Attention, shoppers: Malls will cut hours

Owners, retailers look to trim labor and utility costs as spending falls

March 24, 2009|By Andrea K. Walker | Andrea K. Walker,andrea.walker@baltsun.com

Consumers might want to check the closing and opening times of their favorite stores or mall next time they head out to shop.

As retailers and malls deal with one of the worst sales climates in years, many are shortening their hours to save money during times when fewer shoppers are coming in anyway.

Financially troubled General Growth Properties told merchants at several of its malls Monday that it will cut from a half-hour to two hours off its daily operating times beginning in May. It follows mall companies Simon Property Group and Westfield, which previously announced they are closing malls earlier and opening later. Baltimore County's Security Square Mall also recently reduced its hours.

Retailers such as Barnes & Noble bookstores and Bloomingdale's are also cutting hours.

Industry experts said retailers and malls are looking for ways to respond to declines in customer traffic and sales resulting from the recession. The holiday season was the worst in at least 40 years, and research firm Retail Forward forecasts a grim outlook of flat to negative growth across most retail stores through most of this year.

"There are very few retailers out there who aren't feeling the impact of the economy," said Mary Brett Whitfield, a senior vice president of Retail Forward. "They're looking at ways to do what they can to maintain their financial health ... so when the economy does improve they will be well-positioned."

But others believe that by shortening hours, retailers risk losing even more customers who are used to shopping at certain times.

"I think it's absolutely ludicrous," said George Whalin, owner of consulting firm Retail Management Consultants. "If your business is difficult and you're trying to get more customers through the door, the thing you don't want to do is irritate your customers by reducing the hours. Particularly if you are a shopping center that for the last 20 or 30 years has opened and closed at the same time and you've trained the customer to know what your hours are."

Cutting hours won't save tons of money, industry experts said. But it can help with labor costs and the cost of utilities to keep a store open. It could help stave off closing a store.

"I think what retailers are trying to do is align their cost structure with their anticipated revenue during this time period," Whitfield said. "Other than inventory, one of retailers' most significant costs is the sales force. If shoppers aren't shopping, particularly at the end or beginning of the day, it certainly makes sense to shorten the hours."

Angela Bergamy, the manager of Hanna Andersson at Westfield Annapolis mall, said she welcomed the shortened hours. She said most of the shoppers at her children's clothing store are mothers who are done shopping as early as 3 p.m.

"It was a great idea for them to help us; it makes sense," Bergamy said. "We could probably close at 6 or 7 every night and that would be great."

Westfield recently shortened the hours at most of its 55 U.S. malls. The Annapolis location opens a half-hour later and closes a half-hour earlier during the week, and closes a half-hour earlier on Saturday. Sunday hours stayed the same.

General Growth, which is trying to avoid filing for bankruptcy protection, is changing the hours at many of its malls across the country, including Baltimore-area locations White Marsh Mall, Owings Mills Mall, Towson Town Center, Mondawmin Mall and The Mall in Columbia. The malls will close a half-hour earlier Monday through Thursday and close an hour earlier Friday and Saturday. On Sunday, the malls will open an hour later.

"Shopping patterns change constantly," said Jessica Bloom, senior marketing manager at Towson Town Center. "A number of years ago, we expanded [hours] to match Target and other big-box stores. During these economic times we want to be sensitive to follow what will utilize our retailers' resources to the best and meet our customer needs."

Barnes & Noble is reducing the hours at some of its stores, depending on whether they're seeing less traffic. The stores in Towson and Ellicott City will close an hour earlier on some nights, for instance.

"Recently, some of our stores have shortened their hours, usually only by an hour or so, based on the challenging retail environment and the effect the economy has had on customer buying patterns," said Carolyn Brown, a spokeswoman for the book chain.

Simon Property Group, which owns Arundel Mills and Marley Station, reduced hours at 20 of its 324 U.S. malls, but none in Maryland.

"We want to operate our properties in the most efficient and conservative manner possible, while keeping the best interest of our shoppers and retailers in mind," said Les Morris, spokesman for Simon Property Group.

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