Mason’s School of Business co-hosting online conference on the future of local retail business


George Mason University’s School of Business is co-hosting an online conference on Thursday, Feb. 11, on preserving and rebuilding a viable retail industry in the Washington, D.C., area.

During the webinar, speakers will discuss how the coronavirus pandemic and consumer trends have changed the retail landscape and how to respond by reimagining retail spaces. The Center for Retail Transformation and the Center for Real Estate Entrepreneurship are hosting the full-day event with the Washington, D.C., chapter of the American Institute of Architects.

“We’ll discuss the full picture of retail space, and we’ll project what’s next,” said Eric Maribojoc, executive director of Mason’s Center for Real Estate Entrepreneurship.

Kathleen Spencer, program director of the Washington, D.C., chapter of the American Institute of Architects, said that the organization “looks forward to another fruitful partnership with George Mason University during the February symposium that will allow industry experts and participants to explore ways to design and build back better after the challenges of the pandemic.”

While the coronavirus pandemic has brought challenges to the real estate industry, Maribojoc said that’s not the whole story. Some portions of the real estate industry, such as housing sales, data centers, and industrial space, are doing well, while other areas, such as office space, are struggling.

But retail, Maribojoc said, is a “tale of two worlds.”

“There’s a section of retail that has recovered very nicely, such as strip malls that have groceries and pharmacies in them,” said Maribojoc. “But retail centers that are heavily dependent on restaurants, sports venues or movie theaters are not doing as well.”

Maribojoc emphasized that high-end malls that were doing well before the pandemic, such as Tyson’s Corner Center in McLean, have recovered since the shutdown in the spring. However, malls that were struggling before the pandemic are continuing to lose business, he said.

“In many ways, the pandemic accelerated consumer trends, such as a move towards online shopping,” Maribojoc said.

The business school’s Center for Retail Transformation, which opened in 2020, is focused on helping small to mid-sized businesses think creatively as consumer expectations change. Gautham Vadakkepatt, the center’s director and an assistant professor of marketing, said that retailers are closing down because of the pandemic, and many will not reopen. To survive, local retailers will have to be able to pivot to match changing consumer habits, such as an increased interest in delivery.

“There’s an effort to support local businesses, so it’s helpful to create increased awareness about local options available to consumers,” said Vadakkepatt. “But physical stores are also going to need to react to the new world, be agile and innovative. Those businesses that have survived have been nimble and creative, such as restaurants that have also stocked themselves to work as small groceries.”

Vadakkepatt and Maribojoc say that the Washington, D.C., area’s retail industry is suffering, and that they hope their efforts will benefit the local retail industry.

“We need to work on ways to get the sector back in to a thriving state,” said Vadakkepatt.