Some shopping malls are taking a cue from their big-box retail competitors by opening their doors earlier and leaving them unlocked a little bit later.
Many retail consultants believe General Growth Properties' decision last month to expand its hours at most of its more than 200 malls across the country - including several in the Baltimore area - could mark the beginning of a trend for the nation's shopping centers.
The Chicago-based company is adding a few hours on weekend mornings and evenings in hopes of drawing more shoppers who say they want the added convenience. It's a departure, however, from the normally staid world of shopping malls, where hours typically change only during the busy holiday shopping season.
But some retail consultants said fewer hours aren't the reason shopping malls keep losing market share to the rest of the retail world - price and merchandise remain the biggest obstacle. And some doubt the added weekend time will make much difference as malls work to remain relevant in the lives of shoppers, who can pretty much buy whatever they want 24/7.
For shopping centers that have lost customers to giants like Target Corp. and Wal-Mart Stores Inc., General Growth's adjustment to its hours further highlights how the once trend-setting malls are trying to keep pace with their larger competitors, industry watchers say.
"I'm sure they'll do business but the question is how much more business they'll do," said Britt of Beemer, founder of America's Research Group, which tracks consumer shopping habits. "It's going to make them feel good, and they'll be able to tell Wall Street this is what we have to do to go up against Wal-Mart. But until they get the merchandising right, consumers don't care when you open."
Others said malls have no choice but to try.
"I think when you're losing market share you have to try to do new things," said Howard Davidowitz, chairman of Davidowitz & Associates, a New York-based retail consulting and investment banking firm. "I think this is something to experiment with."
General Growth, which owns malls in 44 states and purchased the Columbia-based Rouse Co. in 2004, said it decided to change its hours after a survey found customers wanted more time to shop. Two-thirds of consumers who responded to the survey said they would like longer hours, the company said. It marks the first time General Growth has changed its hours beyond the holiday season.
"Shoppers have gotten used to shopping whenever they're available and whenever it's convenient to them," said Lisa Bisenius, group vice president of marketing for General Growth. "They are more time-strapped and overcommitted in a number of ways and they need to have our flexibility."
Last month, General Growth began opening earlier and closing later at malls such as Towson Town Center, Owings Mills Mall, White Marsh Mall, The Mall in Columbia and Mondawmin Mall. While most of the hours were changed across the country, the company made exceptions for certain neighborhoods where it did not believe the demand warranted it, including Harborplace in Baltimore.
Officials with the International Council of Shopping Centers said General Growth is the only mall company to expand its hours across the board but that the industry is watching to see how it develops.
"I think you need that year or length of time to benchmark it before we make the decision of whether it's good, bad or indifferent," said Patrice Duker, a spokeswoman for the trade group.
Analysts said extended hours also are the latest way that malls are trying to compete after enjoying years of being a top spot for shopping. As America's shopping habits have changed, the local shopping mall has become less important to consumers. Indeed, no new traditional enclosed malls are expected to be built this year, according to the shopping center trade group.
Malls have been transforming themselves in recent years in hopes of winning back customers. Some have replaced department store anchors with more nontraditional stores. For instance, Security Square Mall in Woodlawn has an Asian grocery store as a main anchor.
Not all malls have been hurt. Smaller regional malls seem to have suffered more than the larger malls that cater to higher-income consumers. Towson Town Center, which is in an affluent part of the state, has expansion plans.
Most malls have stuck to traditional closing times such as 9 p.m. except during the holiday season when they have offered extended hours. Some malls, including Prime Outlet Queenstown, experimented with midnight openings on Black Friday, the popular shopping day after Thanksgiving.
Some malls in tourist areas such as Las Vegas and Florida stay open later, analysts said, but they're the exception.