Zombie Malls. You thought they were dead but now they're back and hungry for retail!

by Jonathan Spooner, on April 27, 2015

If we've learned anything from AMC's zombie drama The Walking Dead – it's that even if you think something is “dead”, you
should keep looking over your shoulder. The same can be said of the American
shopping mall. Paying attention to recent conversations around the future of
retail, you've no doubt heard several
eulogies for the American shopping mall. The website deadmalls.com
hosts an ongoing ode to the crumbing infrastructures of these hollowed halls of
commerce. It is understandable how a savvy retail marketer could be lulled into
ignoring the “dead” channel of the mall and instead focus on the lively channel
of ecommerce and mobile – only to wake up later as the brain buffet for those
formerly “dead” malls who have morphed into their competition's omnichannel
powerbase.

Before all of this talk of death and
zombies, the shopping mall was a mainstay of Every Town, USA, rising to
prominence in the 1980s and 90s, and becoming the place to go for your
every retail need. It was also the perfect hangout for teenagers everywhere. In
many ways, the mall became an icon of American culture.

Then, with the onset of the Age of
the Internet, the future of retail was viewed as an e-commerce  utopia and
the seemingly dowdy
mall was left for dead.
Despite the media's proverbial funeral march, consumers still like to
shop in malls because having multiple retailers under one roof continues
to be convenient. In fact, the shopping mall is
once again thriving,
and now even pure-play e-commerce retailers are exploring the value of becoming
mall tenants. With the virtually endless real estate of e-commerce, the value
proposition has flipped and the limited floorspace of real world retail is now
a premium. “[M]alls are not fungible,” said James Sullivan, Cowen and Co.
analyst. “You can't just turn around and build another one in the same market.”

Not all malls are enjoying this
value rebound. The suburban/exurban cookie cutter mall with its typical
retailer line-up and food court just won't cut it these days. The malls that
are struggling and “dying out” are the gigantic shopping centers with the same
collection of retail stores as everywhere else. A few decades ago, this model
worked as these retailers were the only game in town, and people had far fewer
options, but time and tech have changed the way consumers choose to spend their
hard earned money. According to Ryan Severino, a senior economist for Reis,
“Demand has kind of splintered. When it comes to neighborhood and strip
centers, they're often selling more mundane products. Consumers have way more
options for where to buy the items available at these centers, including the
Internet, outlet centers and downtown shops. You just don't find a lot of Gucci
stores in those centers.”

More and more of these declining malls
are looking to non-traditional and non-retail solutions to effectively utilize
their physical space. Mall reinvention plans include the
retail-tainment juggernaut approach of a mega mall and entertainment complex with
features including submarine rides, ice skating rinks, casinos, sea lions and
artificial ski slopes. Other Malls have taken the
economical
approach of upcycling their mall properties into greenhouses,
server farms
and even combining retail and residences to create loft-styled micro
apartments.
Taking the prize for the most ironic (and apropos to this article) reinvention
has to be the UK-based Zed Events who stages “
real-life
zombie experiences
” at the Friars Walk Mall in
Reading, UK. Desserted malls are the perfect environment for the two and a half
hour experience in which you and your group are pitted against a horde
“zombies” in a series of missions
in a full-on 'run and gun' gore fest.

The ascendent group of malls that
are bucking the trend have figured out the right mix of unique retail brands,
experiential innovations and personalized concierge services that keep
customers coming back for more. These malls are turning to technology to find
ways to reinvent themselves. Malls have invested heavily in way-finding,
proximity networks, experiential interactions and customer services to provide
consumers with an assortment of experiences and attractions to leverage repeat
visits.

In the 90s, a new breed of
mega-malls began springing up around the country, the most obvious of which was
the Mall of America in Minneapolis. These malls were built with the purpose of
creating original and memorable experiences that could not be duplicated – and
that thinking is still inspiring malls today. The question of, “How do we offer
the consumer endless choices and a
totally unique and fulfilling experience?” is what's driving this innovation.

Despite this overhaul of the
traditional shopping center, brick and mortar retail locations remain at the
heart – and wallet – of the typical consumer. While shopping centers may not
look and feel the same as they once did, with many adopting a more open, “Main
Street” influenced environment, purchasing habits are still largely rooted in
the idea of shopping at a physical location – be it a mall or a local shop
downtown.

It's been proven that e-commerce
decisions are heavily influenced by the physical experiences within a store,
dependent on the location of the customer at the time of purchase, as well the
“top of mind” value of a physical store being in a consumer's local geography.
While this may be surprising to some, recent studies have shown that consumer's
decisions are heavily motivated by what they are able to see and touch and
experience in the real world, even if the eventual point of purchase is online.
As Wharton marketing professor, David Bell, states in his book,
Location is (Still) Everything, “Anyone can go online and buy a pair of jeans – but the
likelihood that we will do so depends to a significant degree on where we
live.”

In light of the claims that the
shopping mall is dead, that assertion
couldn't be further from the truth. The American mall has risen from the “dead”, is investing
heavily in technology and non-traditional ways to enhance the consumer
experience beyond retail. Based on this evolution, as well as the malls'
influence on e-commerce and continued prevalence in purchasing trends, it's
fair to say that malls are here to stay and those retailers who choose to focus
only on mobile and web will suffer the same fate as those unlucky survivors on
the Walking Dead.

 

Jonathan Spooner is a Retail Strategist at Control Group with an
inherent passion for the retail environment. With over 15 years of experience
applying new technologies in this industry, Jonathan works with clients to
identify new opportunities to expand their businesses, focusing on the
convergence of the digital and physical realms.

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