When it comes to sustainability in the built environment, office buildings are often the testing ground for new design principles and technologies.

Perhaps this is because they offer a manageably-sized microcosm to monitor, tweak and report on. Whatever the reason, I’m happy to see the expansion of sustainability (and living infrastructure) into other facets of the built environment.

People today spend a lot of time in retail centres indulging in our passion for “consumerism” or “retail therapy.” It’s where we buy our groceries, catch up with friends, spend our lunch breaks (and our pay cheques). Shopping is pretty much a daily exercise. It’s time we make the spaces we spend so much time in better for us, the environment and the bottom line.

The biophilia hypothesis

‘The studies revealing the aesthetic and restorative effects of environments containing greenery are frequently considered as supporting evidence for the ‘biophilia hypothesis.’

Biophilia describes the innate emotional connection humans feel toward nature (like plants) and other forms of life. The ‘biophilia hypothesis’ suggests that as humans evolved within the natural environment, they became hard-wired to respond positively to sources of greenery and life. For our early ancestors, it was a matter of survival – greenery meant food and water, as well as shelter from the elements and predators. The years have passed but this ingrained love of nature remains.

So why should retailers care?

Greenery has a mitigating effect on stress, negative mood and discomfort. This is relevant for shopping contexts because a review of the relevant business literature shows that ‘such stressful states are commonplace in retail settings’ according to the 2010 study The effects of urban retail greenery on consumer experience: Reviewing the evidence from a restorative perspective.

Studies show that approximately 10 per cent of shoppers enter a store in a negative mood, according to the 2003 study Negative affect: The dark side of retailing.

Others, upon entering the store, are affected by numerous factors (both within and beyond the control of retail management), which may make the act of shopping a stressful and potentially irritating experience.

When shopping is a goal-directed activity that is constrained by time and/or budget (as it often is), any obstacle encountered during the process may evoke stress, which can in turn ‘lead to avoidance behaviour toward a particular retail context,’ The effects of urban retail greenery on consumer experience: Reviewing the evidence from a restorative perspective states. This can impact overall consumer spend and centre profitability.

In fact, the ‘spending behaviour of consumers in a negative mood, as well as their satisfaction with retailers, is considerably lower than that of customers who are in a positive mood,’ that same study suggests.

Retailers already use research findings to influence consumer behaviour in their stores. By consciously altering the store atmosphere through design, layout, product placement, lighting, temperature and sound, retailers have sought to create an environment that increases purchase probability. However, using plants to improve negative customer moods in the shopping environment remains uncommon.

Research literature already points to the biophilic benefits of integrating greenery in human habitats. While most research has up to this stage, focused on residential, healthcare and office environments, researchers are now turning their attention to retail environments and the case for green infrastructure here is strengthening.

Studies have shown that retail environments without “natural pauses” (or greenery) can trigger information overload (and directed attention fatigue) in consumers. Increased manufactured stimuli in stores can often result in ‘confusion, cognitive strain, and other dysfunctional or unfavourable states,’ The effects of urban retail greenery on consumer experience: Reviewing the evidence from a restorative perspective notes. These include purchase postponement, shopping fatigue, cognitive dissonance, dissatisfaction, negative word-of-mouth, decreased store loyalty and trust, product misuse, and even reduced self-confidence,’ according to the 1982 study Store atmosphere: an environmental psychology approach.

A 2003 study indicated that biophilic store design could play an important role in this regard. When customers were asked to imagine their ideal food store, several groups spent more time explaining their preferred shopping ‘atmosphere’ rather than other characteristics like the products stocked.

‘They reported wanting to shop in “a spacious, bright, green, and nice atmosphere, with appropriate music in the background,”’ the study reported.

Building on this finding, additional research found that consumers were more inclined to enter a shopping mall when it contained vegetation and that ‘the presence of greenery led to higher exploration rates within the space.’

Another study showed that ‘places with greenery are often regarded as destination places to be visited and enjoyed. As a result, shoppers are prepared to travel further, pay more for the goods as well as parking, and stay longer in these locations than in those without greenery.’

Customers also indicated that they were willing to pay eight to 12 per cent more for goods and services in areas with a mature tree canopy. As one study notes, for a ‘mid-size retail centre, this could generate over US$1 million of increased sales annually.’

A report commissioned by the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) found that the presence of quality vegetation and landscaping has been found to add approximately seven per cent to average rental rates on office buildings and that ‘major urban quality improvements can add 22 per cent (on average) to rental rates for retail buildings.

The NRDC report goes on to say that the benefits of green infrastructure (like increased retail sales) would allow owners of retail buildings to command higher rents as this additional rent would ‘offset a portion of the increased sales realised by the retail tenants.’

The store environment has been proven to impact merchants and their employees as well. Other than making the retail environment more attractive to customers, greenery in retail spaces can also lead to ‘positively-toned moods’ in staff which can then translate into increased helpfulness and friendliness toward customers.

Other potential benefits include: ‘reduced stress-related health problems in employees; reduced costs associated with health problems (e.g. absenteeism); and increased productivity’ according to The effects of urban retail greenery on consumer experience: Reviewing the evidence from a restorative perspective.

Trees and green roofs can decrease the amount of energy required for heating and cooling individual buildings by sheltering the outer fabric of the building. This leads to direct cost savings for owners.

According to the U.S. Department of Energy, heating there accounts for around 26.6 per cent of a commercial building’s average total energy use, while cooling accounts for about 10.1 per cent. By integrating living infrastructure like trees, green roofs and facades into retail environments, owners can reduce this energy use and enjoy ongoing cost savings.

As retail leaders begin to integrate biophilic store design into their shopping environments, I expect we will continue to see more of this positive data roll in. This, I believe, will lead to a greater adoption of green infrastructure including green walls, roofs, planter boxes and external landscaping in communities everywhere.