If legendary showman Cecil B. DeMille were still alive and directing not movies but shopping centers, I know he would have the attitude and passion necessary to compete in today's retail real estate environment.

And today's shopping center executives would do well to think a bit like Cecil B. DeMille.

The performance of shopping centers has traditionally been measured by sales per square foot, or annual revenues discounted by factors like operating expenses and debt costs. These are still important, but something more is called for. Shopping centers must be evaluated, and, I believe, will succeed or fail based on one factor above all — the ability to generate a unique experience, one that appeals to our senses, that keeps people energized at the center and imparts a lasting, pleasurable impression.

It's clear something new is called for. The competition is just too strong. In our economy of abundance and vast choice, the acquisition of goods — shopping — is not the pleasurable and leisurely affair that it once was (as it was, for example, in the boom years after World War II).

Shopping centers are losing ground trying to be the delivery agents of many classes of goods, including goods that shopping centers can never cost-effectively deliver. Centers have been threatened for some time, and will continue to be so, by more effective methods of merchandise delivery such as the Internet, catalogs, standalone mega-merchants with combination stores, or power centers.

When we cut to the chase, creating that energizing, memorable experience takes three basic elements: design, traffic and animation.

Design seems so obvious and is easily overlooked for two reasons. First, most of us are not accustomed to analyzing designs. Second, the best designs don't call attention to themselves as designs, but as experiences. New York City's Central Park, for example, is a deliberate design by Frederick Law Olmstead. On the planning boards, it might have looked artificial. But now, in maturity, Central Park seems to have always been there. People feel it is somehow right. This is the genius of the best designs, from the exquisitely designed urban spaces of London or Paris to Main Street Disney.

What I have been saying, really, is that good design is always a beginning, not an end in itself. Design alone cannot create a public or social experience. We must have participation by a large number of people.

Who could honestly speak about a memorable experience if only a few people were in sight as they embraced, say, the vista of the 100-ft.-wide sidewalks that help define the Champs Elysees in Paris?

Anchoring the ship

Thus, in addition to the designed environment, traffic-generating anchors are essential to creating the experience we have been after for shopping centers. We have been working hard at this: much of recent shopping center history involves the well-intended expansion of “anchor types.” The cinema multiplex was one of the first breakthroughs.

Now, we understand how to work with a much wider range of “traffic generators,” ones that can appeal to different groups, different needs. These new-breed anchors, in addition to the traditional department and retail stores and more recent multiplexes, can include themed restaurants, live theater, clubs, aquariums, sporting arenas or health clubs. In fact, we now consider any use that can generate a center trip as a potential valuable anchor. As a result, we boost shopping center traffic on weekdays as well as weekends, and also expand the hours per day when a development is active and potential spenders are present.

Animation in action

Last, we would like to add the notion of animation as the third prerequisite for a successful shopping experience. It's the “I know it when I see and feel it” factor. Maybe it doesn't need to be understood as much as felt. For us, animation encompasses all the emotional bonds that draw us to a shopping center, make us glad we came, encourage us to spend money while there and bring us back more often. In a suburban environment, animation could result from weekly farmer markets, a concert series or holiday illuminations. In an urban environment, different “textures” may apply, such as incorporating rehabilitated or restored historic property into the overall construction design and bringing forth “street” vitality with vendor kiosks and artists and performers.

We want to achieve customer loyalty and outstanding visit counts and expenditures at our developments. In today's economic and social climate, we believe the surest path to these goals is through making the shopping center an authentic experience, achieved through design, new traffic generators, and animation.

Yaromir Steiner is president of Steiner + Associates, a Columbus-based development and management firm that specializes in leisure-time. destinations.