It's no secret that the competitive health of most shopping centers can benefit from periodic renovations. The challenge is to avoid making the revitalization so disruptive that the prescribed cure turns out to be worse than the ailment, driving away both shoppers and merchants.

Fortunately, experience demonstrates that almost any center can be completely renovated with minimal disruption to users if the property manager and contractor focus on a few basic realities, starting with the merchant's need for visibility and access. If customers can't easily locate and access a store, the renovation will almost certainly cause the retailer considerable financial hardship.

Of course, the scope of a renovation will vary depending on whether the goal is to repair wear and tear, freshen up outmoded architecture or execute a major space reconfiguration. But whatever the project scope, the process can be made less painful by incorporating the following steps:

* Stress communication. Before starting the work, hold a meeting at which all center tenants can learn about the renovation plan and schedule. Use renderings to show the finished product.

Once work gets under way, notify store managers at least three or four days before starting work that directly affects store operations or traffic flow. If the project is large enough, consider holding additional meetings at the start of each new construction phase.

* Be personal. Introduce the construction superintendent and project manager to the retailers at the beginning of the process, so if there are problems with the renovation, the retailers know who to contact.

* Keep it simple. Schedule work to start at one end of the center and finish at the other end. Avoid going back to any area a second time.

* Use scaffolding judiciously. Put up only as much scaffolding as needed, keep the area it covers well lit and take the scaffolding down as soon as possible. Try not to tie up an area for more than a week at a time. Keep in mind that your goal is to make renovation as painless as possible for shoppers and merchants.

* Employ signage strategically. Signs serve two valuable purposes. Temporary directional and store signs help shoppers find retailers. Signage about the renovation, accompanied by a rendering, gives shoppers and retailers a preview of what's to come.

* Minimize parking problems. If parking lot work is needed, try doing it when the center is closed or during off hours.

* Stress safety. Shoppers don't want to feel they are working their way through an obstacle course or exposing themselves to dangerous situations. Keep walkways clear. Use canopies or scaffolding. Do the heavier jobs, such as major demolition, when the center is closed.

* Stay flexible. Be willing to work around a tenant's schedule. For example, when major chains schedule an advertised sale, every store in the chain must participate. It is not something the manager of the store in your center can change. Be understanding and try to avoid working in front of that store during the sale period.