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MALL TALK

Listen, and they will come

December 10, 2006|Rick J. Caruso | RICK J. CARUSO is chief executive of Caruso Affiliated, the builder and owner of the Grove.

YOU CAN'T JUST throw a bunch of stores together in a hangar-like structure, or along a barren outdoor strip, call it a mall and count on success. Not anymore, not with the intensity of today's competition for consumers' attention -- increasingly discerning consumers, mind you. People crave texture, community, an experience. The secret to creating a great retail experience for customers, ironically, flows from the realization that people don't just want to shop.

That said, it doesn't take a rocket scientist to come up with a great shopping venue. But it does take a lot of listening. Fancy yourself a visionary developer at your own peril.

What experience has taught me is that you have to ascertain what communities want. I have sat through dozens, if not hundreds, of meetings with five, 10, 20 people at a time, in living rooms, community centers and restaurants, not telling people what we plan to build but asking them what they want us to build. I have sat next to residents, easel at hand, drawing concepts of how a project should be laid out on a particular piece of land. I have flown to various places -- Mendocino, the Monterey peninsula, Scottsdale, Ariz. -- at the suggestion of residents to see a particular architecture they thought would work well in their community. We held a naming contest for our project in Glendale -- and the winning name was the Americana.

It is amazing how far asking questions and listening will get you. What seems like common sense is nearly revolutionary.

What drives me crazy about big, box-like malls is that you enter one and you could be anywhere in the United States. They all have the same stores, generally the same design and no place to catch your breath. Sit down anywhere in one of these malls and you are bombarded by stores, the food court or the crush of people walking by in the too-narrow spaces between the stores.

People who go to places like the Grove, which I built and still own, aren't just customers, they are constituents too, almost in the political sense of the word. Every day in Southern California, land becomes more scarce and expensive, and the price for entry into any market -- home building, retail, office or other commercial development -- gets steeper. Competition among developers for usable land is fierce, which enables communities to be more demanding of developers (though not all exercise this power) to build projects that go beyond just shopping and dining.

Successful developers don't resent this dynamic, they embrace it. They cannot enter a community and presume to know what it wants and have a realistic hope of being received with open arms.

Quality costs more, but every community will value a quality project. I am not talking about sidewalks paved with gold. Small things like the brass tops on our garbage cans always polished to a bright shine. Attractive fountains that create a soothing, festive ambience. Fully grown trees rather than staked ones that look like a strong wind would blow them away.

People want to feel good when they go out to shop or dine, and it's the cumulative effect of many such details that will provide them with a pleasant experience. And if consumers feel good and enjoy themselves, that translates into bigger profits for the property owners and merchants.

A pleasant environment that brings together retail, dining and movies can help satiate people's craving for community. As the new book "Applebee's America," by Douglas Sosnik, Matthew Dowd and Ron Fournier, argues, peripatetic Americans long to feel connected to a distinctive place.

As the authors point out, more businesses are looking for a way to make a "gut value connection" with consumers -- providing them with not just a place to shop or eat but a place where they are comfortable and feel like they belong and, in a way, own. Giving a community a sense of ownership is a very powerful concept.

It's rewarding when people want to go to my developments because they need to spend hundreds of dollars, but what really thrills me is when people go to merely hang out.

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