How to save today’s mall

Discussion
Source: American Dream Mall/DreamWorks Water Park
Mar 22, 2021

EVP, Thought Leadership & Marketing, WD Partners; and Barrie Scardina, Head of Retail for the Americas, Cushman & Wakefield

Through a special arrangement, what follows is a summary of an article from WayfinD, a quarterly e-magazine filled with insights, trends and predictions from the retail and foodservice experts at WD Partners.

New food ideas and health & wellness both rank highest as concepts that would increase consumers’ visits to the mall, according to an ongoing study from Cushman & Wakefield and WD Partners.

The idea of new food concepts for malls was the winner two years in a row. Consumers didn’t just mention restaurants, they also cited interest in grocery, farmer’s markets and curated food halls, which are not like the existing quick service food models. Food brings us together. It is an important point of engagement, offers memorable moments and can be the cornerstone of a community. Food also drives traffic and extends mall foot traffic beyond the conventional store hours. Over 60 percent of those surveyed focused on this amenity.

Health & wellness came in a strong second two years in a row, with 43 percent surveyed leaning towards wellness and 36 percent towards fitness. Consumers continue to see tremendous value in staying well and physically fit. These concepts include the obvious walk-in medical clinics and gyms, to brands that sell fitness equipment and apparel.

New concepts and experiences were third, with 35 percent of consumers looking for new concepts, experiential retail and co-working spaces. These include pop-up shops, ax throwing bars and gaming arenas. Some of these concepts are new additions to the survey, illustrating how retail is evolving and focusing on consumer engagement.

Also emerging as an important trend were convenience factors like Buy Online Pick-Up in Store (BOPIS) and Curbside Pick-Up. Consumers also indicated that “green space” would be an important part of engagement. These trends are not surprising, given the pandemic’s impact on consumer behaviors and experiences.

When analyzing the data by age, WD Partners reviewed the differences between two key groups — Digital Natives (ages 18- 29) and Digital Immigrants (ages 45-60). We found that food continued to be the biggest draw and that the largest spreads were in the areas of fitness (19 percent spread) and gaming (18 percent spread). All age groups were focused on safety and wellness, as well as co-working spaces. Digital Immigrants, who grew up in malls, have a greater attachment to the structure and purpose of malls. Digital Natives are looking for a more creative experience overall.

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS: Has the pandemic changed what may be necessary to revive traffic at malls in the years ahead? Which concepts should mall landlords be looking to add to reach younger consumers? 

Please practice The RetailWire Golden Rule when submitting your comments.
Braintrust
"What if the food court was operated more like a specialty store? "
"I think all mall shoppers would welcome new, exciting and more creative experiences, especially food options."
"Let’s be honest, this article isn’t about saving “today’s” mall, it’s about replacing the space with something else."

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30 Comments on "How to save today’s mall"


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Mark Ryski
BrainTrust

It seems to me that shoppers have been asking for the same thing in malls for years – food, entertainment, activities. And I agree, these are all compelling reasons to visit the mall. But getting traffic into the mall is only the first step, the next is to get people to shop the stores. I don’t think there are any silver bullets for malls to compel people to visit. It’s clear that younger people want experiences and food is a draw for everyone. But this isn’t just about creating experiences in the mall. If retailers are going to be successful – in the mall or anywhere – they need to create great store experiences and deliver a value proposition that shoppers want.

Gene Detroyer
BrainTrust

For years many malls have instituted food, entertainment and activities. They have not proved to be the “silver bullet” to increase traffic. Why?

What is the competition? The competition is people’s time. Time is finite. For someone to go back to the mall, malls must give us something else. There are new things that are taking up people’s time (many of them digital with access at home) that people are not going to give up to go to the mall.

Let’s be honest with ourselves. In the golden age of malls, shopping was entertainment. It hasn’t been that for years and less so with the younger generations.

Jeff Sward
BrainTrust

What if the food court was operated more like a specialty store? What if they offered something above and beyond the same burger, the same slice of pizza, the same burrito, the same sandwich? The food court has done a good job on the basics. Now how about some novelty and “fashion”? Some rotating, curated, seasonal freshness? Something unexpected? How about a treasure hunt experience in the food court?

Bob Amster
BrainTrust

Outdoor malls are more attractive than indoor malls. Where the weather permits, outdoor malls will continue to thrive. Entertainment and food options will become de rigueur. The problem with gaming arenas is that they may become a gathering place for non-shoppers and real shoppers may not like that. Fitness clubs can create traffic for the malls but, since they will have a separate outdoor entrance, members can bypass the mall entirely. Notwithstanding what malls can offer, there will be fewer of them.

Gary Sankary
BrainTrust

Bob you are 100 percent right. The only caveat is, outdoor malls are so compelling now that even in places where the climate does NOT permit, or at least where you would think it doesn’t permit, like where I live (Minnesota) the outdoor malls are packed. In my experience even subfreezing weather and snow doesn’t keep people away. And I don’t believe that it’s just because we’re “hearty” Minnesotans. OK maybe a bit of that but you take my point.

Jeff Weidauer
BrainTrust

What’s clear is that the mall needs to offer something that can’t be had online. Malls will need to become destinations beyond shopping hubs and food courts. As consumers begin to venture out again it’s a good time to start trialing other options.

Dick Seesel
BrainTrust

The pandemic has only accelerated the need to reinvent the mall, especially as longtime anchors and specialty tenants shut their doors. This was a problem that predated 2020, with dozens of once-thriving malls around the country turning into B and C malls (or worse yet, zombie malls). As Mark rightly notes, it’s all about the “merchandise mix” inside the mall and the traffic generated by that mix.

Replacing a demolished Sears store with a multiplex might drive people to that end of the mall, but what compels them to stay and shop? If an empty J.C. Penney store is converted into a spa and fitness center (assuming traffic returns to gyms), is the mall’s tenant mix compatible with that lifestyle? These aren’t simple questions to answer without a real strategic vision of how to reposition an entire mall.

Gary Sankary
BrainTrust

Everything goes back to the value proposition. Give people a compelling reason to come to a place and they will. The idea of walking up and down a mall filled with stores is not really compelling. Add entertainment options and interesting dining options and they will come. But only for a while. What many suburban malls failed to realize is that there is always something new and more interesting in the marketplace and if you don’t refresh your business and create new experiences that are on trend, people will stop coming.

DeAnn Campbell
BrainTrust

Malls have been too slow to keep up with evolving consumer habits. The design and operation of the indoor shopping mall hasn’t changed one iota since its inception in the 1950s. Shoppers don’t want theme parks, they want better retail to keep them engaged. Shopping Center owners should get busy developing their own digital marketplaces before Walmart and every other major retailer beat them to it. By combining the power of a mall-run e-commerce platform with the benefits of existing brick-and-mortar already within communities, malls would regain the ability to attract an almost infinite range of retailers and services providers. This would give mall owners the ability create a truly dynamic and exciting environment to put shopping malls top of mind on the consumer’s path to purchase.

Gene Detroyer
BrainTrust

I think your analysis is spot on. However I don’t know if there is an answer at all. Maybe the best return is to kill the dinosaur and start from scratch, with a piece of property and a blank sheet of paper.

Kai Clarke
BrainTrust

The best way to save today’s mall is to get rid of them. Malls are outdated retailing dinosaurs which have become pandemic super spreader locations. That means this concept is just waiting for the next virus to arrive (and it will), while it has to fight the shift to direct-to-consumer/online efficiency. A high risk, catastrophic model that is less and less able to make profits with each day.

Ian Percy
BrainTrust

Let’s be honest, this article isn’t about saving “today’s” mall, it’s about replacing the space with something else.

With people getting used to having everything delivered to them immediately or driving to a store where they don’t even get out of the car, this is going to be quite the challenge. But if mall owners are going to try, the food sector is a good place to focus especially if it includes vertical farming so people (kids especially) can pick their lettuce right out of the ground. The entertainment focus won’t differentiate one mall from another and means 90 percent of the activity will be relegated to weekends.

Personally I vote for a big imaginative dog park. I’d pay monthly dues for that.

Gene Detroyer
BrainTrust

The first question to ask is “Why do you want to save the mall?”

Is it because there is an investment in real estate and that real estate isn’t earning the same returns they used to? Is it because WE MUST return to the retail that we have experience in the last 50 plus years?

Did we wring our hands like this when malls destroyed Main Street? Or, as we did then, should we just look at it as creative destruction? Should the question be, “How do we re-develop the real estate for a more profitable and modern alternative, that may not be retail at all?”

DeAnn Campbell
BrainTrust

It’s important to return malls to economic profitability for many, many reasons. From the community perspective, it’s far preferable to have locally relevant stores and services rather than a giant fulfillment center for Amazon. Healthy malls would enhance quality of community life if the mix of goods and services were more engaging and locally relevant — offer access to short term pop-ups for direct-to-consumer wares, provide a local spot for centralized pickup and the return of online purchases, create affordable space for remote workers, offer an upscale evening dining experience centered around food delivery from local community bistros. Focus on personalizing the mix to each community to place malls top of mind to consumers. Equally important – healthy malls also offer the benefits of better quality employment and higher tax revenues for the community.

Gene Detroyer
BrainTrust

“It’s important to return malls to economic profitability for many, many reasons. From the community perspective, it’s far preferable to have locally relevant stores and services… Healthy malls would enhance quality of community life if the mix of goods and services were more engaging and locally relevant ”

Are you talking Main Street rather than malls? For malls to be successful, they must draw from a wide range of towns and communities. The community orientation for a mall is a pretention, not a reality.

Ian Percy
BrainTrust

Well put, Gene! There are certain things in our society and culture that become sacred cows when they don’t deserve to be. “Malls” may be one of them. Like not wearing white after Labor Day. I remember as a kid visiting the very first strip mall up in Toronto called “The Golden Mile” and thinking nothing could be more amazing. Its demise is an emotional wound I carry to this day. 🙂

Georganne Bender
BrainTrust
In the ’90s, when my kids were little, the mall was an important place because of all the activities that kept people close. There were many times we went to the mall not to shop, but ended up spending money in the stores anyway. Back then there were scheduled activities every month. We had concerts featuring local groups and newcomers like Avril Lavigne. When the new Nancy Drew movie came out Emma Roberts made an appearance and kids went crazy. Barnes & Noble has Harry Potter events. There was a mind-numbingly inappropriate replica of the Titanic repositioned as a children’s slide. And there was a Pokémon event that drew over 5,000 people. And then it all stopped and we were left with the same stores that were in every other mall, selling the same merchandise, and the food court lacked variety. It’s like the people who ran the malls just gave up. Everything that Lee talks about in the article could be a draw, but the malls themselves have to stop phoning it in and… Read more »
Brandon Rael
BrainTrust

The pandemic has been the great acceleration for so many consumer behavior shifts, and retailers and brands have been scrambling to respond to the changes. However the mall and department store sectors faced significant disruption before the pandemic. The indoor shopping malls have not shifted their strategies to reflect Gen Z and the Millennials’ needs and desires.

Whereas the mall used to be the center of weekend adventures and the place to discover new products and experiences, consumers have far more choices, including strip malls, downtown shops, and Big Box stores to fulfill their needs. As the pandemic subsides, the mall landlords and the retail tenants have an opportunity to capture the next generation’s interest with the right level of innovation, creativity, and places to discover.

A welcome development occurred when the NYC-based Hudson Yards opened back in 2019. The Related Companies positioned the 2nd floor where customers could discover innovative retail models, taking the journey from digital to brick-and-mortar. More welcome developments like this will give the shopping mall a fighting chance.

Ian Percy
BrainTrust

Brandon, your last paragraph reminds me of some remarkable mall-space conversions to a variety of senior living options. The Hudson Yards development is a great example. Live, work, shop, play all in one place.

Brandon Rael
BrainTrust

I completely agree. While COVID-19 put a pause to all the excitement at the Hudson Yards, the Related team is working to take a more agile, creative, and innovative approach to challenge and destroy the negative connotations of the stale and boring old shopping mall models.

Lisa Goller
BrainTrust

Yes, the pandemic made us mindful of crowds and wistful for casual social lingering. Prioritizing flexibility to continuously adapt to evolving needs will protect malls’ comeback and attract consumers of all ages.

Malls fulfill younger consumers’ timeless desire for fun, safe spaces to interact. Mall landlords can build connection and community with fun experiences that younger consumers enthusiastically share online.

Rejuvenation doesn’t require indoor skydiving. Mall magnets can include simple concepts like coffee bars, live cooking shows and one-of-a-kind artisan markets. As mixed-use spaces, malls can offer services like gyms, personal stylists and co-working areas that reflect the times.

Richard J. George, Ph.D.
BrainTrust

Think about malls pre-pandemic: anchor stores, specialty stores and a food court. Long ago malls missed the opportunity to recreate America’s small city downtown, replete with everything one would make a visit to on Main Street: post office, library, corner drugstore, bakery, hardware, local restaurant, gym, etc. On selected days there were farmer’s markets, dog grooming, fitness classes, wellness screening, etc. Now that the traditional malls have suffered the loss of anchor stores, specialty stores and the one-size-fits-all food court, there is a terrific opportunity for the mall to renew itself as Main Street USA.

David Mascitto
BrainTrust

The mall of tomorrow needs to be a destination: part amusement center, part micro-fulfillment center (for package pickup) part farmers market, with the addition of food courts, restaurants, bars and health and wellness centers. Customers should want to go to the mall for reasons other than shopping and will likely end up shopping once they are there.

David Adelman
Guest

Shopping malls needed to change long before the pandemic arrived. Architect Victor Gruen might just be reclaiming what became his most hated concept after creating unintended suburban sprawl back in 1956.

The pandemic has accelerated rapid change at the mall just as it has done with e-commerce and brick-and-mortar. We are now finally seeing the mall move to Gruen’s original vision: a town square.

We can’t expect a return to consumers not having to travel in their vehicles to these behemoth centers, however we can soon restart our much-needed social experiences here as the pandemic begins to subside.

With a shift to mixed-use, along with various food, entertainment, and unique local experiences, the mall might just become a community meeting place just as Gruen envisioned!

Andrew Blatherwick
BrainTrust
The biggest change that the pandemic has delivered is the break in shopping habits and the obvious increase in online retail. However, as part of that, BOPIS and curbside concepts have really taken off, which could be a lifeline to malls. Malls need to find ways of re-engaging with consumers, giving them an experience and a destination worth leaving home for. As many consumers have been experimenting with cooking at home plus the drive to buy more local, it makes a lot of sense that they would be looking for different food concepts, farmers markets and specialist food outlets. The old fast food businesses are really going to have to look at their offering to stay relevant. Malls also need to consider what else will make up that destination visit. Whether that’s gaming, health and fitness, cinemas or community projects, it will certainly not work just to offer retail outlets even if there were enough retailers to take all the space, which there is unlikely to be. Apple in particular followed by Samsung, Nike and… Read more »
Venky Ramesh
BrainTrust

Digital immigrants did not have a lot of options for entertainment growing up like the digital natives have today. Going to the mall was our idea of letting our hair down and having some fun (it’s difficult not to spend money while you are in there). For the digital natives, there are a lot more options that are available at their fingertip (literally). In order to attract them into the malls, mall owners need to think of themselves as a physical extension of their online world (e.g. Pokemon Go) and to help them tie the two by creating shoppable moments while they are in the mall.