Retail’s Greatest Comeback and the Announcement of the ICSC Rebrand

August 10, 2021
Lori Bongiorno COO

Those familiar with the retail industry are familiar with ICSC – formerly the “International Council of Shopping Centers.”

Now, one of retail real estate’s biggest professional organizations—built for brands and the shopping experience—is undergoing the biggest rebrand of all, reinventing its name, and purpose, to proudly present ICSC: “Innovating Commerce Serving Communities.”

As the representative Volunteer Director for the State of Ohio for ICSC, I couldn’t be more excited for this evolution that is aligned with the world of retail today, and better positions our vision to “promote and elevate the shops, restaurants, offices, and other vibrant spaces where we live, work, and play.”


Much like ICSC, retail real estate is rebranding as a whole—preparing for its greatest evolution yet, and finally proving that brick and mortar isn’t dead. In fact, the world of shopping is foundational and vital to communities everywhere, and despite what conspiracy theorists might think, reports prove 89% of shoppers plan to update their wardrobes post-lockdown and 80% miss shopping in stores.

For the past 24 years, I’ve had the privilege of working on one of the nation’s most progressive shopping centers in the country – a town center concept built to constantly innovate and elevate.

With the work we continue to do with this top tier client, and the trends our studio has been observing and implementing in this design evolution reflective of the industry’s rebrand, we weren’t surprised by what’s happening now – but had one question left – what’s next?

There are four things only retail can provide, and with this revolution and rebrand, expect the best the shopping experience has ever provided.

High Sensorial Stimulation
Stimuli in the built environment creates neural inputs for the brain – sensations and impressions that make experiences interesting, and life meaningful. These create memories and make moments interesting, and there is no better provider of these neural inputs than the shopping experience.

Brick and mortar stores might be smaller, but they’re more interactive and engaging, both with digitally driven and analog experiences.

Made to order retail goods, interactive experiences in store – like

72% of consumers expect companies to understand and address how their needs and objectives have changed during times of disruption. After a year plus of isolation, people are looking for sensation and experience, and shopping experiences that are designed to provide are positioned for the greatest success.

Third space retail is being considered in a new way, which according to WGSN are designing “realms where consumers communicate, play, shop, learn and work”, creating sensorial moments that connect through omni-channel contact.

Accessibility + Availability
Almost a year ago, I presented the idea of changing my traditionally titled “Retail Studio” at MA Design to “Mixed-Use,” and while I had to field a couple of “why’s,” it was a recognized change worth implementing. Sure enough, a year later, retail is so much more than just a shopping mall – it’s a mixed use facility.

Looking back to the “town center” design concept for a shopping center, this has been a leading example of progressive development – the more time people spend somewhere, the more money they spend – and suddenly, you’ve created a place by design. By redeveloping, and reinventing, successful developers and designers will work together to strategically planout merchandising zones that feed off of each other, focused heavier on restaurants and entertainment.

The definition of a retail “anchor” is now reflective of the community’s priority – gone are the days of Sears and JcPenney ruling the mall, and in their place, wellness centers are a source of community centers, and a significant increase of foot traffic.

These design concepts and consideration are on brand as international trend forecasting tool, WGSN, reports the rising 5 motivations for consumers as:

  • Health and Safety
  • Service and Personal Care
  • Ease and Convenience
  • Product Origin
  • Trust and Reputation

Connection Through Curated Community
Out with the inward?

For abandoned big box retail stores that haven’t been repurposed—likely as a logistics center, office space, or healthcare driven space—progressive designers and developers are turning the inward wall, tearing down the space, and creating an outward looking model.

In doing so, the physical mall takes on a new shape, environment and energy, creating a streetscape and physically creating a space for change that supports commerce, communities, and culture. Outdoor dining becomes an option, with community parks and street visibility creating an entirely new, connected, experience.

New space provides new opportunities to design a destination, incorporating park and community spaces into shopping centers. The key to their success is in the activation and programming – events and live music will drive interest, and engagement. Suddenly, people are driven to connect through this curated community space, making memories and sharing moments that will develop an emotional response to the physical place.

Key design considerations for success include the street network, and building massing makes it feel like a town, like our team has done successfully in past projects of early adapters. It’s the layering of all of the details that creates the design, driving sensations of familiarity and neighborhood like comfort, recognizing the importance of elements like to create place:

  • Parallel parking
  • Street furniture
  • Light poles
  • Wayfinding
  • Landscape Architecture
  • Decorative Ambiance
  • Environmental Graphics

Honoring Diversity, Equity + Inclusion
Serving on the planning committee for ICSC’s annual signature conference, “Centerbuild” – the focus of the topic had its greatest shift yet – moving from traditionally defined retail focus – serving for the design, developer and construction communities – to “Diversity, Equity + Inclusion” themed. For the first time ever, this broadened scope incorporates healthcare, hospitality, multi-family – big parts of these developments now that retail isolated didn’t cover it – and indicative of the industry’s shift in whole. The more diverse and inclusive a shopping center can be, the more successful it’s positioned for success.

Much like retail, the definition of “diversity” spans widely, both in recognizing diverse retailers and practices, as well as the developers behind the centers and spaces themselves. Retail developers are now branching into other “diverse” sectors, looking at bigger groups with broader scopes, and venturing out into other industries.

Retail Will Never Die – The Immortal Industry
In an ever changing world, there is one thing I know for certain – and after over 25 years of design experience in the industry, feel confident to say – retail will never die.

Reimagined, rebranded, revolutionized – sure – but you can count on the recitation and revitalization of retail as an immortal industry.

For now, count on concepts like omni-channel integration, inclusivity driven decisions, and of course, strategic, sensorial design, to create retail of the future now, in preparation for what’s to come next.

If you’re interested in continuing the conversation, or have ideas you’d like to share, please feel free to reach out to me directly at