Shopping centers are a phenomenon in the whole world. They have become the places where people go not only to do their shopping but also to have new experiences, meet friends and spend their leisure time. They are popular public spaces with multifunctional use, full of stores, entertainment, and services. In consideration of the latest trends and consumer preferences, shopping centers are being constantly modernized and modified in line with new requirements. This need for continuous change stems from the retail sector being often referred to as the most dynamic economic sector. These changes also require them to incorporate sustainability principles in their management.
Many post-communist countries experienced significant changes in the retail sector and the shopping behavior of their citizens in the second half of the 1990s. The dynamic development of retail and adopting new consumer patterns in a relatively short period skipped over several decades of retail development in western European countries. Such accelerated development of retail had a strong impact not only on its spatial structure but also on consumer behavior, which had followed a completely different development model during the communist regime affected by a specific shortage of goods and lower quality of shopping opportunities [1
]. The dynamics of shopping centers’ development in the transition countries (post-socialist countries of Central and Eastern Europe) included the process of catching up with the developed world in terms of quantity, concentration and, lately, also in terms of the quality aspects of retailing [5
]. Shopping centers became a symbol of urban retail development and the most important trip generators in modern urban areas [6
In the period affected by limited shopping possibilities, these localities of urban retail became cathedrals of consumption for consumers [11
]. As consumers in these post-communist countries become more sustainability-conscious, urban retail should involve sustainable management and sustainability marketing techniques towards different stakeholder groups [3
]. Moreover, sustainability is one of the megatrends reshaping the urban space, retail industry, and terms of competition [12
Management and marketing are the main elements that determine the future success of the shopping centers and their competitive ability by choosing an appropriate tenant mix and creating an overall image [14
]. Therefore, it is advisable to pay greater attention to the issues connected with the shopping centers’ marketing strategies and the ways they communicate with different stakeholders [10
]. However, other aspects cannot be omitted, such as shopping behavior, change in consumer preferences, and the needs influenced by external stimuli, including the emphasis on sustainability, responsibility, and social trends.
Since the shopping centers influence not only the spatiotemporal organization of the urban systems and the development of the region in which they are located [17
] but also various groups of stakeholders, the paper focuses on their managerial approaches and communication with customers, employees, and tenants. The emphasis of the paper is placed on the shopping center’s management’s approach towards their activities focused on these three groups of stakeholders. Particular attention is paid to the social dimension of their operation. The issue of the social dimension in retail is often neglected, so no one has dealt with it even in the conditions of the Czech shopping centers. At the same time, the intertwining of social dimensions with the economic conditions and profitability can be observed [19
This paper aims to evaluate managerial approaches and marketing strategies of Czech shopping centers in the context of social dimensions leading to sustainable operation. The following research questions will be answered to fulfil the aim:
3. Materials and Methods
The main objective of the research was to analyze and evaluate marketing strategies and management of shopping centers in the Czech Republic. The emphasis was placed both on evaluating the shopping centers management approach towards their own marketing activities and on the approach towards internal employees, tenants, and customers themselves. The research was conducted by means of a questionnaire survey. The data were obtained through an e-questionnaire which was sent to all shopping centers in the Czech Republic. Either shopping centers managers or marketing department managers were contacted. The research included the shopping centers according to the internationally accepted definition ICSC [51
]; in other words, the shopping centers occupying more than 5000 square meters, which implied that the questionnaire was distributed to 88 shopping centers in the Czech Republic (as of 2019).
The collection of responses was conducted in two rounds, whereas the first round of questionnaires was distributed in October and November 2019, and 24 responses were obtained—response rate 27%. The second round was realized in January and February 2020, and it involved the centers that did not respond to the request to complete the questionnaire in the first round. The shopping centers that refused to disclose their data were not approached again. Therefore, 60 shopping centers were approached in the second round, and six responses were obtained—response rate 10%. The final number of received responses was 30, which corresponds to 34% of all centers in the Czech Republic with GLA (gross leasable area) larger than 5000 square meters. Detailed information on the representation of individual shopping centers according to their size is depicted in the following Table 1
. It is evident that nearly half of the shopping centers that submitted data were in the middle-size category with an area of 20,000 to 40,000 square meters; even though small-size shopping centers with an area of 5000 to 20,000 square meters are most represented in the Czech Republic.
In terms of spatial localization, 12 out of 14 Czech Republic regions participated, whereas most questionnaires (7) returned from Prague Capital City, which is also the place where most of the shopping centers from all Czech Republic regions are concentrated. Five valid questionnaires were completed by the representatives from the shopping centers from the South Moravian Region and Moravian-Silesian Region, where the second and third largest cities of the Czech Republic, Brno, and Ostrava, are situated. Respondents answering the questions were most often occupying the position of a marketing manager or manager/director of the shopping center.
The sample can be regarded as sufficiently representative at the country level with a possibility of results generalization. Moreover, it was the last research, in terms of its extent, conducted in the Czech Republic before the COVID-19 pandemic. Thus, this research has become a unique milestone, and to some extent, the “final state” of the era of the uninfluenced approach of shopping center’s management to customers, employees, and tenants. It is also necessary to mention that the names of the shopping centers shall not be presented in the text, as some questions are rather sensitive, which might result in the disclosure of internal information. Figure 2
depicts the distribution of shopping centers involved in the research; the distribution of the remaining shopping centers meeting the internationally accepted definition is also included.
The questionnaire was based on recent studies and a comprehensive literature review. It consisted of two main parts, including 19 questions to be answered by respondents. The first part dealt with shopping centers management and sustainable operation; the second part included the questions focused on marketing activities and communication. The questions were systematically related to the three groups of stakeholders that underpin the functioning and prosperity of shopping centers—consumers, employees, and tenants. The research results were also analyzed in a similar structure. The questionnaire included the questions that were evaluated on the Likert scale 1–5. Furthermore, there were open- or semi-open multiple-choice questions and closed questions with one possible answer. The questionnaire was finished with identification questions concentrating on the shopping center name, locality, and work position of the respondent. The results were evaluated and processed in the Microsoft Excel program and SPSS Statistics program. Data were analyzed using descriptive statistics and interpreted in the context of social dimensions of shopping centers and their future development.
At first, the results related to the aim of the paper revealed the highest priority for the shopping centers management to the given aspects of their sustainable operation. Each of the pre-defined options could be evaluated by the respondents on a scale of 1–5 (1—unimportant, 2—less important, 3—neutral attitude, 4—important, 5—very important). The questionnaire survey revealed that more than 4/5 of the shopping centers (82%) that submitted information consider most important the growth of profit and turnover; this priority was rated by the respondents with an average value of 4.64. Another most frequently appearing priority was the enhancement of customer loyalty. Thus, these two priorities may be regarded as fundamental for shopping center’s managers, which was also evident in the consistency of the answers; in other words, a high average score and slight variance (distribution), as stated in Table 2
Furthermore, the questionnaire tried to find out what general factors had the most significant influence over the operation of the shopping centers in terms of social dimension and its economic context. Related factors were rated on a scale of 1–5. According to the assumptions, it was confirmed that the shopping centers were unequivocally most frequently influenced by economic conditions (average score 4.70), followed by customer demand (customer = a key element of the shopping center). A very high average score and very low variance proved an emphasis and concordance in these substantial factors of the economic aspects among all shopping center’s representatives. The factors representing the social dimension, such as security and unemployment, obtained an average score (Table 3
The next question aimed at finding out which of the following marketing tools the shopping center’s management used to communicate with stakeholders (Table 4
). The same scale was used again. Most respondents (87%) indicated that advertising is the most frequently used tool to communicate with customers (average score of 4.87). The respondents only used the options 4–5 on the scale, which was reflected in a very low variance of answers. Event marketing was another frequently used communication means, followed by the shopping center ambience and public relations, which were used for both external and internal communications [44
]. Moreover, they were all completely fundamental tools for the maintenance of sustainable operation and competitiveness in the future times. Public relations had a very diverse scoring, and thus a high variance of answers (0.90); it was the most complicated tool used by the shopping center management towards customers. The questionnaire survey also revealed that sponsoring, as a tool for communication with shopping center customers, was not practically used. It might be so because it is very expensive, and there is insufficient feedback on how effective and successful this tool is.
Spatial analysis of basic marketing communication tools showed that neither advertising, event marketing, nor the shopping center ambience had any statistical relation to the size of the shopping center or its location in a larger or smaller town/city. By contrast, in the case of the most complicated tool, which was public relations, a certain link to larger shopping centers in the largest cities (Prague, Brno, Ostrava) was proved.
As expected, the Internet was the most common form of advertising used by the shopping center management (Table 5
). Specifically, 93% of respondents chose this option on a scale of 4–5 (average score 4.47); their very low variance proved homogeneity of answers. The form of advertising on the Internet could be very diverse; it could be an advertisement placed on social platforms, shopping center webpages, or a paid advertisement placed on various Internet platforms. Billboard ended up in second place as an advertising means used by shopping centers. The following two forms of promotion—the radio and newspapers/magazines—were rated very similarly by shopping centers representatives; the average score was 3.70.
Supplementary open questions indicated answers to how the event marketing and public relations tools were used. As for the event marketing, it was typically an event focusing on children or families (such as Easter or Advent workshops, children’s days, concerts, birthday parties), followed by seasonal markets, handicraft fairs, meetings with YouTubers, sportsmen and writers’ autograph sessions, and others. All such events brought more visitors to the shopping center. The questionnaire survey revealed that the shopping center’s most frequently organized events aimed at families with children, which were a significant target group with both high perspectivity and economic and social sustainability. In terms of public relations, the shopping centers most often used press releases and PR articles placed on various communication platforms—the Internet, newspapers, magazines. Invitations to events, presentations or exhibitions organized by the given shopping center were presented on social media and networks. Financial costs of advertising and event marketing usually accounted for 40–60% of the budget allocated for marketing. Other activities were cheaper.
To find out what social practices managers used to enhance shopping center employees’ well-being and sustainable work performance, five incentives or aspects were rated by the respondents on a scale of 1–5 (1—never used, 2—less frequently used, 3—used, 4—frequently used, 5—the most frequently used). The results showed that the shopping centers most commonly concentrated on providing a good and pleasant work environment and conditions to keep or enhance their staff work performance. These two aspects were rated identically by the respondents (average score 3.95). A strong financial motivator was wage growth; career growth and training achieved median rating values. Low variance values proved a considerable consistency of answers by the shopping center representatives (Table 6
The following question was finding out what benefits are offered to the shopping center employees. The respondents had one or more options. The questionnaire survey revealed that the shopping centers provided their employees with six benefits on average. Figure 3
depicts the benefits from which the respondents could choose and indicates the frequency of individual answers. The shopping centers most frequently provided their employees with the benefit of renting out work equipment (such as cell phones, laptops); this option appeared in two-thirds of cases. Furthermore, the respondents indicated that most frequently, they provided their employees with meal allowances, extra vacation/paid time off, and refreshments at the workplace. Transportation allowance was a rare benefit. Thus, the economic benefits prevailed over the social-related benefits (flexible working hours, contribution to education or leisure activities).
Tenant mix, often mentioned in the professional literature, has become a fundamental aspect of the operation, attractivity, and profitability of the shopping centers [32
]. Therefore, the following question aimed at finding out which of the below-stated statements related to the tenant mix were supported by the shopping centers, and to what extent. The question contained sustainable operation-related statements, and for each of them, the respondent was to express his/her agreement on a scale of 1–5 (Table 7
). It is necessary to mention that the scale was compiled the other way round; for the sake of better understanding: 1—agree, 2—rather agree; 3—neutral attitude, 4—rather disagree, 5—disagree. Overwhelmingly, the respondents agreed with the given statements and most frequently, they chose the options at the range from 1 to 3. The largest number of shopping center representatives (89%) expressed their agreement with the statement determining the relation between the success of individual tenants and the success of the entire shopping center (average score of 1.21); moreover, there was the lowest response variance here (0.58). Furthermore, the respondents strongly agreed with the statement claiming that the tenant mix generates a competitive advantage (average score of 1.32). The natural interconnection and long-term economic sustainability coming from the bounds between the shopping centers and their units (tenants) were the fundamental building stones of the shopping center’s success.
The paper focused on the managerial perspectives of the Czech shopping centers on their operation within the context of social dimension and related economic conditions. For maintaining the competitive advantage of the shopping centers, it is appropriate to provide a sustainable performance management framework that considers not only traditional economic measures but also a social dimension. The results revealed that the shopping centers, in general terms, place great emphasis on profit and turnover growth, which had been an expected aspect arising from the nature of the business entity and fully corresponding with the main goal of the shopping centers, which is the maximization of the profit [22
]. Furthermore, it was found out that the shopping centers are most affected by economic conditions. The same result was also achieved in similar research conducted by The College of Estate Management in English and Irish shopping centers [54
As for the other factors influencing the operation of the shopping center, the respondents most frequently opted for economic conditions and customer demand, which is fundamental for the shopping centers as it determines the customers’ interest. At the same time, it reflected their financial capacity, which was influenced by economic conditions. A very high average score and very low variance proved an emphasis and concordance in these substantial factors of the economic aspects among all shopping center’s representatives.
The research revealed some similar aspects in marketing approaches of individual shopping centers. As expected, the most frequently used marketing tool proved to be advertising, as it is a long-proven marketing tool with a broad impact and can be applied in many forms [25
]. According to assumptions, the most frequently used form of advertising was the Internet. The Internet is a valuable marketing tool, allowing a two-way dialogue between the shopping centers and their target groups [56
]. Thus, the Internet’s role in communication demonstrates its timelessness, flexibility, and effectivity (RQ1). Currently, the Internet is even more important for shopping centers, as the full-screen digitalization enables almost uninterrupted communication with customers, for example, through social networks (Facebook, Instagram), and so on. Another important and increasingly used communication tool, event marketing, allowed the shopping centers to directly contact customers and interact with them [46
]. Based on the obtained responses, it may be concluded that the shopping centers concentrated, through marketing events, on families with children and focus on creating “family centers” [32
]. Based on the synthesis of obtained results, it can be generalized that the main target group of the shopping centers (not only) in the Czech Republic are families with children.
To a certain extent, shopping centers have become a public space where people spend their leisure time and meet friends. The shopping center’s managers are aware of this fact and, therefore, the shopping centers are being transformed into family and entertainment centers in which relaxing zones, fitness centers, or cinemas emerge. All of this creates a perfect place for all age categories where they can spend their leisure time. The shopping centers are successful in creating a perfect place for spending free time, and various marketing events support them; however, there is a flip side to it in the form of a negative influence on the young generation, who are called “mall junkies” as they spend their free time in the shopping centers [1
To enhance employees’ motivation, effectivity, and work attitude, the studied shopping centers used, in particular, non-financial means with long-term sustainability, such as a pleasant work environment and suitable work conditions (RQ2). In the research conducted by The College of Estate Management, however, the management of English and Irish shopping centers most frequently opted for training to enhance the employee’s performance, which proved to be used the least in our research; career growth and responsibility delegation were in a second place, and the work conditions ended up in last place. Different perceptions of motivation tools may be caused by the national mentality and other set-up values, for example, preferring collectiveness to individualism. According to our results, the most common benefits granted by the shopping centers to their employees was work equipment renting (cell phones or laptops) or meal allowances. Here, the economic aspects outweighed socially relevant ones. Similar results were also obtained from the research conducted by a Czech company of Trexima [60
], in which more than one thousand economic entities participated in the Czech Republic.
The importance of tenant mix (RQ3) was also proved in the responses to the question asking the management representatives to express the degree of their agreement with the given statements. The respondents almost unanimously selected the option stating that the success of individual tenants and the entire shopping center was closely related [61
]. The further growth of the shopping centers in the Czech Republic depends on both a stable economic environment and, more importantly, correctly determined administration and employees of the shopping center, who react flexibly and adapt to changes and current trends.
The authors are aware of the existing limits of research, which, at the same time, can trigger future research directions. For our acquaintance with the opinions of the Czech managers on the social dimension of their operation, a questionnaire survey method was used. Using qualitative methods would offer a possibility to gain a deeper understanding of this issue. Moreover, only a one-sided perspective of managers was provided. From this point of view, a future research direction towards shopping centers’ customers or tenants could be proposed. Similarly, the links between environmental innovations and the shopping center’s competitiveness were not taken into account in this phase of research. Therefore, environmental issues might be addressed in future research.
Within the research, a representative sample has been obtained, representing 34% of all shopping centers with more than 5000 square meters in the Czech Republic. Some of the addressed shopping centers expressed their interest in the results of the research. The shopping centers management can use the obtained information as an inspiration for creating new marketing strategies and approaches towards the internal employees, as well as the shopping centers tenants and customers. Moreover, the results provide essential information on further future plans.
The research carried out at the turn of 2019 and 2020 provided a representative platform and a certain milestone in the management approaches of shopping centers in the period before the COVID-19 pandemic. It will be interesting to follow developments during and after the pandemic, as the operation of the centers has been hit by an unprecedented wave of restrictions, which will inevitably be reflected in the economic conditions and social dimensions of their existence and operation. Unique research from the Czech Republic can contribute to further comparative research and expand the discussion on the presented topic.