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The mall of the future will still have a physical presence but a different purpose, says Majid Al Futtaim CEO, Alain Bejjani

To what extent does the shift in online buying and spending challenge the future of physical malls?

[Source photo: Anvita Gupta/Fast Company Middle East]

Have you noticed new malls cropping up across the UAE recently? “There’s data to prove it’s a viable investment. Customers are returning to physical malls, spending more than they did pre-pandemic,” says Alain Bejjani, CEO of Majid Al Futtaim, one of Dubai’s biggest private-sector conglomerates and the Middle East’s largest mall operator.

In 2021, the company reported a 104% increase in online shopping spending compared to 2019, with most residents spending in supermarkets or retail offerings. “Customers are now returning to malls to have fulfilling experiences and interact with brands, indicating that malls continue to be an important place in our lifestyle,” says Bejjani. 

With consumer behavior changing faster than ever, it is hard to predict the look and feel of the mall of the future. The pandemic proved that people did not want to be pinned down to a location to be able to do a transaction — it could happen anywhere in a coffee shop, store, or at home. 


What is certain is the role of malls will continue to evolve with the evolution of consumer needs and expectations. “In the past, retailers needed to be somewhere, and people used to flock there. Today it is essential to be where the customers are,” adds Bejjani. 

Currently, the company owns and operates 29 shopping malls, 13 hotels, and five mixed-used communities across the Middle East, Africa, and central and south Asia. Customers can expect the group to expand its geographic and online footprint in the future. “We will continue to develop our omnichannel experience, which means we will continue to be as prominent digitally as we are physically. We will invest more in technology, and we will definitely be present in the metaverse to reach our customers wherever they are,” Bejjani says. 

With retailers propelled to invest equally in digital and physical assets, the mall of the future seems torn between a phygital space. Yet, Bejjani is clear about what the future of retail will look like. “The mall of the future will be shaped by the customer. The success of futuristic malls will primarily depend on how well they meet customer expectations in omnichannel experiences. It will continue to have a physical presence, but it will leverage technology much more,” he explains. “It will be smarter. The building will be smarter, the capabilities will be greater, and it will have very fulfilling experience-based tenants that offer the best experiences rather than just products.” 


Rachel Clare McGrath Dawson is a Correspondent at Fast Company Middle East who writes on tech, design, and culture. More