Something to mall over

Jun 06, 2021

In the AEC industry, technical knowledge is important – but sometimes it’s equally important to step back, look around, and see what lessons can be learned outside the AEC realm.

The AEC industry is a specialized environment. Marketing for architecture, engineering, and construction firms is best when the marketing team has advanced knowledge of projects and how the work actually gets done. Immersing ourselves in professional development can reap huge rewards.

However, pursuing a certified development path is not the only way to go. Lessons in marketing can be learned pretty much everywhere, as we are living in a consumer-driven society and, as we’ve discussed before, the ultimate client is a human being.

Still, I was struck recently by lessons learned at the mall. As we all are aware, the glory day of the mall is long past.

Ian Bogost wrote in The Atlantic, “I was a youth in the 1980s and early '90s, the heyday of the mall as a cultural symbol and a commercial powerhouse. In those days, mall-going really did offer some of the social benefits Gruen had imagined. The American suburbs lack the density of daily encounters that characterizes the modernist cities of Europe, and the mall provided a space where people could amble in thick proximity.”

However, the other day, the thick proximity was returning to full effect at our regional, high-end mall. Bucking the trend of decline and covering more than 2 million square feet of leasable space, this mall offered it all.

A recent expansion (followed by some unexpected and mandated time away) made even regular shoppers a little confused. So many visitors were making their way to the mall directory. No longer a static map, this high-tech version can answer any question about the massive development … provided it is working. Which, unfortunately, it was not. I witnessed at least a dozen shoppers alternatively staring, touching, swiping – to no avail.

Enter, the mail carrier. Obviously mid-rounds, his mail cart full, the mail carrier stepped up to our group and asked, “Where do you want to go?” One by one, we revealed our desired destinations and were sent confidently on our way.

For your firm, think about when technology fails. Who in your organization holds the knowledge to carry on and direct others?

Now striding along the mall corridor toward our destination, we were approached several times and offered “free” samples. Over the course of the entire day, no one in our group accepted any samples and we did not see a successful exchange with any other shoppers. Curious.

We arrived at one of our select stores, LUSH. After browsing a bit, we were approached by a smiling sales associate who asked if we would like to see their newest product. First, she smoothed it on her hands and let us smell it. Then she requested and received permission to do the same to us. Afterwards, we washed our hands and tried out some more items. All the while, the associate was engaged with us, listened to us, suggested more and different items to us. She never said “free,” although all the sampling was exactly that. And yes, when we finally left the store, it was with purchases in our (freshly clean, massaged, and fragrant) hands.

There are many fascinating behavioral science and consumer studies centered around the power of free. And an equal number on how to sell.

For your firm, think about these questions: When is free not worth the price? And when you are selling, are your clients/prospects enjoying the process?

There is a store that I frequent that is not part of this regional mall. And quite frankly, they do not aspire to be there. They are a department store chain that is actually opening new stores rather than closing locations like so many others. They are competing with big box stores and they are succeeding, on their own terms. Their corporate culture is of paramount importance and drives decisions.

“When Boscov’s opens a store, it sends a group of salespeople, department managers, and buyers to the new store several weeks before it opens,” Jon Harris wrote in his article “As department stores close, how is Boscov’s bucking the trend?” “They stay on several weeks after, working alongside the roughly 300 new hires. ‘The idea there is, “You don’t teach the culture of a company from a handbook,” Jim Boscov said. You work side by side, and you show what a Boscov’s is.’ That’s another reason for the company’s slow and stable growth: He said it’s not fair to ask co-workers to be away from home more than once a year.”

For your firm, think about whether or not you have created a truly unique culture. How are you telling and living that story?

When marketing within the AEC industry, technical knowledge is important. However sometimes, it is equally important to take a step back, look around our world, and see what lessons can be learned from places outside the AEC realm.

Jane Lawler Smith, MBA, is the marketing manager at Derck & Edson, LLC. She can be reached at

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Zweig Group, three times on the Inc. 500/5000 list, is the industry leader and premiere authority in AEC firm management and marketing, the go-to source for data and research, and the leading provider of customized learning and training. Zweig Group exists to help AEC firms succeed in a complicated and challenging marketplace through services that include: Mergers & Acquisitions, Strategic Planning, Valuation, Executive Search, Board of Director Services, Ownership Transition, Marketing & Branding, and Business Development Training. The firm has offices in Dallas and Fayetteville, Arkansas.