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The era of malls is over -- what next?

First there was Main Street. Then came strip centers, which exploded into enclosed malls, malls with two anchors, malls with four anchors, malls with beaches and roller coasters and ski slopes.

Clusters of big-box stores sprouted. And cute re-inventions of that old-fashioned Main Street materialized, surrounded by expansive parking lots.

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Call it the evolution of retail - the ceaseless struggle of developers to keep pace with the nation's shifting demographics, lifestyles and moods.

Economic pressures, frustration with cookie-cutter retailers, and a yen to have more shopping fun have carried consumers away from traditional malls in search of locations that offer something special.

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In Maryland and elsewhere, malls that haven't recognized that challenge are struggling and, sometimes, dying.

"The day when one size fits all is past," said Geoffrey Booth, director of retail development for the Urban Land Institute in Washington.

Now, retailers offer giant specialty stores such as Best Buy that have enormous choices at competitive prices and convenient discount operations such as Wal-Mart that supply everyday necessities at hard-to-beat prices.

And to counter boredom, there are new "lifestyle centers" that combine entertainment, restaurants and shopping, sometimes at an open-air, faux "Main Street" such as the Avenue at White Marsh.

"The nature of the mall and the mix of retail is changing," said Booth. "There's far more emphasis on 'the enjoyment of place' now. You can see it in the presentation of stores and the environment in which we shop."

Traditional malls worked well in the postwar decades because the suburbs they served were largely homogeneous, Booth said. But now a "tremendous fragmentation" in ages, races and ethnic groups means shoppers demand more choices.

Malls that don't change to offer those choices are finding themselves in intensive care.

Nearly 20 percent of all regional malls in the nation are dying "greyfield malls," with sales of $150 per square foot or less, or approaching "greyfield" status, according to PricewaterhouseCoopers and the Congress for the New Urbanism, a San Francisco nonprofit group.

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A study in February 2001 by those organizations classified 140 regional malls as dead and 200 to 250 others as dying, and argued that retail is no longer the best use for many of these sites.

"That was a low, conservative number, for sure," said Steven LaPosa, an author of the study and director of global retail real estate research for PricewaterhouseCoopers in Denver.

"They're outdated; they've gone through a life cycle of who the major tenants are, and they don't draw very well anymore, and sales per square foot go down, so they see negative growth and increased vacancies," LaPosa said.

Of the 29 enclosed malls built in the Baltimore area since Mondawmin Mall in Northwest Baltimore became the first in 1958, five remain dominant in the market - Towson Town Center, White Marsh Mall, The Mall at Columbia, Arundel Mills and Annapolis Mall, said David Fick, managing director of Legg Mason Wood Walker Inc.

Eight others, among them Kenilworth Mall, Security Square, Marley Station and Eastpoint Mall, are expected to survive by serving their neighborhoods, in spite of the new and bigger competition.

Many have been torn down and resurrected, such as the demolished Golden Ring Mall, now a power center of big-box retailers anchored by a Wal-Mart; and the partially demolished Hunt Valley Mall, which will be reborn as a "lifestyle center" anchored by a huge Wegman's grocery store, a bookstore, restaurants and upscale shops.

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A decade ago, 46 percent of women surveyed by Britt Beemer, a Charleston, S.C.-based retailing consultant, shopped as a "pick-me-up" when they were feeling low; today just 21 percent do. Now people shop more for what they need - and go to discounters to get it, he said.

"To some extent, malls have priced themselves out of the marketplace," Beemer said. "The retail stores that are mall-based are never the lowest-priced."

Shoppers are spending less time in malls and visiting fewer stores while there "because we're time-poor," said retail consultant Barbara Wold of Balboa Island, Calif., pointing out that the demands of work and family leave little time to spare for extended shopping expeditions.

That's fueling a resurgence in strip malls, or malls being redeveloped with stores facing out, where "it's easier to drive up and get what you want and go," Wold said.

Until the early 1990s, Booth said, consumers were more interested in finding convenience, price and a range of goods in their shopping malls. But as the economic boom and bull market of the late 1990s put more disposable income into consumers' pockets, "the quality of place kicked back in there, and the presentation improved."

By contrast, Booth said, "The old malls that are getting tired and not getting reinvigorated are falling by the wayside. They're too small; they don't offer range, price or convenience."

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As new shopping venues are built and older ones redesigned, no single format will likely become dominant, Booth and other experts say.

Struggling to read the shifting moods and desires of consumers, developers seem to be in agreement these days on a single truth - there will never be one smart way to sell again.

The outdoor Main Street design drew Sharon Jacobsen, 33, her two children and her mother to Bowie Town Center in Prince George's County for the first time on a recent morning.

They had come seeking nothing in particular, just to stroll the tree-lined "main street," anchored at either end by department stores and flanked by a mix of restaurants, and national and local merchants.

The family strolled past Ann Taylor Loft, Bath & Body Works and Karibu Books, which specializes in African heritage and literature, and ended up in Claire's Boutique, where they bought two toys and a hat.

"I really like this a lot," Jacobsen said. "I prefer this to an enclosed mall. You can be with a lot of people, but you have more space to move. You don't feel so confined. I feel bad taking my kids to a mall when they want to be outside."

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The nearly 2-year-old project is the first of its kind for Simon Property Group, one of the nation's biggest mall developers and owner of the 4.2 million-square-foot Mall of America in Minnesota.

"We would do Bowie Town Center again and again if we could find the locations," said Michael P. McCarty, a senior vice president at Simon. The company has no enclosed malls in its three-year development pipeline. Instead it is planning outdoor projects that blend shopping with uses as diverse as over-the-store apartments and health care centers.

"We're just at the start of the growth curve of these 'lifestyle' products and will see a tremendous change in them over the next decade," McCarty said. Each new project that comes online will look slightly different, he said, blending shopping and other uses as appropriate for each area. "None will look the same. And isn't that what the customer is telling us? They don't like regional malls because they all look the same."

Some developers still see significant opportunities with enclosed malls - really big enclosed malls. The latest have a theme-park atmosphere designed to draw shoppers from a distance and keep them on the premises and spending as long as possible.

Mills Corp., developer of Arundel Mills in Hanover, the Baltimore region's newest and biggest mall, has perfected the concept of the mega-mall as destination. Mills usually anchors its centers with restaurants and virtual reality arcades rather than department stores.

Arundel Mills' success is evident in shoppers' willingness to drive miles to get there and then spend time circling the parking lot. Anchors such as the huge Bass Pro Outdoor World and the new dinner theater Medieval Times Dinner and Tournament are luring shoppers from more than an hour away.

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Consider the Clarks of Fairfax, Va., who were eating dinner at the food court on a busy Saturday, after driving nearly an hour and a half from their home for one main reason - the row upon row of fishing rods and reels and lures and hunting bows at the Bass Pro store.

"We've been here almost every weekend for the last six weeks," said Connie Clark, with her husband, Dale, a fishing and hunting enthusiast, and 10-year-old son Brandon. "My husband is just having the time of his life. He couldn't wait to get here."


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