E-commerce platforms will account for a third of total retail sales by 2030, according to a new report by consulting group A.T. Kearney.
The rapid transformation is leading traditional brands to rethink how they arrange their stores. Landlords are reconsidering their tenant mixes, bringing in more food and entertainment options. And digital start-ups are setting up a physical presence of their own, albeit more cautiously and with a different approach than the industry's precedent would suggest.
"Right now we see traditional retail space built for twentieth-century shopping behaviors ... now we are in the twenty-first century, and we have to rethink how we use the space to engage consumers," Michael Brown, the author of A.T. Kearney's "Future of Shopping Centers" report, told CNBC. "We're starting to see a slow transition."
Part of that transition is retail landlords scaling back on apparel. American Dream Meadowlands, a massive retail development underway in New Jersey (spearheaded by Triple Five Group) set to include an indoor ski slope and KidZania, is just one example of that, Brown said.
Other examples include Simon Property Group bringing residential, office and hotel uses to its King of Prussia Mall in Philadelphia. And Westfield (recently acquired by Unibail-Rodamco) is looking to bring a concert venue to its Promenade Mall in Woodland Hills, California.
"It's no longer a shopping mall but a consumer engagement space, which opens up a world of opportunities for developers in terms of how they use this space," Brown said.
In turn, businesses such as Warby Parker — which started online but now runs its own fleet of stores — are curating retail destinations that include less inventory and more of a service or experiential component.
Other online-first retailers opening stores in the same vein include Rent the Runway, Fabletics, Outdoor Voices, Casper and Boll & Branch. Many of their stores include less merchandise than a traditional department store, for example. The idea is that shoppers would visit the stores to see and touch items in person, maybe making a purchase there, but ultimately the goal is just to introduce people to the brand.
"We want to give consumers whatever they want, which speaks to a broader retail trend: Getting a product when you want it and how you want it," Philip Krim, the CEO of mattress brand Casper, told CNBC.
"Now the landlords see what the [Casper] experience is all about, and it brings a lot of people to the mall," Krim added. The company is still adding stores with shorter-term leases at malls across the U.S.
According to A.T. Kearney, more store closures are on the way for so-called old-school retailers that have failed to update their core offerings.
In the U.S., there is "approximately 24 square feet of commercial retail space for every American, compared to 5 square feet per person in the UK, 3 square feet per person in China, and about 2 square feet per person in South Korea," Brown and his team determined.
Simon Russian, the head of U.K.-based Legal & General Investment Management Real Assets, told CNBC: "The biggest challenge is for the many retailers who [already] have mature store portfolios. How do you make that work, and make it relevant, for customers?"
Often, closing a store might be the best or only viable option.
Looking to 2030, retailers' "future success depends to a large degree on being able to 'unlearn' the lessons of the past," Brown explained. "Tomorrow's success will belong to those operators and tenants willing to break from yesterday's patterns and practices and fully embrace a consumer-driven future."