Can parking lots save the mall?

Discussion
Photo: Northgate Mall, Durham, NC
Apr 26, 2017
Tom Ryan

To stimulate traffic, many malls are hosting events — ranging from carnivals to food-truck festivals, concerts, drive-in movies and car shows — in their parking lots.

According to a report from Bloomberg, mall owners can net as much as $60,000 a week from the largest outdoor events. Stores, particularly anchor department stores that own parking lot rights, can rent the use of the space. But event can also draw attention to the stores inside the mall. Mall tenants often hand out fliers and coupon books during the events.

“Events brings that additional traffic and also encourage people to stick around longer,” Lisa Harper, senior director of specialty leasing for mall-owner CBL & Associates Properties, told Bloomberg.

The report noted that a few malls are holding such events for the first time, but carnivals and other weekend events — both indoor and outdoor — have been held at some malls for years. The events often support local civic organizations or charities.

Stlll, mall operators appear to have become more creative with such events over the years:

  • The Northgate Mall in Durham, NC holds Music on the Plaza on Friday nights during the summer, featuring beer and wine as well as a rotating list of food trucks.
  • On April 22, the MainPlace Mall in Santa Ana, CA hosted the Meat Street Festival featuring “a wide variety of delicious and crazy exclusive culinary creations, as well as drinks and other fun activities.” The event was sponsored by the makers of Spam.
  • The Cordova Mall in Pensacola, FL on April 22 held its 4th annual Chocolate Fest. For $15, attendees sampled chocolate treats from local restaurants such Krispy Kreme, Olive Garden, Sam’s Fun City, Red Lobster and Szotski’s Cheesecakes.
  • Nearly 50 LEGO models from many different genres — including characters from The LEGO Batman Movie, Disney princesses and galactic fighters from Star Wars — will be on display at The Gardens Mall in Palm Beach Gardens, FL from April 28 to May 15 as part of a “LEGO Takeover!” Fans can take selfies or build their own creations.

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS: Should malls ramp up weekend events to revive traffic? Do you see more pros than cons to such events?

Please practice The RetailWire Golden Rule when submitting your comments.
Braintrust
"Yes, they should. The more local, the better. "
"The real challenge is translating these festivalgoers into not only revenue for the mall operator, but also for the retailers."
"As long as the products offered in the parking lot support the tenants and don’t compete, then why not?"

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25 Comments on "Can parking lots save the mall?"


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Ken Lonyai
BrainTrust

Parking lot mall events are a band-aid trying to cover an underlying problem. If that’s the strategy to revive/save malls, time to kiss malls goodbye.

Festivals don’t change the fundamentals of retail and the fundamentals (in an e-commerce world) are what is killing malls.

Paula Rosenblum
BrainTrust

Yes, they should. The more local, the better. Malls are the epitome of a “sea of sameness.” You can’t tell if you’re in Dallas or Boston when you stroll through one. If the stores are going to be basically the same, then the environment has to feel local. Someone told me yesterday that an entire wing of the Aventura Mall is going to have stages, food and events put on by local schools. It still won’t get me through the traffic, but I’m sure a lot of others will go there!

Max Goldberg
Guest

Malls need to do whatever it takes to attract crowds. Festivals and events are great ways for malls to stay relevant. Mall owners should work with their retailers to entice attendees into the building.

Ralph Jacobson
BrainTrust

Malls by their very nature are intended to be central draws for shoppers. If the retail tenants alone aren’t enough to bring in the desired audience, they must create additional draws to bring in the business. I’d like to think that most events like those mentioned above also create impulse shopping opportunities for the mall tenants.

Meaghan Brophy
BrainTrust
Meaghan Brophy
Senior Retail Writer
2 years 6 months ago

While I like this idea (and have attended several of these events myself), weekend events won’t solve any underlying problems for malls. I’m not sure how many people who attend these parking lot events actually go inside to shop. And the crowds could deter actual shoppers. The real challenge is translating these festivalgoers into not only revenue for the mall operator, but also for the retailers.

Richard Layman
Guest
2 years 6 months ago
A few years ago I was at the CNU conference, and one of the presenters was a night market creator and operator from Australia. A guy from Hines came up to him and started talking about how they could activate the parking lots at a particular mall that happens to be in my metropolitan area and I am familiar with it. It’s 20 miles + from downtown Washington and comparatively isolated in terms of developing a “walkable” experience. I said “just tear the mall down.” A few weeks ago it went into its second foreclosure. Anyway, events in parking lots merely extends the lifestyle center concept to the mall. It will work for some and not others. The thing is that events are best capitalized on by independent retailers, not chains (how does Gap do a special event related promotion?), especially when store “managers” have no span of control over what they do. So there is a disconnect between the type of store, events, and activation. But when I worked as a commercial district revitalization… Read more »
Richard J. George, Ph.D.
BrainTrust

On the surface, I think the idea of using mall parking lots to create excitement is a good one. However, malls as we know them today are threatened by forces that cannot be remedied by parking lot events that have no real connection to the retailers inside the mall.

On the other hand, supermarkets could better use their massive parking lots to tie into their inside operations. For example in a dedicated part of the parking lot, offer a corn on the cob eating contest, a fresh crab boil, a weekly farmer’s market, a space for dog groomers to do their thing, etc. The key is to use this space to create the noted excitement as well as drive customers into the store. These operators don’t need carnivals, car shows or concerts. Instead make it focused and relevant to the stores’ brand and operations.

Richard Layman
Guest
2 years 6 months ago

FWIW, I’ve been making this point for more than 10 years with regard to urban settings and supermarkets, based on the DC experience. Open storefronts in Manhattan, Queens, Brooklyn, on Mission Street in SF, or ethnic markets communicate how it could be and once was done. Whole Foods does this too. But generally, it’s out of the skill set for modern supermarkets. Andronicos (went through bankruptcy, private equity, and now consolidation into Safeway) used to do farmers markets at some of their stores.

Also, supermarkets could rebuild the sense of stores as “convenience retail headquarters” by creating space (adjacencies) for other convenience retailer and service businesses, e.g., dry cleaners, shoe repair, etc.

Jasmine Glasheen
BrainTrust

I’d be more excited if the events listed had anything to do with the mall’s stores. Sure, they’re utilizing parking lot space, but I’m not sure how such events are going to help mall retailers make sales.

What if the malls utilized carnival events and festivals to promote inventory that can be found within the mall’s stores? Can consumers play for insane discounts or gift baskets? With a little creativity and forward thinking parking lot events could be a bigger draw for mall traffic.

Ed Rosenbaum
BrainTrust

Malls need to do something to revitalize and reinvent themselves. Certainly the stores are still the same stores. I recall a few years ago one of the malls had a police motorcycle skills demonstration in the parking lot. It drew people to the demo, but I am not sure how much the mall store traffic was improved. Seems to me we have had similar discussions in the past on how to revitalize malls.

Bob Phibbs
BrainTrust

When I was just starting out and the fax machine was cutting-edge, I worked in malls. Gradually they started adding “craft festivals” and all kinds of temporary kiosks into the hallways. This made it particularly tough to navigate on busy weekends and meant more people looked to get around things than looked at retailers. Eventually, they realized these were distractions and they were discontinued.

I would say parking lot events are the same. You don’t get people to malls in spite of the retailers – it has to be synergistic.

J. Peter Deeb
Guest

Outside events, whether of local interest or more generic events like carnivals, are only a short-term stimulus for shopping malls. The evolution of shopping is working against most malls and it may be time to recognize this and move to more relevant methods to attract customers by developing better online programs, carrying unique items and running in-store events that stimulate traffic. Parking lot events don’t necessarily translate to in-store traffic.

Sean Wargo
Guest
I agree with the notion that this is a Band-Aid approach to the underlying problem. Or put another way, the lipstick on a pig in some cases. Sure a festival brings a crowd, but for what lasting purpose? These crowds are attracted by the event and when it is gone they are gone. The theory may be an awareness campaign sort of idea, in which the event gets customers to see what the mall has to offer and they will then come back. More likely, they don’t get past the parking lot. Thus we have to ask, what are the real reasons why mall crowds are down? The shift to e-commerce is a part of it. But there is also some needed change in the typical store experience in order for consumers to come back. More than outside events as social experiences, the stores themselves need to figure out how to bring the social aspect into the store and to do a better job of extending the online experience into the store. Sure these are… Read more »
Jan Rogers Kniffen
Guest
2 years 6 months ago

If traffic to the mall is so bad that the mall does not need the parking lot for mall patrons, the game is over anyway. And apparently the malls that are doing this not only have room for “an event” and parking for that event, but enough parking for customers of the mall-based stores as well. Sounds like they are just trying to hold off the death rattle.

Ian Percy
BrainTrust

You are calling it like it is, Jan. Totally agree.

Richard Layman
Guest
2 years 6 months ago

Mostly, zoning codes for parking require an amount of parking far in excess of normal demand.

Ian Percy
BrainTrust

As we heard on the news this morning, a proposed “tax cut” isn’t the same as “tax reform.” Lousy metaphor maybe, but using the parking lot for events isn’t the same as reforming the mall.

Why exactly do we want to put the mall on life-support? Maybe it’s past its “best before” date. If I were given a mall to do with as I wished, I’d turn it into the mother of all vertical farming operations.

Ken Morris
BrainTrust
Ken Morris
Retail industry thought leader
2 years 6 months ago

Malls definitely need to find creative ways to bring more consumers to their locations and compelling events will certainly help. The key will be how effectively the individual retailers capitalize on the semi-captive audience in close proximity. Whether it’s flyers with coupons or mobile alerts with special promotions, retailers need to offer event attendees something compelling to visit their store. The key here is to know the customer. The Natick Mall in Massachusetts recently added a Tesla dealership … people are lined up to make deposits. They understand their customer base.

The only potential down-side to special events at malls that I see is increased traffic and congestion that may annoy customers that are coming to the mall for a real shopping trip. It could potentially drive some paying customers away. However, the benefits of increased foot traffic and potential sales should offset the traffic congestion.

Jerry Gelsomino
Guest

Sure, why not use the parking lot to host events? It may not solve the basic mall problem, but in the short term it can build a unique community based on the unique location. BTW, what about the acoustics? Is this a constraint or opportunity?

Peter Charness
BrainTrust

Let’s see, it’s ok to have a “pick up from online” outside a store where a customer never enters the (mall) store, but getting people to the parking lot of a mall to go shopping isn’t ok? As long as the products offered in the parking lot support the tenants and don’t compete, then why not? It’s just a sidewalk sale move a little bit outside … if it doesn’t support the tenants, than I’d say the mall operator is being short sighted.

Craig Sundstrom
Guest

Obviously it depends on the type and frequency of events, and the location of the mall (isolated vs. in a built-up area). It appears I’m more pessimistic than the poll respondents — whether I’m just gloomy or am envisioning a worst-case scenario they aren’t, I don’t know — and can see property owners quickly getting in over their heads as they move into mass-crowd events. Ideally good sense and restrictions, whether they come from government, lenders or property covenants, would screen out ill-conceived ideas, but the headline “desperate malls” gives me pause … desperate doesn’t usually lead to an optimum outcome.

Shep Hyken
BrainTrust

Lisa Harper of CBI says it perfectly: “Events brings that additional traffic and also encourage people to stick around longer.” More traffic on the parking lot is good (as long as it doesn’t create a hassle for regular “mall goers.” Someone once said, “The rising tide lifts all boats.” More traffic on the parking lot can mean more traffic in the mall.

Bill Hanifin
BrainTrust

Entertainment and dining events external to the mall itself will generate more traffic and surely stimulate impromptu visits by consumers passing by the mall property.

Some restaurant tenants in the mall may have competitive concerns, but if the mall property managers are thoughtful about selecting vendors for the outside events, all activities can be viewed as complementary, not competitive.

Some successful malls have an existing parking problem, i.e. the space available on a given day may be very limited to stage an outside event. Maybe there is self-selection at work. If parking is widely available, it may be an indicator of slow traffic and sections of the parking lot can be identified for these “fun” events.

Organizing events in a series or linking them together under a specific theme, may generate repeat visits from interested consumers.

Retailfan
Guest
2 years 6 months ago

I am not sure parking lots can save the malls. Attractive parking lots with nicely planted trees and garden blocks where people can take a stroll would certainly add to the attractiveness of low/mid tier malls.

What can save the malls is the stores inside. Foot traffic can increase when department stores hold events such as cooking demos and events, free fashion shoots with real people inside the stores, make-up events, etc. Of course all this requires space within the stores, and that is why it would work more with department stores, I think.

Christopher P. Ramey
BrainTrust

Why not? Leverage every asset.

If the stores don’t pull people on to the property then find someone/something that will.

We can solve structural issues only by creating a new construct.

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Braintrust
"Yes, they should. The more local, the better. "
"The real challenge is translating these festivalgoers into not only revenue for the mall operator, but also for the retailers."
"As long as the products offered in the parking lot support the tenants and don’t compete, then why not?"

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