Malls are facing a midlife crisis Choices: At the age of 40, the mall has long lost its novelty and is bruised by competition from other retail modes.

Sun Journal

December 20, 1996|By Arthur Hirsch | Arthur Hirsch,SUN STAFF

This week before Christmas, the American shopping mall seems in the prime of life. Cars crowd parking lots, customers jam food courts and stream through stores deep into late holiday shopping hours. Amid evergreen wreaths and red ribbon, all appears well.

But the mall is facing a midlife crisis. Buffeted by competition from discount stores, mail-order catalogs and revitalized downtown shops, its novelty as a leisure destination faded, the shopping mall at 40 years old is struggling to redefine its place in the country's landscape.

"It's a time of transition for the enclosed mall," says Michael Beyard, senior director of research for the Urban Land Institute in Washington. "The era of rapid construction of the enclosed mall is over."

"We're in an epochal transition in retail," he says.

It's a time of "examination," says William Roop, president of Stillerman Jones & Co. Inc., a shopping mall research firm in Indianapolis. "The industry is taking stock of itself, trying to find out what the customer wants."

That wasn't so hard in the old days, and the old days were not so long ago.

Born in 1956 in a suburb of Minneapolis, the enclosed shopping mall through the late 1960s and early 1980s flourished as people fled cities for suburbia. What the customer wanted were malls and more malls.

First came Southdale (near Minneapolis), then Harundale (in Anne Arundel County, the first enclosed mall east of the Mississippi), then so many other Dales and Villages and Plazas and Gates and Centers, rising, as writer Joan Didion put it, "like pyramids to the boom years."

The mall was not just a place to shop, it was a place to be. In the late 1970s the Mall of New Hampshire, outside the state's largest city, Manchester, touted itself as "a beautiful way to spend the day."

And so it seemed -- the walkways clean and secure, the air warm in winter and cool in summer, the parking so abundant. All of it new, an experience.

By the early 1990s, the number of malls had reached 1,800. But the boom had come and gone: Some older malls are now on their second or third major renovation and expansion.

With the proliferation of national chain stores, one mall looks much like another. Not only has the mall lost its novelty appeal, it is also facing competition for consumers' time and money from other shopping and entertainment choices.

Last February, the Wall Street Journal reported that more national retailers were discovering the virtues of downtown streets, aesthetic as well as economic.

Real estate investor Steven Guttman, of Federal Realty Investment Trust in Bethesda, said at the time that "customers are getting tired of malls." Gary Friedman, executive vice president of Williams-Sonoma, said people were experiencing the "de-malling of America."

There's even evidence to suggest that teen-agers, long considered the most loyal members of the mall congregation, are losing zeal. A survey of 2,000 teens released last spring by Teenage Research Unlimited found that fewer than half said hanging out at the mall was the thing to do. Three years ago, nearly three of four said it was.

Stillerman Jones' annual survey of customers in 72 shopping centers across the country shows that shoppers have been spending about $53 per mall visit the past five years, but they've been visiting less frequently.

In 1989, shoppers said they visited a mall 3.7 times a month; last year the figure was 3.3 visits. They're also spending less time per visit: 66 minutes last year compared with a high of 72 in 1992.

Gary Bowden, senior vice president of the Baltimore-based architectural firm RTKL Associates, one of the country's largest designers of shopping malls, says two forces "are driving the retail equation: value and time."

Mall managers and designers are working the time factor from two directions, says Bowden. First, they're clustering similar stores together so shoppers can go about their business more efficiently. Years ago, stores in a certain price or merchandise category would be spaced far apart so a shopper would have to walk the entire mall to visit them all.

Second, mall designers are doing what they can to capture as much of the customer's time as possible, in hopes of turning the mall into what Bowden calls an "all-purpose destination": The children can go to a movie, one parent goes to the gym, the other goes shopping, and everyone meets back at the food court.

Malls are offering services that were unheard-of 10 years ago. Malls in upstate New York and Tucson, Ariz., include library branches. A mall in Colonie, N.Y., has a chapel. Alongside the stores at the CambridgeSide Galleria in Massachusetts is a branch of the Sports Museum of New England.

To lure customers, malls are devoting more space to entertainment. Movies, video game parlors and areas devoted to virtual-reality computer graphics are part of the 1990s mall owners' answer to the competition, much of which is coming from discount stores.

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