Can purchasing malls survive? How expertise and the pandemic are radically reshaping retail

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2025: Tomorrow, Today podcast co-hosts John Cook of GeekWire, left, and Jordon Voss of Northern Trust at Seattle’s upscale University Village. (GeekWire photo / Kevin Lisota)

Walk through Seattle’s trend-setting University Village shopping center near the University of Washington, and you’ll see Apple, Crate & Barrel, Allbirds and other top retail brands still booming. But drive just a few miles to one of Seattle’s older indoor shopping malls, and it’s a far different story.  Formerly crowded department stores like JC Penny are shuttered. Parking lots are empty.

Shopping malls have long served as important epicenters of commerce and community. But will the one-two punch of online commerce and the pandemic deal a fatal blow to these brick-and-mortar institutions?

The answer is yes, and no. While many second-tier malls won’t survive, experts say, others will benefit from a different trend: experiences that can’t be replicated online.

We explore this issue in the inaugural episode of 2025: Tomorrow, Today — a new podcast from GeekWire Studios, in partnership with Northern Trust. It’s co-hosted by Jordon Voss, Northern Trust senior vice president; and me, GeekWire co-founder John Cook. On every episode, we’ll be looking several years into the future, exploring how the world is changing as we dive into topics such as shopping, cities and the workplace. First up: the changing face of brick-and-mortar retail.

Listen to the premiere here, and subscribe to 2025: Tomorrow, Today in any podcast app to catch future episodes. Continue reading for highlights.

On this episode, our guests explain why the U.S. has so much brick-and-mortar retail compared to other countries, how experiential retail could breathe new life into shopping centers and how brands such as athletic apparel retailer Lululemon are successfully deploying technology to alter the shopping experience.

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Julie Averill of Lululemon

“In many ways we’ve accelerated ourselves into the future of retail in the last six or nine months,” says Julie Averill, Lululemon’s chief technology officer. “I think COVID has given us a very fast accelerant into what we may have otherwise tiptoed into.”

With the boom in online shopping and delivery, expectations for quality service are also growing, she said. Retailers now need to seamlessly integrate their physical and online retail channels.

Shopping malls will also need to evolve to survive, says Jason Stoffer, a partner at Maveron, a consumer-based venture capital firm that’s backed brands such as Zulily, Allbirds and Everlane.

Jason Stoffer, Maveron

“What you’re going to see is a transformation where the mall has to become more experiential,” he said, “I think I understand the Roaring ’20s a little bit more now. It was a reaction to start partying after the flu epidemic, where everyone needed to stay in inside for a couple of years,” he said. After the current pandemic, he predicted, “you’ll see a return to that.”

Successful retail destinations will cater to this trend with everything from virtual-reality installations to golf experiences.

That sentiment was echoed by Nadia Shouraboura, a former Amazon executive, retail pioneer and entrepreneur who founded a company called Hointer to use smartphones and other technology to improve the shopping experience.

Nadia Shouraboura

“Over time, what we’ll see is a lot more experiences where you go to the store, you still touch and feel — you experience the product,” she said. “But a lot of other muck you do in a store is going to go virtual. Your checkout will be much simpler, and online versus in store will be much smoother. So I’m very excited.”

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Even before the pandemic, there were too many brick-and-mortar outlets around the country, due to a trend of overbuilding.

However, the retail sector is actually quite strong in a number of areas, and many consumers are spending as much or more than ever, says Marie Driscoll, a veteran retail analyst and managing director of luxury and fashion with New York-based Coresight Research.

Marie Driscoll, Coresight Research

In the long term, she predicts a strong future for physical retail locations – if they offer what consumers want.

“A JC Penney in one mall could be vibrant. In another mall, it may not be,” Driscoll said. “All retail is local. And what resonates in one community doesn’t necessarily resonate in another community.”

“There will be successful, thriving malls,” she said. “And what makes a mall vibrant and successful is it reflects the local culture.”

Subscribe to 2025: Tomorrow, Today in Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher or any podcast app. This podcast is a partnership of GeekWire and Northern Trust. Produced and edited by Josh Kerns of Cypress Point Strategic Communications.

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