It may not be Cirque du Soleil, but RECon will serve as center stage for companies unveiling the latest innovations to hit the shopping center industry. ICSC’s annual spring convention in Las Vegas is expected to draw a line-up of more than 1,000 exhibitors across the now integrated Leasing Mall, Trade Expo and Green Zone exhibition space.

Although attendance is still off the peak levels of nearly 50,000 that the event attracted in 2007, RECon remains the retail real estate industry’s largest gathering. The association expects up to 33,000 attendees this year—up about 10 percent from the 30,000 that came to the show in 2010. “We have seen a good uptick from the last few years, which we are very excited about,” says Timothy McGuinness, ICSC’s vice president of global trade expositions.

A new addition to the show floor this year will be eight “Meeting Point Pavilions.” Each themed pavilion highlights a specific sector of the industry, such as Products & Services, Social Media and Technology, among others. The pavilions will promote both networking and education, and some will offer mini-sessions with scheduled speakers or short presentations.

The Trade Expo and Green Zone portion alone is expected to draw between 175 and 225 companies this year. Exhibitors span a broad section of industries with more than 400 individual exhibits. Firms will be showcasing products and services ranging from innovations in rooftop mounted wind turbines to the latest in large screen video displays.

Robotic parking valets

Remember when replacing a cashier with a credit card payment system meant you had an “automated” parking garage? Los Angeles-based Auto Parkit LLC is taking that concept to an entirely new level. The company builds, manufactures and designs automated parking systems that can be incorporated into any type of project. Think valet parking meets vending machine. Drivers enter what looks like a two-car garage bay. They park and exit their cars. The fully robotic parking system then whisks the cars away and “parks” them in open slots in the multi-level structure.

“From a cost standpoint we are now at a point where we are competitive with a traditional parking garage, and in a lot of instances we are significantly less expensive,” says Michael O’Bryan, Auto Parkit’s vice president of design and development. “So this is really going to change the way you look at parking in the retail and mixed-use environment.”

One big advantage of these automated parking systems is that they are environmentally friendly because they can fit more cars in a tighter area than a traditional parking garage. “We are using 50 percent of the land that a traditional parking garage would use,” says O’Bryan. That could benefit shopping center owners because it has the potential to free up land previously set aside for parking as developable retail space.

Another environmental benefit is that the facilities generate fewer carbon monoxide emissions because cars are not running when being parked. Rather than having a driver circling a structure and hunting for a spot—and burning fuel—the car is turned off during the entire parking process.

Lastly, owners also do not have to spend as much on lighting, because people are not in the structure walking to and from their cars.

Playing to a crowd

Shopping center owners are hoping to boost customer traffic with new themed play areas. The interactive playgrounds can be a big draw for families with young children. One of the leading trends today is to not just add a play area, but to create an iconic location or brand for a particular property, says David O’Niones, vice president, retail at Englewood, Colo.-based Playtime. The company custom designs interactive play areas and playground equipment for indoor, outdoor and water play.

For example, Playtime has manufactured and constructed eight Looney Tunes playscapes for Bloomfield Hills, Mich.-based Taubman Centers Inc. in recent years. Each of those soft structure play parks is custom designed to capture the passions of the local community. For example, the newly opened Rocky Mountain Play Park at Denver’s Cherry Creek Shopping Center combines the Looney Tunes characters with adventures one might find in the Rocky Mountains. Kids can ride in a river raft with Sylvester and Tweety or camp out with Elmer Fudd.

Playtime also has created a new nature-themed indoor play area for Westfield Southlake in Merrillville, Ind. The interactive “Living Lake” play area reflects the eco-system, animal and plant life found on the shores of Lake Michigan. Playtime even designed the Living Lake with special effect nature sounds, such as frogs chirping.

“We also are seeing a lot of redesign where property owners are revitalizing interior public spaces with family centers and amenities that include adding new or updating older play areas to bring more families into their centers,” adds O’Niones.

Delving into consumer trends

As retail expansion shows signs of life, demand is on the rise to better understand customers and what factors are driving traffic to brick and mortar locations. That is why many companies are turning to firms such as The Nielsen Co.

“We help retailers and restaurants use consumer demand to view who their customers are, how they shop, why they buy, and where they purchase in order to create actionable plans to capture untapped opportunity,” says Jeff Milgroom, senior vice president of retail solutions at New York-based Nielsen.

The global company is able to leverage its reach into consumer purchasing and media information to provide insight into current buying patterns. “Today’s consumers are shopping and making purchase decision in very fluid and complex ways, mixing brick and mortar purchases with shopping intelligence gathered via television, radio, e-commerce, internet and social media,” says Milgroom.

Nielsen combines its own proprietary data bases with client data, as well as tapping additional information supplied by its strategic partnerships to compile a comprehensive analysis of consumer buying patterns.

Ultimately, Nielsen helps clients build bridges to better understand demand and to take action by integrating these insights into their real estate site selection, advertising, marketing and merchandising strategies.

Companies are using that information to not only choose new locations, but they also are applying it to their decision-making in day-to-day operations. “Expansion seems to be heating up again, and the net effect of that is that the market is ripe for being smarter and really understanding that consumer preferences are changing,” says Milgroom.

Signage: high visibility, added value

Ad Vice prides itself on doing a lot more than just creating pretty signs. Yes, the firm has earned a reputation for its award-winning creations. But it also focuses on delivering smart design strategies and offers clients a comprehensive consulting package when it comes to signage, lighting, and the overall aesthetics of a property.

In addition to its core function of designing, manufacturing and installing signage products, Ad Vice offers a comprehensive “visual audit” of a center. The inspection takes into account approximately 50 different aspects of a shopping center’s look and feel, with analysis of everything from color schemes to placement of dumpsters and the states of parking lots. “We point out things that the customer might not see, because they go there every day,” says David Goodwin, CEO of Ad Vice Inc. in Richmond, Va.

Ad Vice also is working with shopping center owners and developers to recognize the value potential among its existing freestanding signage. For example, one Ad Vice initiative recommends that owners update and revamp a shopping center’s main pylon sign in order to generate added revenue for that prime space.

Often, shopping center owners will charge tenants a one-time fee for having their name listed on the sign, or perhaps even give away that signage space when a lease is negotiated. Ad Vice proposes that shopping centers get more from tenants for that high-profile brand positioning. “We suggest that you rent that space just like you would all the rest of the space in your center, because it is a very valuable advertising medium,” says Goodwin.

Streamlining kiosk designs

Convention attendees won’t have to look hard to find examples of the latest work from STAK Design. The Dallas-based firm creates more than 40 exhibits at RECon for clients such as Taubman, Macerich and, yes, even Retail Traffic.

As one of North America’s largest suppliers of retail merchandising units (RMUs) and service kiosks, STAK Design has its finger on the pulse of the latest design trends to hit the industry.

“One of the things that we are seeing is that there is a tremendous amount of pressure on shopping center developers and owners to keep sight lines as clean and open as possible for the inline tenants,” says Rob McCoy, a STAK Design principal. That pressure is driving more creativity to improve the visual displays that exist in common areas.

For example, STAK Design has created an open cell, 360 degree shopping experience kiosk. “There are a lot of new trendy things that we are working on with our European clients that are starting to resonate with retailers and developers here in the U.S. So that is very exciting,” says McCoy. The new RMUs also are taking advantage of new LED technology, which helps to deliver energy efficiency, as well as allowing for more create design elements.

Falling values prompt appeals

The downturn in the economy has created a boom in property tax appeals as commercial real estate values have dipped, and Thomson Reuters is helping landlords and retailers find some much needed relief in their tax bills.

“The landlord certainly has a vested interested in keeping their property taxes as low as possible, because it might give them a competitive advantage in the market,” says Steve Buck, a director in the Glendale, Calif. office of Thomson Reuters.

Thomson Reuters has one of the strongest appraisal practices in the U.S., with 28 offices across the country. The firm generated more than $45 million in tax savings for the retail industry in 2009, and the company expects to reach a similar volume for 2010 tax savings.

One key for successful property tax appeals is to do the homework to gather supporting data relating to tenants’ sales histories. It also is important to use data on a landlord’s recoverable expenses as a lever to reduce the property value, and ultimately lower a tax bill.

Many landlords are having to absorb more costs—either voluntarily or involuntarily—to retain tenants or help struggling tenants. For example, owners are taking losses related to concessions, offers of free rent or waived common area maintenance (CAM) charges.

“That is something that the county assessors are not always aware of,” says Buck. To the extent that you can provide that information to the county, it can help to lower the property value. In this type of environment, it is up to the landlord to show that they are not recovering all of their expenses and that needs to be reflected in the assessed property value, he adds.

Furniture: Take a seat

Convention attendees can take a break on one of the four new bench designs that DuMor will be showcasing at RECon. The leading furniture manufacturer will introduce some of its latest designs in indoor/outdoor furniture.

All of the products are made of steel and feature new contemporary design twists. For example, DuMor’s bench model 194 features a laser cut design on the back rest. “The advantage of the laser cut details is that they are very easy to customize if a client wants to put a brand logo or other design on those products,” says Steve Shapard, sales manager at Mifflintown, Pa.-based DuMor.

DuMor’s 190 and 192 bench models both feature new end supports this year. “What we were trying to come up with is a little more modernized version to create a nice, flowing garden style bench,” says Shapard.

DuMor also is in the process of developing some more companion pieces to that design, including a backless version and new matching trash receptacles.

The 194 and 195 bench models feature a contemporary design that was first introduced in recycled plastic and wood, and now is being introduced with a steel seating surface. The 195 is a backless model, while the 194 features a more decorative arched seat back.

The firm’s standard product line currently includes over 65 bench designs in a full range of colors and materials such as wood, steel, and recycled plastic. In addition to benches, the company manufactures over 25 receptacle designs and more than 10 table designs. DuMor also produces ash urns, bike racks, grills and planters.

Global design trends

Development Design Group (DDG) will be showcasing its latest designs for several retail projects in the pipeline in the U.S. and around the globe, from Wisconsin to South Africa. One of the big development and design trends among international retail projects is to incorporate a variety of uses ranging from high-end residential to hotels. For example, DDG was recently named as the lead planning and design architect for China Grand, a seven-level, 4 million-square-foot retail center outside of Beijing. The mall will represent the retail centerpiece for an enormous mixed-use project totaling 9 million square feet that will also include a theater and opera house, library and museums.

“The biggest trend that we are seeing in China is to bring in cultural venues in the same complex along with the retail environment,” says Ahsin Rasheed, chairman and CEO of Baltimore, Md.-based DDG. The goal is to use those cultural facilities to bring in more traffic to the overall complex. Traditionally, mixed-use projects brought in some hotel or an office building with the retail component. “There is a cultural mixture we are seeing that is enhancing that standard mixed-use definition,” says Rasheed.

International projects also are embracing the use of open space planning, similar to the town centers that have been developed in the U.S. Another DDG project, Viva City near Mumbai, India, is a groundbreaking mixed-use project that incorporates town and community center design into the traditional Indian retail concept. The 538,196-square foot phase one features retail, entertainment, dining and hospitality components, as well as a large central plaza that will serve as a public gathering place. The Viva City project is set to open later this year.