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Nine ways SA’s malls can keep customers coming back for more

Malls are the cornerstone of South Africa’s retail experience, and with more than 2,000 of them – and more under construction – malls need to differentiate themselves and in a crowded marketplace to survive in a tough economy.

Online retail is also influencing the retail market, and while brands abroad can invest in concept stores, tight pressure in the local sector means that retailers are still focusing on making every square metre of floor space earn its keep. Experiential activations are still the exception rather than the norm, and while we know of sports shoe stores including basketball courts and coffee shops into their retail experience, for example, local operators don’t have the budget or appetite for these – yet. 


With South Africa being such a remarkable market with its blend of rural retail and high-end mega-malls, should we follow international trends like shoppertainment and experiential marketing to attract consumers – or should we be creating our own homegrown response to our own particular needs?

Our experience in malls, retail, and activations that draw shoppers to malls, we’ve observed these nine trends locally. Some are universal and true of retail environments worldwide, while others respond directly to South Africans’ unique context:

1.       Mall visitors want great service more than they want great experiences – which is why any mall needs to take care of hygiene factors like clean and efficient toilets, good lighting, and clear directional signage before they consider drawing crowds through activations.

2.       Malls that show an understanding of what customers need, and not just what customers want, will attract more visitors. For example, malls that have well-designed baby changing stations typically see a 32% increase in footfall.

3.       Consumers are drawn to destinations that offer the best possible mix of affordable and aspirational retail experiences, but the most popular malls are those that offer free or affordable entertainment opportunities as well.

4.       It’s not just shopping and entertainment offerings that will draw consumers to a mall – those that offer utilities and services such as SARS offices, post office shops, or even health services will attract a broader range of visitors. Smart tenant placement – such as a coffee shop serving takeaways alongside a SARS office – will make customers and tenants happy too.

5.       The most successful activations are interactive – with people. In our experience, setting up a static display achieves virtually no results for the mall or the sponsoring brand, but training a team of brand ambassadors who can engage with shoppers, answering questions and providing feedback yields the most results.

6.       Innovation is key. Consumers are spoiled for choice with so many activations vying for their attention, and doing what you did last year and expecting the same great response is only going to lead to disappointment – on their part and the mall’s. Partnering with products or services that haven’t yet been seen will pique consumers’ interest and keep them coming back to see what’s new. We saw this with the Everblock building room in Fourways Mall ahead of Christmas 2018, which provided a fresh take on a well-loved construction toy.

7.       Malls are more than shopping destinations, they’re meeting places too, and those that offer a mix of spaces and places for friends to meet and eat out will enjoy the loyalty of visitors as diverse as their hospitality and restaurant offerings.

8.       Combining technology and people offers a ‘wow’ factor that’s a sure drawcard – such as the ‘Santa, live from the North Pole’ at Fourways Mall, also over the 2018 festive season.

9.       South Africans are time poor, and prefer quick but meaningful experiences that they can fit into an already-planned shopping trip, rather than visiting a mall with the primary objective of visiting an activation, and then adding in any impromptu shopping around that. This means that any attractions must convey their message quickly and effectively, and that they must stand out from the ‘clutter’ of a regular shopping trip.

Malls and retail spaces need to constantly reinvent themselves to earn and keep consumers’ loyalty, and those that understand and respond to South Africans’ needs will be the environments that survive the current economic crunch – and thrive beyond it too.

By Zoé van Onselen, Head of Marketing at Accelerate Property Fund, and Linette Imrie, owner of The Kitchen Sink