Malls: Changing times, changing tastes

By LOU WILIN
STAFF WRITER
Times change, and time can wither shopping malls. Findlay Village Mall needs to change to avoid fading, according to experts who study malls and consumer behavior.
“Typically, what we see when a mall goes through difficult times is either competition or demographics have changed … purchasing power has changed. Things like that in that given area (are) usually what is driving those challenges,” said Jesse Tron, spokesman for the International Council of Shopping Centers, New York.
When Findlay Village Mall was built in the late 1980s, it was in line with its customers and their income, tastes and values, and the competition of its time, said Mark Stapp, executive director of the master of real estate development program at Arizona State University.
“I would suspect the makeup of the population has changed and the competitive environment has changed… The mall remains fixed while everything around it has changed,” Stapp said.
Here’s the rub: Adapting to changes is difficult for the Findlay mall.
Since the 2008-2009 recession, retailers have preferred to locate in bigger malls with larger surrounding populations having higher incomes, said Vonn Bowers, manager of the Findlay mall, and Michelle Barton, manager of Woodland Mall.
Consumer tastes and Findlay Village Mall’s competition also have changed.
Large shopping centers, with a community-center feel, have been built in recent years with varieties of stores not enclosed in a mall. So-called lifestyle centers at Levis Commons in Perrysburg, Fallen Timbers in Maumee, and Easton Town Center in Columbus offer a mall’s efficiency but also an experience people seek.
“When your disposable income is constrained or you have got different values, you want something more out of spending your dollar than just getting the good or the service,” Stapp said.
“So the environment becomes important. You want to be in a pleasant environment. You want to be in a place that you want to stay at, and these lifestyle centers have helped create places that are more desirable for people to go to and stay at around their values.
“So you go and hang out at a cafe. You are in a real pleasant environment,” he said. “It’s a social experience.”
Some of the lifestyle centers’ appeal is the outdoor feel, and some of it is location.
“If you look at the characteristics of the area around the lifestyle center versus the one around Findlay mall, you would begin to see differences,” Stapp said.
“These other places are now able to provide a different level of service, and Findlay can’t because of its population makeup.”
It is hard for Findlay Village Mall to respond to such change.
“Because they are clunky, durable, fixed assets, they can’t as easily change to react to the changing context within which they exist and the changing demand,” Stapp said.
Malls sometimes can offer the experience of a lifestyle center, he said, and many malls are thriving.
In other cases, a mall can be renovated. But renovating and retrofitting a mall to make it more competitive is expensive.
“Sometimes, the surrounding demand primary market area doesn’t support it. So the mall has to take on a different role in the environment,” Stapp said.
“So you see things like the types of stores that may go in there changing to nontraditional. That’s a fairly normal evolution.”
CedarCreek Church, a nondenominational Christian church based in Perrysburg, will open its fifth location at the former Carmike Cinemas at the Findlay mall on Sept. 20. It will have services on Saturdays and Sundays and groups meeting during the week.
It is becoming more common for churches, nonprofits like Goodwill Industries, and fitness centers and entertainment venues to be located in malls, experts said.
Bowers welcomes CedarCreek, but she does not want non-retail tenants to become a Findlay mall trend.
“You really want to bring in things that people can buy,” she said.
Malls like Findlay Village Mall “are going to have to think outside the box,” said Dale Achabal, executive director of the Retail Management Institute at Santa Clara University in California.
Consumers in general have changed, said Kit Yarrow, professor of business and psychology at Golden Gate University in San Francisco.
“The way malls are now is not satisfying to consumers … being kind of centered around buying is really not as socially acceptable as it was before,” Yarrow said.
Showcasing success, and shopping and spending money, have become less socially acceptable, she said.
“Some of that, I think, is just the pendulum swinging back again from a pretty gluttonous period, the ‘shop ’til you drop. When the going gets tough, the tough go shopping,'” Yarrow said.
“All this … emphasis on shopping, I think, struck a lot of people as pretty gross. So I think maybe the pendulum has swung back a little bit more in the other direction than it needed to,” Yarrow said.
Online shopping has dovetailed well with that trend.
But Yarrow said there still is a place for the mall.
“We’ve always needed town centers, community centers. If we go back to caveman days, people needed places where they congregate to connect with other people and that’s always been the marketplace … throughout the history of the world,” Yarrow said.
“So there’s a place for the mall … but the way that it’s structured right now does not work.
“So I think the future of malls is possible. In fact, in some ways I think it’s necessary,” she said. “There just has to be a place where people can congregate, not just online, but in person.”
The mall offers something online communities do not.
“Psychologically, people need to be with other people. Not just their family, not just their friends. We have just a fundamental human need to connect with our communities,” Yarrow said.
“A lot of people are turning to online communities, but frankly, that’s just not as emotionally fulfilling as even just being with strangers. I mean, this is how we know the world,” Yarrow said.
Bowers said she has seen trends come and go, and she believes things will get better for Findlay Village Mall.
“I have been managing malls for over 25 years and the one thing I can say is that it’s always very cyclical in terms of the malls will be the hot place to go. Then we saw a change where everybody wanted to go to the lifestyle centers,” she said.
“Now, supposedly the trend is people going to the outlet malls and they are building bigger outlet malls,” she said. “I feel pretty confident that the trend is going to always come back to the mall as a gathering place.”
“It’s just a matter of it coming back around,” Bowers said.
Tron, of the International Council of Shopping Centers, said things already have turned around for many malls.
“We’re actually seeing a really, really good environment right now for shopping centers and for malls, both. But malls in particular are doing quite well on a number of fronts,” Tron said.
“Mall sales per square foot (are at the) highest that we’ve ever tracked … Malls are doing really, really well, contrary to what certain media reports might be indicating. Are there ones that aren’t, that don’t do as well? Are there ones that cease to exist? Absolutely, but that’s not the norm. The vast majority of the stock is really doing quite well,” Tron said.
But some are not.
“Some of them become obsolete. There’s no doubt about it,” Stapp said. “The enclosed mall, as a desirable product type, is not dead.
“It’s just that some of the enclosed malls that do exist are finding it more difficult to create a competitive place in the market.”
Wilin: 419-427-8413 Send an E-mail to Lou Wilin

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