I Left My Heart in an ‘A’ Mall

By Jordan K. Speer — July 06, 2017

Last month, and not for the first time, I took my very energetic daughter on a rainy evening to the nearby mall to run up and down the escalators. This mall was not particularly inviting or well trafficked when I moved to South Carolina more than two decades ago, even though at the time it was fully occupied by retailers. Today it’s virtually empty of both stores and people — so much so that not a single shopper came by during the 30 minutes that we were enjoying our own private Stairmaster.

Barnes & Noble and Belk, which have entrances on the outside, attract shoppers, and there’s a Gymboree and a LensCrafters, but that’s about it. Most store spaces lie empty with their grills down, but many of the spaces have been converted into non-retail venues. A local children’s theatre moved into the mall several years back, as did several businesses. Part of the common space outside a former anchor store (once Dillard’s, then an antiques mall of sorts, now vacant) sprung a group of ping pong tables and a ping pong club.

The decline in foot traffic, and subsequent store closings over the years of this particular mall has little to do with the location and demographics and everything to do with the feng shui of the place, if you ask me. The land around it slopes down to the mall in a way that is discomfiting. The Belk sits squarely in the middle of the mall, such that you cannot get from one side of the mall to the other without walking through it. I’m sure that seemed like a win for that retailer, but it actually creates a claustrophobic feeling. It’s the layout and its lack of openness that keeps people away. I feel quite certain that if the developer were to raze the structure and rebuild as a lifestyle mall, the customers would come, in droves.

There are many malls around the country that are struggling for various reasons, whether it be that they are old and unappealing, or that they are located in areas where the economy is on the ropes. Mostly, however, the United States is simply “littered with retail,” says KPMG’s Mike Adorno, with three times the retail space per person compared to Europe. That’s a lot of space to begin with, and today, 20 percent of all shopping (excluding big ticket items such as cars) takes places online. Even for in-store purchases, much of the shopping journey takes place online.

What does this mean for the future of the mall? “’A’ malls are getting better. ‘B’ malls are on the margin, and ‘C’ malls are slowly but surely transferring their footprint to other uses, such as offices, skating rinks, and so forth,” says Adorno.

Did you hear that? No, not the last part, the first part. ‘A’ malls are getting better! How are they getting better? Malls and stores are remodeling and renovating, they are entertaining and delighting consumers (those Lego sculptures aren’t just for décor, they are selfie-taking magnets), and they are bringing the digital experience in-store with digital signage, mobile POS, kiosks, and perhaps most importantly, by connecting to the consumer on her smartphone. “The entire retail growth model was built on real estate: location, location, location. Well, guess what? … Location, location, location is now focused on your phone. … The notion of real estate is, do you have an icon that has an app, and are you on the first screen of the phone, or the third screen of the phone?”

The first screen is like an ‘A’ mall. Retailers must now seek prime real estate on the street and on your phone. Succeeding at both is a win-win, because research shows that consumers who shop multiple channels spend more in both and have a 30 percent higher lifetime value.

Retailers that can bring their digital and physical spaces together seamlessly to provide an easy, fun and meaningful experience for the consumer will win her loyalty. And that leads to capturing real estate in the most crucial location of all: her heart.

Jordan K. Speer is editor in chief of Apparel. She can be reached at [email protected]

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