Place Making vs. Place Marking 
Maureen Boyer in Retail, Retail Centers, San Francisco

Houston CITYCENTRE. Image source:

When someone mentions the year 2008, what do you think of? Economic melt-down? Job loss? Corporate crisis? With a few years in between to have softened our memories at least slightly, now it’s almost incredible to reflect on what we went through. There are varying opinions about whether we’ll ever get back to our pre-2008 patterns of consumption, but I tend to take sides with those who think we’re changed forever. As consumers, our expectations are higher; our priorities are different; our awareness of brands – and brand behaviors – is greater; and we have more choices, not to mention more control over the choices we make. There was so much talk during the Great Recession about conscious consumption and how much more careful consumers were with their expenditures. Everyone I know was comparing notes about paying down their credit card debt. I don’t see that this has changed.

Technology has played a big role in our changing behaviors too; we’re much more willing and able to live a virtual life. For example, if you’re like me, you probably use digital currency more often than you touch dollar bills and coins. Consider your music collection too: gone are the days of mix tapes and even CDs. Now we listen to playlists and music that’s borrowed from the cloud. We simply don’t feel the need to own so much “stuff” anymore. We value the substantial over the material, and seek unique, personal experiences. Retailers themselves are addressing our new priorities, but I’d argue that retail centers need to do a better job of adapting to the new normal.

Place-making has been a buzz word in the retail real estate industry for decades, but I think it’s fair to say that the emphasis in the past was on place-marking. Logos, billboards and elaborate signage hypnotized consumers to come in. But true place-making isn’t about staking a claim on a parcel of property, rather it’s about turning a space into a meaningful experience for its inhabitants – it’s more emotional, people-oriented and purposeful than promotional.

Place marking versus place making. Image sources and

Look at examples like State Farm’s Next Door center in Chicago, which hosts classes, community events and coaching sessions first, and sells insurance second. Or think of the food truck movement: a sidewalk or park becomes a festival of people with similar tastes. Smart retail properties like Houston’s CITYCENTRE host live concerts, farmers markets or breakfast yoga clubs in their public spaces. This isn’t about selling, but it is about bringing people with shared interests together. And guess what: chances are good that once people are there having a pleasant, personal experience and forming a connection to the host, they will end up buying, or at least coming back later when they’re ready to buy. Shopping centers need to be designed to encourage this kind of personal experience.

On November 29, I will join Tom Moseman from Paco Underhill’s Envirosell in an ICSC CenterBuild workshop titled Post-2008 Changing Patterns in Consumer Shopping Habits and Shopping Center Design. If the recession reminded us to prioritize our families, our friends and our communities, and technology made it easier to connect and communicate with them, then real estate developers need to nurture these communities and connections because they’re not going to dissolve anytime soon. Tom and I will talk about this even more in Phoenix, and look forward to the discussion. We hope you’ll join us.

Maureen Boyer is co-leader of Gensler’s global retail centers practice and a senior associate in our San Francisco office with over 25 years of experience in design, project management and construction management. Maureen focuses on reinventing and redeveloping retail environments, with a balanced emphasis between architecture and interior design. Through her continuous research of ever-changing consumer behavior and shopping trends, Maureen executes a uniquely customized, integrated multi-channel solution for her clients and their customers. Contact her at
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