August 6, 2020

4 min read

Share on facebook
Share on twitter
Share on linkedin
Share on email

Mall operators across North America have been rolling out drive-in movie experiences in their parking lots to generate traffic and reconnect with consumers. Could shopping centres be missing out on the even bigger opportunity presented by the drive-in?

When the retail industry was virtually knocked off its feet (aka: disrupted) by the advent of e-commerce a dozen or so years ago, brands had two options: Adapt to this brave new online world, or be left behind by it.

The onset of COVID-19 has prompted a similar but more apocalyptic scenario:

According to a Leger survey conducted in April, only 53 percent of Canadians believed they would be comfortable visiting a mall once governments lift restrictions. This leaves traditional retail environments like shopping malls grappling with the prospect of either continuing status quo amid shutdowns and bankruptcies, or finding workarounds to this industry-crushing new normal. 

There is a possible solution—and it gets its inspiration from the humble, nostalgic drive-in, which has enjoyed quite a comeback lately.

In communities across Europe and North America, people forced into lockdown—yet longing for communal togetherness—have gathered and, from the safety of their cars, have enjoyed the closest thing to a night out. Out and away from the same four walls, but still under shelter. Together, yet apart.  

Humans are driven to physically congregate—if only in the same parking lot. A venue like the drive-in is a way to safely enable that, offering the added comfort and familiarity of one’s own car.

Now take the concept of the drive-in and apply it to the shopping mall.

Consumers want to break free of the confines of home—but even as restrictions ease, they worry about the ongoing threat of exposure. A recent study by Deloitte noted that 58 percent of consumers expect enclosed-mall shopping to become less popular in the post-pandemic era.

Consumers are indeed still eager to shop. Consumer confidence is returning, and the dramatic spike in online sales for some retailers suggests that in the right space, with sufficient distancing, people are keen to “get back out there”.

What if they could shop at the mall from the safety of their car?

In fact, what if the mall could essentially turn itself inside out to feature various open-air, drive-up events? And to be clear, this is not curbside pickup—we’re talking fully staged, interactive shows, demonstrations, tournaments, fairs.

Imagine a raised runway with models wearing the latest designs from mall stores. Digital screens highlight clothing details and showcase the retailer. The result is a highly visual—and feasible—way to provide struggling retailers with much-needed exposure while getting consumers excited again about bricks-and-mortar buying.

And for iconic but long-struggling brands like J.Crew and Neiman Marcus, for whom COVID-19 worsened already declining mall traffic, tightening cashflow and debt, the excitement of drive-in fashion shows could stem losses and spark a turnaround.

For foodies, meanwhile, consider recipe demonstrations and BBQ cookoffs hosted by celebrity chefs using the latest kitchen gadgets. The video screens reveal tantalizing close-ups along with audience reaction—possibly enhanced by servers (on roller skates?) delivering samples direct to car windows.

And to complete the al fresco experience: an app enabling drive-in shoppers to order an item—clothing, accessories, housewares, sporting equipment—using their phone. From the safety of their cars, people watch the event and place orders, guided by instructions on the big screens. Runners then deliver the purchases, just like curbside pickup. Park. Tap. Pay. Pick up.

While drive-in movies may seem like a quick solution to generate revenue, drive-in retail events and immersive brand experiences could provide ways for mall operators to help retail tenants make their businesses more resilient—in turn making their shopping centres more sustainable in the long run.