Baltimore area malls fight to remain relevant to shoppers during holiday season

Towson Town Center was bustling: office workers hurried through the food court for lunch, a couple strolled past storefronts and a mother photographed her toddler at a reindeer display.

With the hyper-competitive holiday season looming, mall owner GGP has unveiled bold new directional signs inside and out, a new entrance on the Goucher Boulevard side and a high-tech parking system in the garages, all designed to make the shopping center brighter, safer and easier to navigate. Coming soon are two new restaurants, including a craft beer bar with outdoor dining, a shop targeting millennials and, eventually, possibly offices and medical facilities.

The mall’s latest makeover, completed just days before Black Friday, comes at a critical time, retail analysts say, as malls strive to remain relevant for modern consumers.

Once the bedrock of the American shopping experience, shopping malls are now in a fight for their lives, as online channels draw consumers away and department and specialty chains close stores by the thousands. Longtime anchors such as Sears, Macy’s and JCPenney are shuttering underperforming locations, giving consumers less reason to visit the mall.

But with the biggest shopping period of the year about to start, malls are pulling out all the stops to keep customers coming in.

“There’s still room for the malls,” said Iris Mohr, chairwoman of the marketing department at St. John’s University’s Peter J. Tobin College of Business in New York. “Shoppers now want a whole experience, and some malls are making changes.”

By pouring millions into remodeling and adding dining and entertainment venues, Mohr said, the malls aim to deliver experiences consumers desire and sell them the goods they want at the same time.

“It’s not any more about just going to the store and getting those discounts,” she said. “You can get those discounts online.”

Despite the “retail apocalypse” — the phenomenon of more than 4,000 store closings since last year that now has its own Wikipedia entry — consumers still are spending money.

Holiday shopping traditionally has kicked off on Black Friday. But retailers increasingly are trying to draw consumers earlier in November with promotions in stores and online that rival the day-after-Thanksgiving-Day deals.

American consumers are expected to increase their holiday spending this year by 4.5 percent, thanks to strong consumer confidence, rising home prices and low unemployment, according to FTI Consulting Inc. The National Retail Federation expects holiday retail sales of as much as $682 billion.

Online channels are expected to pull in about two-thirds of the projected increase, FTI said.

The shift in shopping from brick-and-mortar stores to online sites “has created an existential crisis for retailers,” said Christa Hart, a senior managing director in the retail and consumer products practice at FTI.

“This is not a fad that will pass,” Hart said. “Millennials are now the largest age demographic, and soon they will be entering their peak earning years. They do not view malls or stores as their preferred places of commerce or social gathering spots like previous generations did.”

Despite those trends, and the loss of some national brands to bankruptcies, the 17-year-old Arundel Mills in Hanover has managed to keep its occupancy close to 100 percent, said Gene Condon, the mall’s vice president and general manager. Condon said the mall’s formula — blending traditional stores and branded outlet stores with dining and entertainment tenants such as Dave & Buster’s and Cinemark Theatres — works. The center also benefits from traffic generated by the adjacent Live Casino, he said.

On Friday, Arundel Mills unveiled a newly remodeled food court with phone charging stations, communal tables and a dozen eateries including newcomers The Crepe Escape & Creamery, Green Leafs & Bananas, Suki Hana/Wokaholic and the state’s first Zinburger Wine & Burger Bar.

The mall also plans traditional holiday events, such as a “Breakfast with Santa,” pet photo nights, free hot chocolate on Friday nights and special events for children with developmental disabilities.

“We are continuing to buck the trend of what others are seeing with declining retail,” Condon said.

When brands such as Kenneth Cole and BCBG left the mall, they were replaced with other popular names — Kate Spade New York, Polo Ralph Lauren, True Religion and an Under Armour Factory House.

“It’s critical to remain relevant to what your customer is demanding,” he said.

In The Mall at Columbia, anchor department store Sears downsized from two levels to one and remodeled with a smaller format focusing on mattresses, appliances, electronics, housewares, tools and sporting goods.

The store reopening was an anomaly for a struggling chain that recently announced the closure of 63 Sears and Kmart locations nationwide, including the Sears at Eastpoint Mall in Essex. The announcement came on top of the more than 350 Sears and Kmarts that already closed this year, including stores at Hunt Valley Towne Center and in Hagerstown.

Sears’ former upper-level space in Columbia will be taken over by Main Event Entertainment, Barnes & Noble and Uncle Julio's Rio Grande Cafe.

Sears officials say the remodeled store focuses on the retailer’s strengths, which include brands such as Kenmore appliances and Craftsman tools.

Cassondra Hudson, general manager of the Columbia Sears, said floor kiosks offer shoppers integrated online access to anything the larger stores have.

“You can order online and pick up in a store, or order in a store and ship to your home,” she said. “Our strategy is to make sure that we have trained and polite associates, because everyone is selling similar merchandise.”

Subodha Kumar is a professor or marketing at Temple University's Fox School of Business. He said retailers that successfully synchronize online and in-store strategies — keeping pricing and assortment consistent across different channels — will survive in the future. Retailers are experimenting with ideas such as using smart phone apps to offer customers limited-time, in-store-only coupons.

“It is very critical” that retailers find what works for them, Kumar said. “We are at the point where we don’t have much room for making mistakes.”

He warned that missteps could lead to many more store closures.

The departure of Sears at the end of the year will leave Eastpoint Mall with just one anchor: JC Penney. Brett Foelber, Eastpoint’s marketing director, says staying relevant means using social media to reach customers about sales, mall events and upcoming promotions.

“The young shopper is on their social media or on their phone or on their computer,” Foelber said. “They can look at the best deals without having to leave their homes.”

Towson Town Center embarked on its latest renovations about a year ago, starting with its notoriously confusing parking garages. But it became evident the mall required a bigger refresh, said Lisa Bisenius, the mall’s senior general manager.

“We wanted to make a better experience,” Bisenius said. “The retail environment is changing, and the one thing that we are always focused on is … what is going to make this a better experience for our customers to come and shop and dine and spend more time here.”

At the same time, she said, “retailers are identifying who the demographic is and identifying the needs of that demographic. They are not trying to be something for everyone now.”

Bisenius pointed to the upcoming opening of Riley Rose, a beauty and lifestyle concept launched this fall by the daughters of the couple that founded Forever 21. The all-pink stores are designed to appeal to millennials with trendy, Instagram-worthy merchandise.

Towson High School senior Tamara Olive visited the mall with friends. She frequents stores such as Forever 21 and Charlotte Russe.

“The mall is changing for the better,” she said.

Nicholas and Alishia Gavin of Towson are expecting a baby this month. They went to the mall to buy a new cellphone. Nicholas Gavin, 23, said he prefers the mall to others in the area. He likes the variety. Enhancements such as the more visible signs make shopping more convenient.

“It makes it easier, knowing where to go,” he said.

Katrina Pemberton of Towson said she typically goes to the mall only for lunch. As the mother of two young children, she said, she finds shopping online to be more convenient. She said more dining options would make the mall a bigger draw.

Towson Town Center has evolved through many transformations since it opened in 1952 as Towson Plaza. The center was enclosed in 1973. A 1982 renovation brought in Hecht’s, now Macy’s. A major expansion added two more levels and Nordstrom in 1992. A luxury wing and restaurants on Dulaney Valley Road opened in 2008.

Other area malls, such as the Mall in Columbia, have also transformed over the years. Hunt Valley Mall was redeveloped into the Main Street-style Hunt Valley Towne Center. Owings Mills Mall, built as a luxury center in 1986, has closed and is slated for redevelopment.

But malls in some form have a future, Mohr said.

“At the end of the day, shoppers still want to see, touch and try products on,” Mohr said. “They want to interact and talk to sales people and get opinions. There’s still room for it to be a fun holiday shopping experience.

“Malls have to step up the the challenge of making themselves stand out.”

lorraine.mirabella@baltsun.com

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