OTL designed this interactive water feature at The Village at Meridian, a shopping center in Meridian, Idaho.

The Next Wave of Experiential Retail

Carrie Rossenfeld Retail

Fountains and water features are not necessarily new to the retail scene, but they are evolving along with today’s shopping centers into creative showpieces with which consumers can interact, Outside the Lines, Inc.’s (OTL) CEO J. Wickham Zimmerman and director of creative design Chris Roy tell SoCal Real Estate. As such, these features are growing along with experiential retail – which has taken over the country’s malls and shopping centers – and adding to the attraction of these retail venues, enticing customers to stay, play, and enjoy.

OTL is an Anaheim, California-based design-build construction company that specializes in immersive water features, rockwork, and themed environments for retail entertainment, hospitality, gaming, and golfing projects around the globe. We spoke with Zimmerman and Roy about the latest trends in immersive/entertainment design elements, and how those trends are changing the customer experience.

SoCal Real Estate: Retail owners realized years ago that fountains/water features could draw traffic to shopping centers. How are today’s designers taking that insight further, and how are retail water features becoming more inventive/interactive?
Zimmerman: The key component in making today’s water features impactful is interaction. Early centers featured static fountains that simply pumped water repetitively. Even that generation of fountain was capable of gathering small crowds, because people are naturally attracted to water. Today, the key is to elevate that concept continually. That means constantly pushing the envelope. We do that through increased collaboration as well as new strategies in design and programming.

Roy: Exactly. Designers are increasingly collaborating with entire project teams – developer, contractor, architect, and landscape architect – from the beginning of a project instead of being brought in to just build a fountain. This allows the designer to look beyond the water feature itself, instead creating an experience tying together other shopping-center elements such as lighting, projections on buildings, music that changes by season/event, etc.

We are also pushing beyond the traditional and looking at the next generation of capabilities for our show fountains. For instance, our team is currently in the process of developing new ways the public can interact with our fountains through smartphones. In our next-generation fountains, we plan to give guests the opportunity to control our fountains using an app, which delivers the ultimate in interaction while also producing a new revenue stream for owners: as guests watch their app and wait for their turn to control the water and music, they can also view ads from retailers who will likely be very willing to pay for face time with this engaged audience.

How do these new design elements reflect the changing demands of today’s consumers?
Zimmerman: Today’s consumers are looking for new experiences, with a focus on the “new.” It’s not enough to introduce something innovative in a shopping center – elements now need to change frequently to keep today’s shoppers engaged and excited.

The priority is experiential design. Today’s consumers are looking for experiences and for selfie moments; today’s water features are providing bigger and better backdrops for photos as well as multi-sensory effects, which have to be experienced in person – not through a screen. For example, a rising trend is the use of water features as an enchanting element for weddings. Shopping-center owners can now offer their show fountains as stunning backgrounds for photography and can even offer to customize songs and lights for the bride and groom during their ceremony or photo shoot. This unique offering provides an additional revenue stream for owners and meets the demand of customers seeking an unforgettable experience.

Roy: Perhaps the ultimate example of experiential technology in retail water features is a fountain in Canada that allows people to “conduct” the water show like an orchestra using a wand. With smart technology inside both the wand and the fountain, the next generation of fountains could offer this fully immersive experience to the masses.

How are design elements like water features affecting the overall design of today’s shopping centers?
Zimmerman: Today’s water features are completely integrated into shopping centers from the very beginning. This is by necessity, as today’s shopping centers are being designed as mini-streetscapes or towns and use water features to evoke authenticity and meet consumer demand for high-quality experiences. This design evolution has paved the way for larger open spaces in shopping centers, which allow developers and owners to offer an ever-changing series of events and experiences. As a result, open spaces and water features alike must be designed for flexibility.

Roy: One way we meet the needs of that flexibility is by “future-proofing” our fountains, meaning that we lay the groundwork for things that don’t yet exist. This allows us to keep our systems fresh and continually offer new experiences.

On the programming side, this means integrating landscape lighting and projection images that can easily be changed to deliver a whole new show – all with little to no work on the property owner’s part. As we build our fountains, we engineer all program elements to be online, and we install cameras that monitor the fountains 24/7. This allows us to make changes or troubleshoot systems with the click of a button.

Physically, our “future-proofing” is accomplished by changing the way we install junction boxes and pumps. While in the past these would have been immobile, today we install items in such a manner that our team can easily return and move nozzles to change completely the look of a show without having to break into concrete or initiate more construction.

What’s the impact on the bottom line, and how are retail developers and owners justifying the cost of the latest trends in retail water features?
Roy: The most successful retail developers and owners recognize that water features pay for themselves repeatedly as iconic amenities complimenting an environment that brings more people to their center and increases repeat visits. Having a stunning, interactive next-generation water feature elevates the consumer perception of the development, evoking the feeling of a more luxurious environment. This in turn attracts a more affluent consumer base, which in turn attracts more desirable retailers. As today’s owners curate their tenant mix, they are seeking specialty retailers that offer the highest-quality experience to their guests. By establishing a shopping center as a high-end offering, developers and owners are able more easily to bring together the retail mix that will sustain a thriving center.

Zimmerman: The bottom-line results can also be seen in rent growth. One of our clients — a California-based retail developer — recently confirmed that he is able to garner rents at $10 to $15 more per square foot than nearby comps because retailers want to be in the center with our water feature. This is the ultimate goal: when a water feature is woven into the fabric of a shopping center and is programmed and developed with the future in mind, the result is an exceptionally high-quality experience that is immersive, interactive, and memorable. And that is success in today’s retail environment.