Malls Find New Ways To Draw Shoppers

Standard big box shopping centers are in decline. But other types of malls have sprung up in their place. Some are based on making shopping more convenient. Others focus on the consumer experience.

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Kelly, you grew up in the '80s like I did. You went to the mall a lot, right?


Yeah, what else are you going to do when you're 13?

GREENE: Well, these days, there seem to be other options. And if you and I were buying things and getting entertainment at the mall in the '80s, nowadays people seem to be able to do both of those things on the Internet or on mobile phones. But American malls - while this seems like a problem for them - are not taking this lightly. They're fighting back. And this is the latest in our series on malls that we're producing with our colleagues at youth radio. Here's NPR's Sonari Glinton.

SONARI GLINTON, BYLINE: Here's a question. What is a shopping mall? For our answer, we turn to those shopping mall experts of yesteryear - the Latin boy band Menudo.


MENUDO: (Singing) If there's anything you need, you can always find it in a shopping mall.

GLINTON: OK, that Menudo clip points to the importance of entertainment at the shopping mall. Stick with me. We'll get to that later. But first, let's get the real definition of a mall from Tad Philipp. He researches the companies that own shopping malls for Moody's.

TAD PHILIPP: Malls are typically enclosed, anchored by department stores, often in an X shape with a department store on each end and in-line stores connecting them.

GLINTON: That's the traditional mall. So if you're a mall owner, what you do is provide traffic for tenants. It's essentially, you pay me, I bring you the customers. One of the ways to make sure you get customers, though, is to have one of those big national retailers. But now, mall owners are finding new ways to draw shoppers.

So through the magic of radio, I'm here standing in the middle of the Grove, which is a shopping center in Los Angeles. And I'm with Anthony Dukes. He's a professor at the University of Southern California. Help me describe to people what makes this place special.

ANTHONY DUKES: Well, at the Grove, you have this outdoor shopping environment with well-manicured gardens and plants and water fountains. It has the feel of an old Main Street with the train tracks and the toy train that goes up and down - streetlights.

GLINTON: To Grove opened about a dozen years ago. And it's kind of a mashup of a bunch of things - mall, town square, park. It's not really a full-bore mall. And Duke says the Grove is proof that the death of the mall is exaggerated.

DUKES: It's tempting to portray the Internet as changing everything about retail. And it has had a profound effect, but there's certain things that Internet doesn't change, and that's convenience, the experience of shopping and then the physical interaction with a product or sales expertise.

PHILIPP: Malls are no longer about the distribution of goods.

GLINTON: That's Tad Philipp of Moody's.

PHILIPP: That's where you went to pick up your jeans or your shoes or your books. And some categories have been entirely replaced by online. Others are substantially emplaced. So you need something to draw you to the mall - something that's not available online. And in many cases, it's as simple as seeing other people and strolling.

GLINTON: Philipp's colleague Mary Frankel says you can see the shift in malls towards experiences. She says there was a time when the only food you found at the mall was in a food court.

MARY FRANKEL: I don't think you will see malls where you don't have a myriad of restaurants - maybe a movie theater. More and more shopping centers are including gyms as well as medical facilities - basically, things that you do not get online and will draw you into the center.

GLINTON: Now, the food is often as big a draw as a big-name retailer. And it's not enough to have Menudo perform once at your mall. The Grove, for instance, has almost brought back vaudeville because they have so many acts performing there. Philipp says not all the malls will be able to make it if they have to be one-stop entertainment. He says malls aren't dying, but don't expect explosive growth.

PHILIPP: I don't see an explosion of mall growth anytime soon. I think there will be opportunities here and there for new malls, but I think largely, the country is built out for all the malls it needs.

GLINTON: It's not just about the Internet but changing taste. It's a bit much to expect our retail lives to be cemented in bricks and mortar while the world changes all around.

PHILIPP: In many cases, the mall has replaced the downtown. And in some cases, now the Internet is doing to the mall what the mall did to downtown - so a little bit of creative destruction.

GLINTON: Downtown survived the mall. The mall will survive the Internet. Sonari Glinton, NPR News.

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