By  on August 26, 2014

In an unusual union between the retail establishment and the Web world, Simon Property Group is partnering with Refinery29 to create “The Shopping Block” at six of its properties this fall, WWD has learned.

The Shopping Blocks will be one-day pop-up mini-marketplaces for Millennials, occupying around 1,600 square feet in the common areas. They will feature products from local and emerging designers and indie boutiques, as well as national brands (about a 50-50 split) selected by Simon and Refinery29. The format will also have beauty bars with makeup artists and mini makeovers, sweepstakes for shopping sprees, “stylist concierges” to help Millennials learn about fall trends and where to shop them, DIY stations and local influencers like bloggers.

The idea is to provide an event at the mall that will lure more Millennials to shop and get a lift in business. Retailers have long been complaining about declining mall traffic, though mall operators say that their most fashionable or “A” properties continue to draw crowds and remain relevant.

Simon’s collaboration with Refinery29 also demonstrates a willingness to work with the Web world as opposed to viewing it as a competitive threat, this case being a digital media site. The 10-year-old Refinery29 features fashion trends and stories ranging from statement skirts to Kelly Ripa’s hairstylist and provides links to brand sites but doesn’t conduct e-commerce itself.

“Increasingly, we need to engage with shoppers and consumers around the country and the world as an aspirational lifestyle retail-oriented brand,” said Simon’s global creative director Chidi Achara, who explained that The Shopping Block is a component of the developer’s year-old re-branding campaign. “Obviously, we are in property management but the crux of our re-branding is transitioning Simon away from engaging as a property company and more engaging as a retail fashion-oriented brand.”

Simon’s efforts have involved modernizing the logos, signs, directories, banners and uniforms for its malls, premium outlets and Mills centers, and a relaunching of the Web site so it’s updated, interactive and more consumer-friendly and social. Simon centers under redevelopment will have the new look embedded in the design. There is also a multimillion-dollar investment in national advertising in Vogue, Vanity Fair, Harper’s Bazaar, GQ and Elle, and a re-branding of local ads. Next month, Simon launches Lookbook Live, a collaboration with GQ and Glamour involving digital, videos, inserts and a contest encouraging the public to submit photos of outfits bought at Simon retailers. There will also be a Lookbook Live presence at 11 malls starting next month, with a VIP cocktail event and fashion show, and the following day lounges where shoppers can interact with style experts from GQ and Glamour.

With Refinery29, “We have never done anything like this before and I don’t think any other mall has,” said Achara. “It’s unexpected. It’s another example of us stepping outside the traditional confines of mall marketing and embracing new channels and ways of connecting with shoppers. We are going to closely monitor The Shopping Block results and feedback and hopefully scale it up, probably next year. We are making a significant investment in this with time and resources. This isn’t just a turn-key program that Refinery29 brought to us. We worked collaboratively for almost a year to really craft the content. We worked very closely so we agreed on every single creative element in the program — the list of local designers, national brands, local bloggers, the subbranding of The Shopping Block, its color palette, its look and feel.…We see it as ongoing. Who knows? Over the course of next year, maybe every month we could be doing something like this in one of our centers.”

For its debut, The Shopping Block will be held at Woodbury Common Premium Outlets in Central Valley, N.Y. on Sept. 13; King of Prussia Mall in King of Prussia, Pa. on Sept. 20; South Shore Plaza in Braintree, Mass., on Sept. 27; Miami’s Dadeland Mall on Oct. 4; Houston Premium Outlets in Cypress, Tex., on Oct. 11, and the Brea Mall in Brea, Calif. on Oct. 18. Simon is considered the nation’s largest shopping developer.

“We selected those six centers because we felt they would play best to the concept of integrating local emerging design talent with more-established national brands under the umbrella of what we call ‘indielux,’” said Achara. “They had to be markets with sufficient scale and enough of an indigenous design community that we could feature with national brands. It’s an opportunity for brands normally not presented in a mall context to live alongside brands more familiar with the mall environment.”

For some of the labels, The Shopping Block experience could lead to a long-term lease in the mall. “We are always open to new tenants, if we could make it work together,” Achara said.

Asked to comment on the health of mall traffic, Achara said, “The malls I visited over the last several months or so were always pretty busy. We’re fortunately in very strong financial shape. The better properties will continue to meet the needs of shoppers and drive traffic and do well. But it’s incumbent on all mall operators to raise the game. The idea of competition between physical and digital is a misnomer. It overlooks the reality of modern shopping behavior. People use both channels at different times for different purposes. Even the Millennial shopper still prefers the physical, tactile experience of looking at clothes, trying on clothes and showing what they’re buying to friends. The two channels fuel each other.”

Some players in the digital space, Warby Parker and Bonobos, for example, are opening stores, Achara noted. “There is something about the actual physical experience that will elevate a brand in a way that digital can’t quite do.”

“We love opportunities to bring our brand to life,” said Justin Stefano, cofounder and co-chief executive officer of Refinery29.

As Stefano noted, the site has in the past created pop-up shops and marketplaces in Manhattan in the Port Authority and SoHo for the holiday season. However, “The Shopping Block is different,” he said. “The idea of bringing together brick-and-mortar independent creators, artisans and smaller vendors not typically found inside a mall — the kind we love to feature on our Web site — is different. It’s kind of Etsy meets the mall,” he said, referring to the e-commerce site focused on handmade or vintage products. Refinery29 declined to reveal any labels that will be at The Shopping Block.

Each Simon location will have a unique Shopping Block layout, with a commonality in the look. According to the organizers, the design of the installations is being inspired by modernist artists such as Donald Judd and Dan Flavin, and the art and architecture of Marfa, Tex. The actual shopping blocks are like big cubes that open in different ways to display products. Different brands will share the blocks, though each will have its own space and signs. For online, Simon’s Web site and Refinery29 are creating content based on street styles seen at The Shopping Blocks.

Asked if Refinery29 would ever consider opening a permanent store, Stefano said, “It’s not really in our business plan in the next 24 months, but we do a lot of offline events and activations.”

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