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Looking at opening a surgery in a shopping centre? Here are the pros and cons from dentists, business people and designers. By Kerryn Ramsey

iStock_000026154827Large_webLarge, busy and bustling with activity, shopping centres offer everything from food and fashion to daycare and medical services. While hundreds of dental practices are positioned within these retail hotspots, they have a set of unique conditions that must be addressed.

One of the most positive aspects is parking. Dr Jason Sebastian, co-owner of Chadstone Dental, located in Chadstone Shopping Centre close to Melbourne, sees access to parking as a real selling point for their practice. “The convenience factor is a priority for us,” he says. “There’s always heaps of parking and we highlight that in our advertising and on our website. Our clients use the shopping centre car park, do the banking and shopping, and attend their appointment all in one go.”

Dr Winnie Tang of Carindale Dental, located in the Metropol Shopping Centre in Brisbane’s Carindale, feels they are in an ideal location. “We are on a main road with lots of passing traffic,” she says. “There is a shopping centre full of eateries and the post office recently moved nearby. We’re also located near a chemist so when patients need scripts filled, it’s very convenient. On top of all this, we’re near a physio so we can refer patients with things like TMJ [temporomandibular joint disorder] issues, and BCPI [Brisbane City Periodontics & Implants] has also moved close by. Couple all that with our onsite parking and our clients are very happy.”

An important factor to consider is the positioning of the practice within the shopping centre. High visibility in a major thoroughfare means a higher passing trade but the increase in rent can neutralise the benefit. Dr Sebastian’s Chadstone practice gets virtually no passing trade. “We are a bit tucked away in the medical suite, not in the main thoroughfare. Finding us the first time can be tricky but once you know where we are, it’s pretty straight forward.”

Even though Chadstone Dental has been in the centre for 20 years and has a stable client base, Dr Sebastian is considering a move in the future. “Ideally, we would like to be positioned in a more exposed area. Despite the dramatic rent increase and the associated cost of a new fit-out, I think it will happen within the next three to five years.”

Along with his business partners, Geoff Parkes purchased a run-down Brisbane Mall Dental Practice late last year, and has been slowly building it into a growing concern. The CBD practice is on the first floor of the 1930s-built National Australia Bank building that has since become a flagship Country Road store. Due to its heritage status, no signage is allowed on the exterior of the building. “We are limited to one little sign inside the building, next to the lifts,” says Parkes. “You wouldn’t know it was there unless you were already coming to see us. Our ability to attract passing trade or patients by external signage is basically nil.”

While Parkes’ situation is a bit extreme, the same could be said for a practice located on the upper floor of a large shopping centre, where the visibility of the practice is dramatically limited. But there are solutions to the problem.

“When you are in this situation, it heightens the importance of having a good website and having it display prominently in web searches,” says Parkes, who’s also a director of Dental Advantage Consulting Group. “You need to ensure that people looking for a new dentist or who don’t have a regular dentist will find your practice online. And, of course, once patient numbers start to build, word of mouth should never be underestimated.”

Positioning your practice in a shopping centre or mall is a balancing act between exposure and overcapitalisation. However, if you decide to locate in a high-traffic, major thoroughfare then you need to up the design ante. “Signage in a shopping centre should be bolder or cleverer than a stand-alone practice,” says Geoff Raphael, design director of Medifit Design & Construct. “A shopping centre is full of very loud signage so a different or standout approach is needed just to be noticed. Make sure the directional signs are clear and easy to follow so that potential patients can easily find you. Your signage should communicate the core values of your practice and link in with your marketing message so that patients exposed to your marketing can easily recognise your practice.”

Raphael continues, “If you don’t capitalise on the passing foot traffic with clever branding and clever design in order to leave an imprint on shoppers minds then you’re paying top rent for no better return. It’s what catches their eye and says, ‘Hey, look here, we are not just an ordinary dental practice; we are something special’. The old fish aquarium just doesn’t cut it these days!”

Another positive aspect of working in a shopping centre is that the employees may receive a discount on goods or services purchased within the centre. Dr Sebastian has signed on many new clients thanks to one of these programs. “We give all staff a discount off any out-of-pocket expenses they might have.”

While the advantages of positioning a dental practice in a shopping centre are many, it’s still a balancing act between visibility, rent and over capitalisation. Low visibility practices need to be built slowly while centrally located practices need to offer more than ‘just another dental practice’.

8 ways a shopping centre can impact on a dental practice

1. Opening hours. There is virtually no choice but to set the practice opening hours to coincide with the shopping centre’s hours.

2. Rent. It is virtually impossible to own a retail space in a shopping centre. A lease is required, rent must be paid, and the better your position the higher the rent will be.

3. Neighbours. Let Dr Sebastian of Chadstone Dental explain: “We are very close to a Fitness First and when they run their pump classes, we can hear the doof-doof through the walls. You can’t pick your neighbours.”

4. Air-conditioning. Shopping centres use giant air-conditioners so when it’s hot outside and the AC is cranking, your small practice can end up freezing.

5. Lighting. Natural light can be minimal in a shopping centre so clever solutions may be required. “Hanging pendants, downlights and wall-mounted fixtures can combine to stunning effect with new generation low-energy bulbs for unique lighting with minimal running costs,” says Geoff Raphael of Medifit.

6. Size. Office space can be a little on the stingy side so effective space planning is crucial. Raphael suggests that “rooms can be used for more than one purpose. A staff room can be designed with integrated storage solutions for patient records, a compressor can be hidden in a hallway cabinet and there are plenty of clever design elements for treatment rooms.”

7. Demographics. A practice in a CBD mall is going to treat very few children. A practice in a suburban shopping centre is going to treat hundreds of them. You need to plan accordingly.

8. Safety. Most shopping centres are well lit, employ security and always have people around. It’s a safe environment for staff and usually doesn’t suffer from too much vandalism.

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