What’s ‘In Store’ For Malls?

Shopping centers need to redefine themselves if they are to survive

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If there’s one thing we can always be assured of, it’s that we’ll always have to wait in a long line whenever we pay a visit to the DMV. But it’s hard to say we’d have to do the same at a place like Sears at Great Northern Mall, an establishment struggling to fill its stores with people.

The 895,000 square-feet mall in Clay was recently purchased by Kohan Real Estate Investment Group, a Long Island company that “sees the future of aging malls as a place of mixed use that is more than just for shopping,” according to its website.

Great Northern, which opened in 1988, is in better economic standing than neighbor ShoppingTown Mall in Dewitt, but all it takes is one visit inside either of them to know the commercial centers are facing tenacious times. Both are their own chapter in a larger story that is taking part all over the country: Malls as we know them are dying.

A product of the post-war economic boom and suburbia, malls have been the symbol of our commercial culture for more than half a century. But their foot traffic has been on the decline since the early 1990s. The Great Recession and sluggish recovery have amplified that decline over the last 10 years. According to the real-estate research firm Cushman and Wakefield, mall visits have plummeted an astounding 50 percent just between 2010 and 2013. About 15 percent of the country’s malls are expected to fail or be converted to something else within the next 10 years.

By now, we’re aware it’s the digital age that is the slow-death killer of malls, since shopping has become a primal part of the online world. Why get bundled up on a cold winter day to drive miles to the mall to look for something when you can do it on your couch in your pajamas, right? But online shopping is still the vast minority, as it amounts for less than 10 percent of retail sales, yet that grows substantially each year.

But that’s still enough to keep a large number of people at home instead of going to so-called “anchor stores,” the big outlets that draw the most customers to malls. As a result, many have closed their mall locations, leaving corners or even distinct areas of malls empty and dark. Bon-Ton’s left Great Northern a decade ago and Macy’s is scheduled to close on April 18. Once that occurs, Great Northern’s only anchor stores will be Sears, Regal Cinemas and Dick’s Sporting Goods — which are all facing their own business troubles due to the growth of Wal-Mart and Amazon — with Sears teetering on the edge of collapse. The once-monolith of retail, which is the only remaining anchor store at ShoppingTown, announced recently it has “substantial doubt” about its future and many believe the chain will go out of business by the end of 2017.

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The Macy’s at Great Northern Mall in Clay is scheduled to close on April 18.

You don’t have to be a sailor to know that without an anchor, ships drift away. Hollister, Aeropostle and Wet Seal are among several smaller stores that have left Great Northern in the last few years, with American Eagle Outfitters and Liberty Travel pulling out this year. Even a Dunkin’ Donuts kiosk couldn’t survive.

Add up the tallies here and we get one sound conclusion: Malls can no longer use retail as the core of their existence. And while the immediate threat is largely limited to smaller suburban malls, larger ones should take a deep look at themselves and see what they have that helps keep them ahead of the troubles others face. Destiny USA, for all its size and attractions, is also losing retail chains, most notably Hallmark this past January.

But Destiny sets a good example of what more malls need to be like if they are to survive. They can’t just be a place for shopping for items. They have to provide customers something they can’t get on their phones or computers — an experience.

Newer and unique attractions like WonderWorks, GlowGolf, LazerTag and Dave & Busters go way beyond the back-to-school clothes shopping in their focus on entertainment, gaming and eating, which give customers — from any age group — a new reason to venture out to the mall.

Ironically, to move forward, malls have to return to the main principle of their origin — being the town square. They must be the place where people converge for the most basic of human needs, whether it’s laughter at the Funny Bone Comedy Club or live music and wetting one’s whistle at World of Beer.

Now, should we expect a WonderWorks at Great Northern? Unlikely. But smaller malls are slowly taking the hint. Escape the Estate, an escape room attraction in the region that has enjoyed success, opened at ShoppingTown in 2016 to offer consumers something different and exciting.

And many malls have already made a habit of moving things like hair and nail salons, fitness gyms, rock climbing centers, indoor water parks, hospital care and even grocery stores into former anchor store locations. It’s not Dave & Busters, but even those simpler destinations are a step in the right direction.

And if you can’t get regular people to come in, another alternative is to transform unused floor space into areas for businesses and offices, which is what many dead or dying malls in upstate New York have done. ShoppingTown played around with the idea of placing a call center there for a while.

Kohan Real Estate Investment Group says it also prioritizes using large amounts of unused mall space for events like fundraisers, festivals, farmers markets, concerts and banquets. That might be especially beneficial to a suburb like Clay, with Great Northern’s easy access to routes 481 and 31.

Let’s hope that Kohan Real Estate Investment Group has the right ideas to transform Great Northern into a mall of the future it needs to be. Now is the time for new creativity and experiments in redefining just what a mall is. If the small malls of this region and across the country don’t do so or don’t do so fast enough, they will all find themselves at their own checkout line before too long.

Luke Parsnow is the Monday Editor and daily copy editor/page designer at The Post-Star, a Pulitzer-Prize winning daily publication located in Glens Falls, New York. You can follow his blog “Things That Matter” by clicking “Follow” below and follow his updates on Twitter at https://twitter.com/coolhand_luke88

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