Emergence of Lifestyle Centers: Are They Really a Unique Retailing Location?

Depending on whom you talk to, a lifestyle center is either the latest shopping center format or a new take on an old approach. To some, a lifestyle center is a community center; to others, just a strip mall.

Some lifestyle centers have as little as 150,000 s/f; others boast more than 500,000. Others are designed for anchor tenants; some aren’t. Some incorporate office and residential space; most don’t.

The definition of lifestyle centers is a gray area,” says Tama Shor, publisher of the Directory of Major Malls.

But despite the variant definitions, everyone agrees on some elements: outdoor venue, upscale image, caters to an upper-income clientele, and designed as a destination for shopping, dining, and entertainment.

The International Council of Shopping Centers (ICSC) developed a formal definition several years ago to clear up the confusion. In addition to its outdoor location and upscale focus, a lifestyle center is also differentiated by “its role as a multi-purpose leisure-time destination [that features] restaurants, entertainment, and design ambiance and amenities such as fountains and street furniture that are conducive to casual browsing.”

Shor has seen the number of lifestyle centers listed in the Directory of Major Malls climb in the last four or five years. She estimates that approximately 200 are listed in the current directory.

We’re seeing an increase in the number of future projects we’re listing,” she says. And in early 2004, the ICSC forecasted that over the next few years, the gross leasable area (GLA) of lifestyle centers would double from around 33 million s/f.

Terry McEwen, president of Poag & McEwen (Memphis, TN), a leading developer of lifestyle centers nationwide and the firm that coined the name “lifestyle center” in the 1980s, echoes those estimates.

Growth has picked up exponentially recently,” he says. Development of lifestyle centers moved more slowly during the 1980s and ’90s because retailers and lenders were skeptical, he says. But clearly, that skepticism is gone. “Now [the centers] have proven they’re even more successful than malls.

Lifestyle centers may be one of the hottest shopping concepts around. However, it’s not exactly a new idea, says Tom Miles, general manager of The Grove Center in Los Angeles. Miles explains that back in the 1950s, what we now call lifestyle centers were called “shopping centers” and then “outdoor shopping destinations.”

Then developers took shopping indoors, the enclosed malls of the ’70s. Now they’re returning to outdoor shopping environments and calling them lifestyle centers. “Developers are giving people what they don’t have,” he says.

What Shoppers Want?

In keeping with societal and lifestyle trends, boomers and older Gen Xers want out of suburban sprawl. Central to that is the commercial heart of town. “the village,” “the avenue,” “town,” or “downtown”—whatever it was called where they lived back in the day.

What consumers also want and don’t have is enough convenient shopping. Proof of this emerged in a 2002 shopper-intercept study funded by ICSC. The study was conducted at five lifestyle centers across the US.

The researchers learned that visitors to lifestyle centers spent less time at these centers. They spend average duration: 57 minutes more than at malls (78 minutes).

However, shoppers spent at a rate of $84/hour at lifestyle centers vs. $57.70/hour at regional centers. The study concludes that lifestyle center shoppers are “more purpose-driven” than mall shoppers. They go to the local lifestyle center with a particular need in mind. And judging from the spending, their needs are being met.

Part of the reason consumers may be spending more is that they appreciate the overall atmosphere these centers provide as a shopping environment.

In the ICSC study, 65% rated the lifestyle center they were visiting as better than their local mall on this score. They also ranked the lifestyle center high on the convenience of parking. It score well on the convenience of the center’s location, and their feeling of safety and security.

They rated lifestyle centers roughly the same as malls on quality, variety of merchandise, and price for the quality offered. That makes sense since lifestyle centers aim to appeal to shoppers who like upscale specialty stores rather than big-box retailers and department stores.