As Their Anchors Sink, Shopping Malls Try To Present Retail 'Experience' With more department stores closing, some owners are trying to make malls "more experiential," adding gyms and theaters. One developer is targeting Hispanics with regular concerts and festivities.

As Their Anchors Sink, Malls Try To Present Retail 'Experience'

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Traditional department stores are having a tough time in this time of Amazon and overnight deliveries. Macy's is closing another 36 stores this year. Seventy-eight Sears and Kmart stores will also shut down. So what's going to happen with all that vacant space? NPR's Yuki Noguchi reports on some possible answers.

YUKI NOGUCHI, BYLINE: There is no traffic and no problem finding parking at the Owings Mills Mall. The 5,000-or-so parking spaces are all vacant. I'm standing in front of a JCPenney which closed last month. And about 200 feet away, I can see a Macy's which closed last year.

When it opened in 1986, it was anchored by a Saks Fifth Avenue and catered to well-to-do Baltimore suburbanites. The mall's owner, Kimco Realty, is planning a multimillion dollar revamp. Like many malls that are trying to reattract customers, it will include a movie theater and restaurants. But it will not include a department store.

Jan Rogers Kniffen is a retail consultant familiar with the Owings Mills project. He says the developers are hoping outdoor shopping without department stores will pay off.

JAN ROGERS KNIFFEN: They're trying to make it more interesting and more experiential, and so they're turning it inside out (laughter) and making it open-air. Whether that'll be a solution or not, I don't know.

NOGUCHI: I am of Generation X, and the social epicenter of my suburban St. Louis youth was the mall. Kniffen says mall rats are no more.

KNIFFEN: The culture is dead. You were the last generation that went and hung out at the mall.

NOGUCHI: People shop where they socialize, and that's increasingly online. In less than 15 years, he anticipates half of sales will be web-based, which hits department stores especially hard. Decades ago, department sores were so valued, developers gave them the land underneath their stores.

KNIFFEN: If you were building one today, you wouldn't give that deal to an anchor because they're not a good enough attraction.

NOGUCHI: In fact, the most trouble stores like Sears are selling off their best real estate to survive, and more closures are expected. Real estate research firm Green Street Advisors ranks the 1,100 malls in the U.S. by grade. Those with the richest demographics, brands and highest foot traffic get As.

A third of the country's malls rank C-plus or lower, and Green Street says many department stores in those locations will likely have to close. Higher rated malls have Apple stores and luxury and specialty apparel brands like Bonobos or Warby Parker that use their stores as showrooms.

There's also a lot of emphasis on experiential retail - sitdown restaurant, gyms, movie theaters - because that's where people are spending money. Kniffen, the consultant, says in other cases, malls are adding offices and residences.

KNIFFEN: Mixed use, people think, is the savior, right? If you can get people to live at the mall, you have an immediate clientele for your restaurants, right?

NOGUCHI: But some malls simply don't have the demographics to draw desirable retail or residential tenants. Some of those are converting into doctors offices, churches and even for-profit prisons. A handful of others are identifying new niche uses for malls that veer from the mainstream.

Jose de Jesus Legaspi is president of The Legaspi Company which purchases old malls and turns them into retail centers targeted at the Hispanic community. The company owns three and has developed a dozen others.

JOSE DE JESUS LEGASPI: We're selling ambience. We're selling an environment.

NOGUCHI: The malls host regular concerts, mariachi band classes and holiday festivities. Where there are vacant department stores, local entrepreneurs open stalls and kiosks as a kind of retail incubator. The effect is like an international bazaar where the community comes to hang out.

LEGASPI: I mean, they'll come in right after mass, for example, and they'll stay until 6, 7, 8 o'clock at night.

NOGUCHI: And of course they spend. The mall's revenue spiked 20 percent after Legaspi made the changes. Even the sales at the department stores that remain in his malls have increased too because they can target their products and marketing to a specific community.

LEGASPI: Bringing Hispanic-oriented retailers helps as what I call an aggregate anchor for the other national retailers.

NOGUCHI: Legaspi's malls target areas with dense Hispanic populations, but he says malls that target other populations could work elsewhere, too. Yuki Noguchi, NPR News, Washington.

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