heeled shoppers in the 21st century are not simply looking for bargains. They're also looking for an enjoyable experience. That's one reason why upscale urban districts are making a comeback, and why so many new shopping areas are trying to mimic the feel of traditional town centers.

There are reportedly some changes in the works at the mall in Watertown, such as possibly building a new atrium entrance and expanding Target. "It seems clear that the Watertown Mall - like many enclosed retail behemoths dating from the 1970s - is struggling to remake itself in a new retail era," the story notes. Paying more attention to streetscape and ambience, starting off in the parking area, would be a good place to start.

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