Reimagining retail: The case for neighbourhood shopping centres

Urban planning has undergone tremendous changes from a past when the city and its urban conglomerates were bunched around a central trade district. The city radiated outwards from this nucleus, with residential enclaves and areas of lesser economic importance making up the periphery. This model of master planning, however, has been replaced by the development of gridiron layouts, wherein the city is divided into rectilinear segments called ‘sectors’. Sectors are characterised by buildings consisting of common amenities and approximately span 300 to 500 acres, housing 50,000 to 60,000 people at a time. This has led to certain sectoral amenities becoming predominant in a particular region, such as large hospitals and urban transportation hubs.

However, sectors also provide amenities that are located within short distances. In this way, the planning of sectors follows a hierarchy of importance in accordance with people’s needs, with a clear distinction between residential and commercial areas. People’s day-to-day needs are met with trips to the local, neighbourhood level shopping centres. Providing such localised amenities within rectilinear urban pockets is key to satisfying people’s requirements and solving civic problems on an effective scale.

Neighbourhood shopping centres, as opposed to conventional malls, are more open, being primarily designed around boulevards or plazas. They are planned such that they lie within walkable or short drivable distance from residential zones, with the front of the structure directed towards the street. The scale of the structure is predominantly human, which goes well with the urban housing that most Indian cities have. A park-and-shop concept is followed here, much like the examples seen in Gurgaon and other parts of Delhi NCR. Shops serve an all-round purpose, though the focus is predominantly everyday use housed within an informal layout.

The shift in retail experience
Traditionally, the retail story in India has been focused on small shops contained within a house in the neighbourhood. On one end of the spectrum were the grocery stores at the corner of every street, while on the other were the conventional weekly markets, the haats, the sabzi mandis and the flea markets that were the soul of evenings in most towns of the country.

The advent of this century saw the introduction of inward-facing, large scale shopping malls in many metropolitan cities like Delhi, Bengaluru and Mumbai. These shopping centers were largely answers to the requirements of frequent overseas travellers—the change in affluence levels post-liberalisation meant increased expectations of shopping back home. Currently, we are seeing another dynamic shift in people’s tastes, where the popularity of large-scale, more outward-facing, locally situated retail environments is ever increasing. At the crossroads of organised retail and convenience shopping are neighbourhood shopping centres.

In contrast with conventional malls, which have traditionally been brand-driven, neighbourhood shopping centres are primarily a need-driven potpourri: they cater to everyday shopping, sewing boutiques, electronic stores, repair shops, grocery marts, restaurants and more, while also hosting branded outlets. Many of the stores are multi-brand units that are a testament to the extent of the percolation of international brands into the Indian markets. They retire from the concept of shops within houses and help preserve the nature of spaces as purely residential instead of a mixed character. Providing a dedicated commercial space at a distance from residences helps maintain uniformity in the fabric of the neighbourhood and drive unnecessary traffic away from residential streets. This demarcation of spaces also promotes walkability. Professionals who find their places of employment close to their homes are encouraged to walk to work, thus furthering the regulation of streets and significantly reducing commute times.