Landscape Design Tips for Retail Centers

Attracting, retaining and getting customers to frequent businesses is the name of the game with retail centers.

And your outdoor space plays a crucial role in accomplishing this goal.

Which is exactly how Chelsey Walker, Director of Operations for Prairie Lakes approaches the landscape design for the property she oversees.

"We really want to make our outdoor spaces inviting for everyone. We like to have a comfortable space to draw a cup of coffee or come and have an outdoor meeting if needed these days. As well as just kind of relax and see what kind of stores we have within the area."

When done right, the design of your outdoor space can help visitors stay longer than visiting one shop and turning around and leaving.

"I think retail centers should be designed for flexible programming, comfort, and aesthetics to encourage people to stay longer and hopefully patronize more than one business during their visit," says Pam Brown, a Landscape Architect with Hirsch & Associates, Inc.

YLTC_Imperial Hwy and Yorba Linda Blvd

Architecture and landscape amenities were designed to create a contemporary complement to Yorba Linda Town Center, a 125,000 square foot retail center. 


Designing for Programming

How can retail centers best design for programming that attracts customers? Landscaping for plaza spaces and multiple gathering events are essential.

"If you want people to stay, they need a place to hang out and relax, kick their feet up, meet with friends," explains Brown. "Planting and hardscape can create great social spaces or lead visitors through a site, kind of like wayfinding signage. It all depends on how they are used together."

Your design will also need to be compatible with the programming the developer has in mind.

And don't forget about how to best serve the businesses. Brown gives this example.

If you have a cluster of restaurants, you'll want some outdoor seating there. When people are required to wait to be seated at a restaurant, you can give them with a place they can go to sit down, relax, and maybe get in a little people-watching to pass the time. It's also a great place for meeting up with friends before heading into one of the restaurants or shops.

YLTC_Shade Shelters with Soft Seating

These outdoor spaces have become even more valuable with the spread of COVID-19. With the restriction or even elimination of in-restaurant dining, takeout is now a primary means of generating revenues for restaurants.

Outdoor spaces help the businesses because it's a way they can offer customers an enhanced dining experience, while giving them a way to eat their food sooner than if they had to take it home.

"Since COVID hit, our pavilion has been busier than ever," says Walker "We've noticed a large uptake in the takeout and the number of people utilizing it for that purpose."

Despite the larger number of people using the space, strategically arranging the furniture has allowed Prairie Lakes to let visitors enjoy the space and maintain social distancing best practices.



When creating an outdoor space, Walker stresses the importance of picking the optimal location for an outdoor space that can serve the retail center. For Prairie Lakes, like many retail centers, this takes the form of a plaza and can be found in a central location related to the buildings.

"It's in a location where everyone can meet up. Everyone knows where the pavilion at Prairie Lakes is," says Walker. "You can come for lunch, but you may see some stores that you wouldn't have otherwise seen. Maybe you'd go and visit those another day."

Prairie Lakes also holds all of their events in this same central location and this landscaped space acts as a hub for the Prairie Lakes stores.


A plaza sits in the center of the Prairie Lakes retail center and can serve all the surrounding businesses. 

However, not every development has room for a big plaza and the success of your design doesn’t rely on having one. What is important, is maximizing the available outdoor space that is available.

If you don't have room for Plaza spaces, you have to be more strategic about the design of the spaces that you do have.

"Think about who will be visiting the shops and how best to create a space that would be utilized by the people that will be going there," says Brown. "Think in terms of gathering or seating nooks with shade shelters or umbrellas. Comfortable amenities create the types of places that encourage people to stay."



Another great draw of landscape designs are features, supplemented with appropriate furnishings.

"A lot of the great spaces are either going to have a fire feature or fountain, and shade structures with seating," says Brown. "Providing a great focal feature can boost your center's social media presence. A really unique fountain, fire feature, sculpture or mural can create a fantastic backdrop for single or group 'selfie' and may initiate a check-in on a social media platform. Encouraging social media engagement is a great way to advertise and get people talking about your center."



At Prairie Lakes, they take advantage of landscaping with a pond, pavilion area and firepit inviting visitors to dwell on site longer.

Prairie Lakes PondPrairie Lakes Fire Feature and Lounge Chairs


The goal is to create something unique. An offering that can't be found down the street. And there's a variety of factors that all play a role in defining the space. Build the foundation of your design by asking yourself these questions:

  • What type of programming will there be?
  • What are the types of businesses that will lease the space?
  • Where are the buildings located?
  • What type of customers are you looking to attract?
  • What amenities will they want to use?


Selecting Furnishings

When it comes to selecting furnishings, the necessities for commercial centers are trash receptacles, bicycle racks, and (preferably backed) benches.

YLTC_Madrax bike rack
Bike racks are must-haves for attracting customers who choose active transportation.


Other site amenities worth considering would be commercial planters"Potted plants are great for softening up places and adding some color and interest near shop and restaurant entrances," says Brown.

Plants provide additional appeal for retail centers.

The plants used in the in-ground planters bring added appeal and define the space at the Yorba Town Retail Center. 

Other site amenities would depend on the size of the commercial center and how the developer would like to program the space.

A flexible design for larger areas is what will be important. This allows programming for different types of events and the ability to accommodate more people.

Brown gives one example to accomplish this. "Raised planter seating around the perimeter of a large open plaza can provide quite a bit of seating while maintaining the open space and allowing for flexible programming of events. An added bonus is the raised planters can help to protect the planting during large events."

The furnishings at Prairie Lakes were mindfully chosen to make the outdoor space as flexible as possible. Having pieces that were rugged enough to hold up to outdoor installations, yet moveable, made it so the space could be utilized for the businesses or Prairie Lakes to host events.


"We do yoga in the courtyard, so the tables can be moved out of the way for that, and then placed back to be used for eating and meetings," explains Walker. "I think having the furniture that we can move around or that the customers can move around for their needs is a big deal."

Be cautious of having too many furnishings or arranging them too close together. Walker warns this one thing she has seen at other properties that caused issues. Crowding the space with too much is where other designs have come up short of expectations.


Site Furnishing Materials

In your furnishings selection, make sure your materials match the environment where they will be installed.

"Out in the desert, we only use solid wood furnishings for seating because metal is just going to get too hot," says Brown. "Even if it's shaded it can be very uncomfortable to sit on and there's no point in investing in a bench that no one wants to use."

For areas where the weather isn't as hot, and you don't have to worry as much about the heat, steel and wood bench are a popular choice. And in locations near salt water, you will need something to resist the salty air.


Finding Furnishings

For Brown, finding the right furnishings means finding unique elements that also fit the budget. "Keeping the budget in mind, we choose site furnishings that are high quality and complement the architectural style of the retail center."

In terms of where to allocate your budget, go with where the majority of the traffic will be. Manufacturers generally have items from either a low, medium or high price point and that is where the amenity budget comes into play.

"I like to put the bulk of that budget towards moderate or higher end items for the gathering areas where people will be spending most of their time outdoors," explains Brown. "In transition areas where people will be spending less time, I will source amenities at a lower price point if necessary.

And using multiple pieces does not mean they have to exactly match. Just that the styles or colors should look good together.

But there are benefits to finding everything you are looking for at one company.

"It saves freight costs, which can be substantial if items are coming from across the state or country," says Brown. "I do try to specify as many items as possible from one source."


Don't Overlook Maintenance

Where expectations tend to fall short in a retail center's landscape design, is in maintenance of outdoor areas and amenities not easily maintained over time. Especially spaces primarily used for consuming food and beverages.

"These need to be power washed regularly because they get stained quickly from daily spills," explains Brown. "Maintenance of high traffic areas needs to be worked into the budget if you want to keep the center looking fresh."

And the materials of your site furnishings need to be able to stand up to these cleanings.

"That comes back to the quality of the materials because they tend to get pretty gross after a couple of years," says Walker. "We wanted something that was easy to clean and our maintenance team can go around and clean up every week."

Walker says her maintenance team has been very responsive to the durable site furnishings that are used at Prairie Lakes. They have not had any issues keeping their furniture clean or a need to replace anything.

And this is primarily because they chose furnishings with materials meant to be left outside and do not require a large investment in maintenance. Which is not the case if you're considering cushions or cloth for your furniture. Brown shares her experience.

"You know the soft seating with the cushions everyone loves? Those are high maintenance pieces you will need a budget for a concierge service to clean them on a weekly basis. It's probably a good idea to have extra cushions in a storage room on site that can be used while the soiled cushions are being cleaned. I've seen this happen at a retail center's heavily used outdoor food court area. It only took a month of use to permanently stain most of the cushions and that was with a weekly cleaning. If you want this type of seating, it is important to understand the amount of time and resources it will take to maintain it and budget for it."


Knowing the expenses of your features is also important.

"I've seen countless fountains turned into planters because they haven't been well maintained," says Brown. "Either because it is too costly to do so or there are too many issues that are beyond repair. Either way, the benefits you receive from an amenity should outweigh the cost to maintain it."

You also need to think for the long-term when it comes to the on-site plants.

"The plants that add the texture and the color to your site have a shorter lifespan than woody shrubs," says Brown. "After about 8 or 10 years, they're going to need to be replaced. If the center owner or manager engaged the landscape maintenance team to spend less time trimming the outer form of shrubs and spend more time replenishing mulch, thinning out dense plants or shrubs, replacing older or damaged plants as needed, and weeding, commercial centers would look fresher and more appealing as they aged."


Make an Outdoor Space that Stands Out

YLTC_Fountain Plaza 2

For retail centers the architecture of the buildings and the shops will be what initially draws people in. But the outdoor comfort features, amenities and plantings will be how you create gathering spaces between and around the shops. This will be what can keep people there for a longer period and patronizing multiple businesses.

Discover durable and beautiful site furnishings for your next retail center landscape design by shopping the broad portfolio of Thomas Steele products. Our pieces help landscape designs last and look beautiful for years to come without breaking the project's budget.

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