Specialty merchants have been setting up shop in wooden push carts for the better part of two decades. But several of those traditional venues may be in for a high-tech facelift.

The generic, square boxes that once represented the typical cart, kiosk or retail merchandising unit (RMU) are being replaced with more creative and functional space.

"Units today need to be accessible, organized and as big as possible," states Michelle Roberts, co-owner of Cab-Tech Manufacturing Inc. in Portland, Ore. Developers are paying more attention than ever before to all aspects of these carts, kiosks and RMUs. Design, merchandising, storage, lighting and security are all top priorities.

Shopping center developers and owners are looking to revamp designs in part to distinguish their properties from other malls.

Individuality is good for the mall, and it certainly helps boost interest in a growing field of specialty tenants.

"In the past, pretty much all of the kiosk manufacturers carried a stock unit. That's what everybody wanted to buy," says Tony Horton, a design consultant for TL Horton Design in Dallas.

"Now there's more spin on design," he says. Developers are turning away from traditional models in favor of units that sport a fresh look. For example, of late TL Horton has been encountering a growing demand for its new round kiosks.

Profit motive Developers are willing to spend more time and money on specialty leasing units because they recognize a markedreturn on investment. Carts, kiosks and RMUs have a huge potential to produce substantial profits. Many of the larger shopping center owners report revenues from specialty leasing in the tens of millions of dollars each year.

As a result, developers that were spending an average of $8,000 per unit are now spending $10,000 to $20,000, Horton notes.

"Some of the developers who have been in the business a bit longer are looking to create more unique designs," says Sharon Loeff, director of sales and marketing and a designer with Creations at Dallas.

For example, Creations at Dallas recently invested six months of time working with Bloomfield Hills, Mich.-based developer The Taubman Co. to develop new designs, which included an elliptical unit and a rectangular unit with a larger footprint.

"Then there are some developers who stick with the standard units because they know that they work, but they're looking for better finishes," Loeff says.

Customers are requesting new and different materials, she notes.

Despite interest in new designs, mall owners continue to keep a close watch on requirements that pertain to the size, shape and materials used in both mall-owned and retailer-owned units.

Landlords do not want to bring in a white elephant that will end up clashing with the mall decor or alienating existing tenants.

Owners are careful to select designs that will not block or distract from the in-line store owners that are paying considerably higher rental rates.

"There is a distinct movement to minimize any kind of a top. Tops need to be secure, attractive and provide space for signage, but not block other tenants," Roberts says. Although developers may be proceeding cautiously, they are continuing to pursue creative and unique kiosk designs.

Eye-catching designs Many of the new designs that are emerging feature a high-tech look. "Developers are looking for more year 2000 or millennium-type designs," says Robert Kronrad, a senior vice president at All Star Carts & Vehicles Inc. in Bay Shore, N.Y.

These futuristic designs typically feature a combination of stainless steel or other metallic materials complemented by bright colors. Some designs even combine the ultra-modern stainless steel with colorful ceramic tiles similar to the art-deco style popular in the 1940s and '50s, Kronrad says.

"There seems to be a lot of interest in the retro look with stainless steels and more metallic materials," agrees Robert O'Connell, vice president of design marketing for B&W Woodcrafters in Bensalem, Mass. B&W Woodcrafters designs and manufactures carts and kiosks for both shopping center and retail clients.

The company also has experienced increased demand to create more distinctive RMUs. Several years ago, B&W Woodcrafters produced a line of kiosks for the Great Mall on the Bay in Peters, Calif., which featured a vehicle theme. "We're seeing a resurgence in those themed units, rather than just a general, generic look," O'Connell says.

"People seem to be wanting to take something that is existing and turn it into something they can use to display their merchandise," says Rosa Bragg, a graphics designer for Waggon-Cellers Inc. in Amarillo, Texas.

Waggon-Cellers recently worked on a model that used a Volkswagon van to create an interactive games kiosk. The interior of the van was revamped to house the games, while the exterior was decorated in a bright 1970s, "flower power" look, Bragg notes.

Other unusual models Waggon-Cellers has developed in the past have used autos such as an old Chevy pick-up, a Cadillac and a taxi cab.

"Our customers want to see new things like that rather than the square lines of a cart," Bragg says.

Units still need to be compatible with mall decor, but retailers and developers alike want RMUs that give tenants an edge in attracting shoppers.

"They want the storage, the display, the security - all those aspects that go into design. But they also want a sharp-looking cart," she says.

"We're seeing more challenges to have kiosks become more interactive," says Jeffrey Jamison, vice president of new business development at Art Guild Inc. in West Deptford, N.J. For example, rather than create an enclosed unit that shoppers walk around, Art Guild has experienced increased interest in open designs that allow consumers to walk through the units.

One customer that Art Guild has worked with to create such an open design is Brookstone. "We were challenged to create a retail environment for the customer to walk through," Jamison says. The result was a 10'-by-16' kiosk that the consumer could enter and pick up and test display items, similar to Brookstone's in-line stores.

The shift to more innovative designs is due in part to retailers - like Brookstone - opting to bring in their own RMUs. These retailers are not satisfied with wheeling out an ordinary unit. They want something that will grab shoppers' attention.

Oftentimes, national chains are striving to create kiosk units that are a smaller replica of their in-line stores. In most cases, the retailer will introduce the kiosk version only in malls where they do not have an in-line presence in order to prevent overlap.

"We've also worked with the Honey Baked Ham Company to do the same thing - create a stand-alone store environment in the mall," Jamison says. The Honey Baked Ham Company kiosk features many of the same components as its in-line prototype, such as a wooden floor and refrigeration units to hold its products.

Malls are experiencing a growing number of food kiosks and carts. Food retailers, such as Mrs. Field's Cookies and Auntie Anne's, have discovered that placing food kiosks throughout the mall sparks impulse sales. Many shoppers will stop at a cart to buy a cookie, coffee or ice cream while they shop simply because it's more convenient than making a trip to the food court.

The carts and kiosks are increasing food sales for in-line retailers by 30% to 41%, Kronrad says. The footprints for these food units are as small as 5'-by-6' carts or 10'-by-20' kiosks. The designs often are geared to imitate the look of the in-line store as closely as possible.

Making the most of merchandising Design is critical, but at the same time, owners look for units that will accommodate merchant needs, says Pam Kroeger, specialty leasing manager at Ridgedale Mall in Minnetonka, Minn. The mall, owned by The Rouse Co., Columbia, Md., is home to up to 29 carts and kiosks during its peak holiday season.

"You are trying to get as much merchandise out as you can, so getting units that are as versatile as possible is important," Kroeger says.

One popular model with Rouse is the rectangular RMUs that come equipped with storage bins underneath that pull out for additional shelf space. "It gives them more square footage once they're pulled out, and yet it can tuck in neatly at night," she says.

Developers are seeking to incorporate such design elements that make RMUs easier to merchandise for tenants. Owners also are focusing on improving lighting and using higher-quality materials.

"What I have seen over the past couple of years is more emphasis on merchandising fixtures and elements that you display your product on," Horton says.

For example, owners and tenants are looking for additional posts to hang merchandise on, as well as the stairstep-style displays. As a result, carts and kiosks are being designed to accommodate more fixtures than they have in the past.

Lighting also has improved significantly over the past few years. Owners are requesting better lighting, and the technology has allowed designers to incorporate higher-quality light fixtures.

Halogen lights, which are commonly used on RMUs, offer more illumination with fewer bulbs. Units are being designed with both brighter bulbs and more individual lights. In the past, a kiosk may have had six to 10 lights. Now, the same unit may be decked out with 16 to 24 different lights, Horton says.

Maximizing storage within the compact units continues to be a design topic. "Storage is always a major operational issue. We're challenged to create effective storage within the unit, which can minimize operating costs of off-sitewarehousing," Jamison says.

Creating greater organization and storage capacity also helps to reduce down time. No merchant likes to run short on merchandise. "Tenants don't want to leave to get additional product," he says. One of the common requests is to install drawers within the interior storage cavities.

Shifts in unit size have been another design trend affecting specialty tenants. Kiosks seem to be shrinking in size, while RMUs are larger. Kiosks that were as large as 10' by 16' are coming down in size to 10' by 10' or 10' by 12'.

The downsizing of larger kiosks is driven in part by the growing number of specialty leasing units. Mall owners are trying to maximize the common area space to accommodate a variety of carts and kiosks without overcrowding the space.

RMUs, on the other hand, which have traditionally been a transition unit between the traditional pushcart and the larger kiosk, have been growing in size. Carts also have increased in size. One common problem with the carts is that tenants find it difficult to fit enough product on the 4' by 5' or 4' by 6' cart to run a successful business.

That's one reason more malls are opting for the larger RMUs. These units have grown in recent years, with some as large as 6' by 10' or 6' by 11' with the shelves extended. The larger units offer valuable room for storage and visual display.

"The developer understands that if you give the tenants more room for merchandising, they're going to sell more," Horton says.

"The newest trend we're seeing is a higher demand for outdoor units," Loeff says. Even strip center developers are looking at programs with outdoor kiosks or RMUs. "Most developers are seeing such a tremendous growth in the specialty leasing end of the business that they're looking for additional avenues to create revenue at their centers."

Outdoor units also are gaining in popularity as developers continue to build mixed-use retail centers with both enclosed and walk-up retail segments, as well as entertainment and even office components, Loeff adds.

Security Several shopping centers are addressing security issues to protect specialty tenants, which often are more vulnerable to walk-by theft.

"Security is becoming more and more of a critical issue, and we have developed some really interesting security measures," O'Connell says.

For example, B&W developed a special security device for the kiosks of one client, Watch World International. The company invented an aluminum bar that can be inserted and secured in place in the kiosks' display cases. The bar acts as a bracing mechanism to prevent smash-and-grab theft, and it is used in conjunction with traditional locks, O'Connell says.

Some shopping centers are increasing efforts to use existing security systems, including personnel and video surveillance, to deter theft from the specialty leasing units. Kiosk design also plays a role in security.

For example, the rectangular-shaped models are a popular design because they're easier to supervise. Having two main sides provides better visibility for watching and preventing theft. It's more difficult to watch all four sides on a square kiosk.

Security is a greater concern in high-traffic urban centers, as well as with units stationed in open-air centers. In those cases, some owners are opting for hard-shell security systems.

Owners can upgrade security by adding roll-down metal gates or doors vs. standard canvas or nylon covers. "We're using more permanent type materials that do have significantly greater lock features than what we would commonly do for an indoor seasonal concept," Jamison says.