RALEIGH, N.C. (WNCN) – In an age when online shopping dominates our buying habits, the local mall is competing for our attention and shopping dollars. Add in the pandemic, and malls have had to reinvent themselves to keep you coming back.
The mall has been part of our lives for generations, from their inception in the 1950s when the suburbs and automobile culture blossomed, into the 80s as malls got more elaborate—until the last decade when some of them began to fail.
“So many of the malls now, the indoor malls, there are so many vacancies,” said mall customer Jeff Haynes. “They don’t seem to be as popular as they were and it’s kind of discouraging to go in malls that aren’t fully occupied.”
Here in this area, we’ve seen malls go out of business.
The Cary Town Center was demolished. The Morrisville outlet mall ceased to exist as a retail facility.
They are just two of a number of area establishments that met with tough times.
Consumer investigator Steve Sbraccia wanted to know what kills a mall, so he sought out an expert from the International Council of Shopping Centers.
“Demographics change,” said ICSC’s Stephanie Cegielski. “With any mall, it really depends on the community that it’s in.”
“Not all malls are created equal, and not all of them are as successful as others,” she said.
Let’s look at Cary Town Center.
It was a traditional 1990s-style mall, but in many locales, that kind of shopping experience doesn’t work anymore.
In order to be viable, malls have to do two things these days.
First, they have to build things to attract future generations, and second, they need to provide people with more than a place to shop, they need to provide them with an experience too.
“Gen Z does love that physical experience and they want to be there,” said Cegielski. “They want the Instagram-able moment, they want to be there with their friends.”
Cary’s Fenton Mall provides that kind of experience.
Geographically, it’s not far from where Cary Town Center was located but it’s worlds apart in style.
“It’s all about the experience,” said Fenton general manager Rob Canepa. “We bring in events all the time in our square.”
“It’s just like a downtown city you find somewhere, but we’re in the suburbs,” he said
Today’s mall operators look for stores that aren’t on every street corner. They look for uniqueness.
For example, Fenton’s mixed-use concept of office space as well as apartments make it a place that appeals to a wide demographic.
“This is only phase one,” said Canepa. “We have a couple other phases coming.”
“There’s a lot of other folks who want to be here and we’re doing our best to get it accomplished as soon as we can,” he said.
“There are still some very nice older malls, but a lot of them are going back to the outside situation rather than indoors,” said Jeff Haynes.
A Durham landmark since 2002, the Streets at Southpoint was designed from the start as a place to provide both shopping as well as a community experience in what it calls its lifestyle center.
Customer Lindsay Ladden likes the design at Streets of Southpoint, saying it has an appeal.
“I like the indoor-outdoor aspects of it, and it has a play area for my kids,” she said.
“We’re getting into generational things now where people are here as kids and they’re bringing their kids back,” said Patrick Anderson, who is the Senior General Manager of the Streets at Southpoint.
Inside, the mall’s unique 80-foot ceilings, natural lighting and open-footprint design elements contribute to its feel—a feel that owners try to keep fresh.
“On our 10-year anniversary in 2012, we redid 80% of the center, brought in new stores and continue to do that now with whatever customers are demanding,” said Anderson.
To stay viable, the mall needs to look at what’s going to work years down the road.
“We have a ten-year plan to bring density to the property and bring apartments,” he said. “We can do other developments.”
Specific plans are still in the works, but that mixed-use could also include office and hotel space surrounding the mall.
“Everything you mentioned is on the table,” said Anderson. “It’s just a matter of planning how to execute it and how best to serve the market.”
Some malls, like Raleigh’s Crabtree Valley have been around for 50 years and continue to be successful as a destination location.
The mall’s Mellisa Timney said several stores have expanded and it has seen new stores arrive this year.
“Crabtree is the largest shopping destination in the Southeast with more than 1.3 million square feet of retail space, over 200 stores and restaurants, 6,000 parking spaces, dozens of dining and fast casual restaurants, and two well-known anchors,” said Timney.
But for every success story, there’s a cautionary tale, especially following the COVID pandemic.
Look no further than Durham’s Northgate Mall.
It grew from a small shopping center in the 1960s to a full-sized mall, which shut down in May 2020.
When a mall goes out of business, its stores may no longer be valuable to customers—but its land is and it’s repurposed.
“I never look at a mall that is going to get demolished as a bad thing because it’s probably really good real estate that’s going to be redeveloped into something that the community needs,” said the ICSC’s Cegielski.
The ICSC says there are about 1,100 malls nationwide right now and says the ones that will survive in the coming decade will need to incorporate fresh thinking and fresh ideas to appeal to an ever-changing demographic.