Eat, pray, shop: When retail meets religious

Earlier this year, Fortnum and Mason created the Chapel of Love in its Piccadilly, London, store, a month-long pop-up where customers could actually get married in-store. Fittingly, it ended on February 29, when traditionally, women are “permitted” to propose to prospective partners.

It’s just the latest in the evolution, rather than creation, of the blending of retail and religion. Cynics may have said in the past that malls were temples of capitalism; now they are literally housing temples and churches.

Fortnum’s four-storey in-store chapel was more of a promotional gimmick than long-term fixture, although Fortnum’s has been a licensed wedding venue for some time. During February, customers were encouraged to take their personal wedding portrait, while social shares were rewarded with an entry into a draw for an in-store ceremony, followed by afternoon tea at the store’s Diamond Jubilee Tea Salon.

Visitors could get married, engaged, toast an anniversary or renew their vows at the chapel. However some logistics weren’t clear, such as the retail tie-ins, pricing for ceremonies, and to what extent the chapel may have only been used for “quickie” weddings, given its four-week life likely excluded those who had planned their nuptials further in advance.

Nevertheless, it’s part of a broader trend around the globe.

Customers juggle shopping and worship

The Philippines, ostensibly home to the world’s third-highest number of Catholics after Brazil and Mexico (and just ahead of the US and Italy), commonly sports churches in its shopping malls, particularly those owned and operated by the SM supermall chain.

At first, masses were held for mall employees and tenants in the lobbies of SM malls every Sunday prior to retail opening hours, before eventually being opened up to outsiders. Now, dedicated churches in the malls deliver daily masses during the week and multiple masses on Sundays, drawing large crowds and countering criticism that churches may not attract “useful” retail traffic.

In the Philippines, family life revolves around the weekends and the mall for quality family time, with religious and retail mindsets effortlessly combined. Filipinos regard the mall-based churches as more convenient than traditional churches as they are air-conditioned, have ample parking, and reduce traffic congestion – Manila is noted for having the world’s worst traffic – as consumers can double up their religious and shopping tasks in the same location.

In the Philippines, the church is pragmatic about the need to come to the people, rather than making the people come to them. They enjoy altars, pews, maintenance, cleaners, and air-conditioning paid for by mall management, meaning any funds raised from collections go to catechism. A more relaxed church dress code ensures that churchgoers are virtually indistinguishable from shoppers, because they are often one and the same. In some malls, the church mass can be viewed on screens in stores and common areas external to the church, and shoppers can pay homage to Virgin Mary statues located throughout malls.

However, these mall-based churches lack the status of a “traditional” church in that they are blessed, rather than consecrated, and unlike Fortnum in London, it is not possible to hold weddings, baptisms or other sacraments on the premises. Masses can get so crowded that some churchgoers stand outside the doors and are distracted by shoppers. And the churches themselves can find it challenging to encourage a Eucharistic lifestyle in an environment that encourages material aspiration.

The rebirth of malls in the US

The decline and decay of malls in the US is well-documented, with a quarter of the remaining 1100 malls estimated to shutter by 2022. Malls are increasingly reinventing themselves as fitness centres, offices, public libraries, movie theatres, medical clinics, gaming hubs, high schools, community colleges, apartment blocks, microbreweries, homeless shelters, Amazon fulfillment centres, ice rinks, and increasingly – churches, which appreciate the scale of space and high ceilings available. August 2017 Directory of Major Malls data indicated that at least 111 malls contained churches.

As early as 2000, the Grand Village Mall in Grandville, Michigan, was donated to the Mars Hill congregation, becoming a huge open chapel nicknamed the Hangar as it was large enough to fit an aeroplane. Water pipes from a former fountain in the middle of the store are now used to fill the baptism tank.

The Living Word Christian Center in Forest Park, Illinois, purchased the Forest Park Mall in 1997; the church has more than 20,000 members today. Meanwhile, Southland Christian Church is a Kentucky megachurch with four campuses and thousands of members. The Lexington campus is located in the former Lexington Mall, which the church purchased in 2010 and attracts 6000 attendees every Sunday.

A number of churches are taking anchor tenant positions in malls seeking new tenants to fill empty storefronts, particularly those vacated by failed department stores. At Grand Cities Mall in Grand Forks, North Dakota, there are three churches in the mall, and at the Outlets in Loveland, Colorado, the mall contains three churches and a synagogue.

The huge spaces within malls as well as their ample parking are drawcards for churches. However, the jury is out on churches as tenants. While leasing to churches may fill the space in the short term, the US appears yet to embrace the Philippines model of all-day religious services, constraining themselves to Sunday mornings, so churchgoers are not necessarily shopping in retail hours.

Beyond Catholicism

Interestingly, despite Brazil hosting the world’s highest number of Catholics, one of the more prominent church-in-shopping-mall examples belongs to a Pentecostal church in an affluent suburb in the city of Manaus. Church officials say that the location has attracted new members, and is cheaper than other forms of real estate. It utilises music and theatre-based formats for services.

In Jakarta, the Nurul Iman Mosque is on the seventh floor of a shopping centre, the destination for thousands of Muslims wishing to perform the 10-day sleepover itikaf at the end of Ramadan. It is not clear whether these worshippers translate to retail foot traffic.

The marriage of retail and religion appears synergistic, if pragmatism and progressiveness are employed on both sides. Churches are increasingly recognising that they need to go to the people, rather than the reverse, which requires fundraising for upkeep of costly, often antiquated, legacy heritage premises.

Mall operators recognise that given the right format, churches can drive traffic and provide a pillar of the mall’s community living centre positioning.

Even as a country with a high population who claim to have “no religion” – 29.6 per cent at the 2016 census – given the focus of Australian operators on diversifying into mixed-use projects, one would think that partnerships with religious tenants would represent a potential win-win.

Norrelle has 20 years’ experience in retail, category, channel and customer strategy, planning, research and marketing, working in and with global retailers, manufacturers, research and consulting houses. Contact: 0411735190; norrelle@houseofbrandgroup.com

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