Maximum impact and maximum space are two guiding principles in the design of carts, kiosks and RMUs.

The mini-merchants of specialty leasing can be housed in a variety of units. Semicircular kiosks line the Fremont Street Experience in Las Vegas (top), and the RMUs at the Great Mall of the Great Plains (left) are baltic birch with an industrial finish to the steel and edging. These units were designed and fabricated by T L Horton Design Inc., Dallas.

As the retail center has evolved, so have the owner's creative ways to turn unused GLA into profitable square footage. And since the introduction of temporary tenant or specialty leasing programs during the past 20-odd years, common areas in shopping centers have been generating extra dollars in new and innovative ways.

"The inception of specialty leasing grew out of the mall marketing departments," says Sharon Loeff, consultant and director of sales and marketing for Creations at Dallas. The first generators of extra common-area dollars were car shows, craft fairs and other mall events that featured temporary tenants and their wares.

"These shows brought in additional revenue for the mall and added traffic, which positively impacted the sales of in-line tenants," Loeff says. Mall management often provided the exhibitors with skirted tables or allowed them to bring in their own varied display units. "This left the industry with a bad taste in its mouth," she says. "It was a prime example of what happens when you allow the common area to go haywire."

The first true, organized specialty leasing began with the wagon-wheel pushcart in the mid-1970s. By the 1980s, the original pushcart design had evolved into a product that had different wheels and canopies and was manufactured from products other than wood.

"As the cart changed, so did the demands of the tenants," Loeff says. "They began to want more out of the unit: more storage areas and merchandise space."

In 1986, Tony L. Horton, president and owner of T L Horton Design Inc., Dallas, fabricated the first of today's self-contained merchandising units. Because these units often no longer resemble pushcarts, the term retail merchandising unit, or RMU, was born. Although the wooden, wagon-wheel pushcart is still available for centers desiring a nostalgic look, today's designs are as varied as their price ranges, with some RMUs fetching up to $15,000.

Doing business in the common area means doing business in a tight space. Manufacturers take cues from specialty leasing directors, visual merchandisers and retailers in creating the best units for efficient merchandising. The result can be as varied as the units (top and bottom) made by Creations at Dalias.

Most RMUs are custom-designed and adhere to common design criteria set forth by the center's specialty leasing director, tenant coordinator, vice president of leasing or other design consultant. "It's important to maintain the architectural design, style and color theme of the mall so the units look like permanent fixtures of the mall even though they may, indeed, be temporary," says Janet Mayer, CEO of Merchandising Frontiers Inc., Winterset, Iowa.

Building codes often stipulate that the RMUs have open tops for adequate fire protection from overhead sprinklers. Photo courtesy of Merchandising Frontiers Inc., Winterset, Iowa.

Other design rules imposed may relate to fire and/or building codes, space allocation, security, lighting, electrical accessibility, inventory/merchandise storage, product merchandising, mobility and flexibility or modularity of design. "These are important considerations to the mall owner or designer of the RMU," Mayer says. "Space allocation is important because the height of the unit must not interfere with the signage of the permanent tenants or the design of the mall."

Horton says the Americans with Disabilities Act and building and fire code regulations are the first and foremost guidelines in the design process. "The ADA requires that the unobstructed height to stand or walk under has to be a m inimum of 6 feet 8 inches," Horton says. "Consequently, RMUs are now much taller than they once were."

RMUs must also heed fire regulations, which dictate that the majority of the units' top is open to allow adequate fire protection from overhead water sprinklers. "RMUs often fall under higher scrutiny due to their high-profile location in the shopping center," Horton says. "This has helped to push the RMU to a higher-quality level."

However, the main attraction is not the unit but the merchandise. "The unit often must provide ultimate merchandising, yet be invisible," says Robert J. O'Connell, vice president of design and marketing for B&W Woodcrafters, a division of Burns & Wohlgemuth, Bensalem, Pa. "By invisible, I mean their roof lines can't obstruct permanent features in the center and their design can't detract from other tenants." Some malls are more flexible than others, he says.

The design criteria set forth by a mall often depends on the makeup of the center's design team, says Judy Batson, president of CartWorks Corp., North Andover, Mass. "Some centers have architects who work with specialty leasing managers, while others use outside consultants," she says. "But none of these people are retailers, so the design of the product needs to be a joint effort with those familiar with the retailing side.

"Different developers handle the situation in different ways," Batson continues, explaining that many centers hire a visual merchandising professional to evaluate the merchandise displays on the carts at least on a quarterly basis. "Visuals can get stale if a fresh eye isn't introduced on a regular basis," she says.

Says O'Connell, "The RMU needs to look like an extension of the mall environment without having a cluttered look."

While keeping a fresh display is important, an up-to-date unit is every bit as crucial. "There should be someone who maintains the RMUs on a regular basis, too," Batson says.

"They can look pretty bad after a few years if upkeep and updating aren't handled regularly." Many carts depreciate substantially after five years or so, Batson says, emphasizing the need for regular maintenance.

The carts of old have indeed evolved dramatically over the last two decades, some turning from wooden pushcarts to gleaming stainless steel units. Whatever their style, keeping them from looking stale in the mall environment is the task for manufacturers and designers. Many carts and kiosks are now some 20 years old, and if they have not yet seen the hands of renovation, many are in line for a facelift or, possibly, replacement.

Some cart and kiosk finishes wear better than others, but any finish can be kept looking good with a little upkeep. "Wood scratches easily but, with regular waxing, can be look like new in no time," O'Connell says. Laminates can chip or peel, but they, too, can see new life with minor refurbishment or replacement.

Stainless steel and aluminum products are "built like tanks," O'Connell says, citing their use for the RMUs in very high traffic areas such as airports. "There's the practical factor to be considered, no matter where the unit is to be placed. Being able to easily replace parts is crucial."

Quick changes that visibly freshen an aging cart or kiosk might include new signage, shelves, countertops, cashwraps, light fixtures, new merchandising accessories, canopies and wheels. Any of these alterations can be inexpensive methods of breathing new life into a cart that needs refreshment. Units are usually changed completely, however, if the center is remodeled or renovated. "The cost tradeoff of updating the units vs. replacing them completely warrants replacement in many cases," Mayer says.

Carts and kiosks approaching middle age might also see major design changes that enhance their function as a merchandising unit. The removal of wagon wheels, for example, allows for below-counter shelving packages, assuming there is a welded steel frame within the unit for durability. "When many of the carts were originally designed," explains Mayer, "they didn't allow for nearly the visual merchandising space or storage space that today's savvier units have."

Lighting in the units also has improved dramatically over the years. Where incandescent bulbs once cast a yellowish glow on merchandise, now halogen or white lights are more commonly used for true color rendition. Other improvements include roll-out storage bunkers for convenient stocking of inventory; security systems that do not require removal of merchandise; casters that are stronger and do less damage to tile floors; parachute covers that are easily interchangeable; and re-configurable designs, which allow the unit to become a display case when not leased or a wall-shop configuration when that is the space requirement.

"Today's RMU designs are more flexible than they once were," says Pam Shellito, sales representative with Carriage Works Inc., Klamath Falls, Ore. "We take input from the customer, make CAD designs of the RMU, ensure the dimensions are stable, i.e., wide and tall enough to accommodate their needs, then build the product," she says. "The kinks are worked out before the unit is built."

Most carts are replaced only when the mail undergoes an extensive renovation. Until then, a change in color, lamps or shelving can keep the carts looking up to date. Photo courtesy of The Cartage, Johnson City, Tenn.

Manufacturers must keep in mind, though, that the RMU, cart or kiosk must look great while making the merchandise look great. "As we've re-evaluated our products over the years, we've been able to create some very appealing units that cover the same floor space as those of old but with much more display area for merchandise," says Bill Young of The Cartage, Johnson City, Tenn. His company has created base units to be used with pushcarts, which more than double the display area of the original piece.

"Display area and a design that complements the mall is what it is all about," Young says.

RMUs today are better built than their predecessors, as fabricators have learned how to increase the lifespan of the units. And RMUs continue to break the typical design mold with new developments by designers and manufacturers. T L Horton Design Inc., for instance, has created RMUs with two posts instead of four. The newer models have storage drawers that can easily access storage without removing shelving.

"We have removable merchandising posts, also, that allow for displaying hard and soft merchandise," Horton says. With Horton's Interpretations line of RMUs, a client can exchange all design elements with new ones to completely change the look of the RMU with only a minor investment.

"There are many features that affect the sales success of an RMU," Horton says. "As we learn more about how a customer reacts to color, light and form, we will be able to design an RMU that is the most successful for the market." As likes, dislikes and purchasing habits change between markets, RMUs are reflecting the appropriate design between those markets, he says.

"We have learned through our environmental graphic work in shopping centers that customers are greatly affected by color, lighting and shapes, for example," Horton says. "These elements influence a customer's attention and reaction." T L Horton Inc. plans to do more research in the shopping center to determine the direction RMU design should take to increase sales and benefit the center's overall environment.

Whichever direction RMU design takes next, it is clear that it has come a long way already. "What started with a wagon-wheel pushcart now is a sophisticated, modern unit that enhances the shopping center environment," Loeff says.

Manufacturers are constantly looking at RMUs and reassessing their design, while at the same time developers are assessing what is needed in their common areas, she says. "It's the developer's job to choose designs that work positively in their mall environment, and it's our job to ensure our units function for the merchant and display as much product in a productive manner as possible," Loeff concludes.

* new signage * new shelves * new countertops * new cashwraps * new light fixtures * new merchandisingaccessories * replace canopy/add canopy * replace wheels/remove wheels

Lisa Mayfield is a Macon, Ga.-based Freelance writer.