As a teenager, there was nothing Bonnie Michlin loved more than a shopping trip to the Summit Park Mall in Wheatfield.
As an adult mom, she still goes to malls regularly, but there are plenty of other retail options vying for her affection.
“It used to be that the mall was, like, the place to go,” she said. “But now it’s like there are so many different places that offer so many different things.”
As shopping habits change, some predict that traditional, enclosed malls are doomed to go the way of the leg warmer. So malls are fighting back.
In Western New York and across the country, they are adapting strategies to stay relevant, some emphasizing high-end stores and others adopting an atmosphere that is almost like a community center.
The threats are lurking. While Internet shopping is taking its toll on all brick-and-mortar stores, malls face additional challenges, like competition from stand-alone discount stores attractive to struggling middle-class shoppers and the loss of anchor stores able to draw the kind of consumer traffic on which other tenants depend.
“Mall shopping has been down and particularly so in these little malls with two and three anchors that are not special,” said Howard Davidowitz, chairman of Davidowitz & Associates, a national retail consulting and investment banking firm in New York City.
The national mall occupancy rate average is a healthy 91.9 percent, well above the 65 percent benchmark for mall distress. And occupancy rates at mid-tier malls Boulevard Mall in Amherst, McKinley Mall in Hamburg and Eastern Hills Mall in Clarence stand at or near a stellar 100 percent. The same goes for Walden Galleria.
But that doesn’t mean they are beyond harm’s reach and can stand pat, experts said.
Lavish upscale malls offering designer names and luxurious experiences are doing well catering to society’s most affluent consumers, who have thrived since the recession. Outlet malls, which offer brand names to cost-conscious consumers, are booming as well, though the Fashion Outlets of Niagara Falls is facing increased competition from the new Outlet Collection at Niagara that recently opened across the Canadian border.
But mid-range malls, especially those anchored by beleaguered department stores Sears and J.C. Penney, are the most vulnerable. With the middle class squeezed by stagnant wages and a weak job market, shoppers are turning away from traditional mall anchor stores in search of better deals and deeper inventories at stand-alone stores such as Walmart, Target, TJ Maxx and Kohl’s.
A rise in online shopping and high unemployment rates among teens are drawing key demographics away from the mall as well, hurting teen-serving mall staples such as Abercrombie & Fitch, Aeropostale and American Eagle – which together have closed hundreds of stores and are expected to close hundreds more over the next few years.
Across the country, malls are experimenting with new ways of generating the foot traffic that anchor stores used to create.
One way they’re doing it is by re-imagining their vast indoor spaces as mixed-use facilities where, as is Walden Galleria’s motto, consumers can “Eat. Play. Shop.”
Entertainment, long a part of the mall mix, is becoming an increasingly important factor.
Walden, McKinley and Eastern Hills each have movie theaters, which have been commonplace at malls since the beginning.
But Eastern Hills Mall has ramped up its entertainment offerings with an indoor ball field and batting cage complex called Sports Performance Park, a Dave & Buster’s restaurant arcade and is planning an outdoor ice rink.
Boulevard Mall’s coin-operated rides and food court carousel are very popular, as are the celebrity appearances, fashion shows and holiday events it hosts. Walden Galleria recently opened Pole Position Raceway, a giant indoor electric go-kart track, has interactive video games outside its Microsoft Store and is launching a live music series this summer.
Malls across the country are even experimenting with art galleries, performance spaces and rotating museum exhibits, which shoppers here could also eventually see.
Restaurants, once relegated to the food court, are becoming a more important draw.
“The concept is about bringing everything to one destination,” said Matthew Bader, general manager at Walden Galleria. “It’s about giving people a reason to come in and shop, and stay longer once they’re here.”
As part of its $60 million renovation five years ago, Walden Galleria added “restaurant row,” an exterior wing of restaurants, many of which cannot be found elsewhere in the local market. Eastern Hills Mall added a popular Duff’s Famous Wings franchise. Boulevard Mall added Bonefish Grill years ago and is looking for another restaurant to fill a space vacated by Honey’s.
Malls are also offering more community-oriented events and services, in an attempt to turn themselves into neighborhood hubs.
“We are a local community center and we’ve always tried to play to those strengths,” said Betsey Bonvissuto, the Amherst mall’s marketing manager. “We have tried to be more than a retail venue. We’re a destination for the local community.”
Boulevard Mall’s children’s play center in the food court is a huge draws for families, especially during the long winter months. Its Boulevard Buddies children’s programming has hundreds of members and its annual Breakfast with Santa is wildly popular.
Eastern Hills Mall, which was barely surviving five years ago, has bounced back with its new mix. The mall hosts a Department of Motor Vehicles, an Erie County SPCA and a blood donation center and serves as an NFTA-Metro Park & Ride location. It also houses the WBBZ television studio.
“My plan all along has been to make Eastern Hills something a little different,” said Russell Fulton, the mall’s general manager. “I don’t try to compete with a super-regional shopping center like Walden. Instead I try to complement it, be something different, give shoppers another choice.”
McKinley Mall in Blasdell is home to the popular Tabby Town cat adoption center and the Red Dragon School of Martial Arts.
Each of the malls also has free Wi-Fi as well as a full calendar of family-oriented programming – free children’s activities, nonprofit fundraisers, animal adoption events – that get shoppers through the doors.
Shopping centers are also changing up their retail offerings.
Boulevard Mall recently added a new exterior entrance to highlight nontraditional anchor and popular clothing retailer H&M. Both Walden Galleria and McKinley Mall have Best Buy locations, a big box retailer that is usually found in off-the-mall properties. Just five percent of Best Buy locations are housed within malls. Most are in strip malls, which are gaining in popularity.
“People would rather drive up in their cars, run into a store and drive away,” Davidowitz said.
McKinley Mall has added five additional entry points along the front of its building which gives it a more convenient, strip-mall-type format. One of those entrances opens onto Bed, Bath and Beyond, another traditionally off-the-mall format store it has lured inside.
“It’s not about just getting retailers in, it’s about getting the right mix,” said Jeff Ohle, general manager at McKinley Mall.