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Shoppers are returning. Have malls stemmed the tide of failure?

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You know the cliché: Shopping malls are desolate and deserted places, inhabited only by elderly walkers and a few sad stores desperately clinging to life among the cobwebs and decay.

And that is true of some malls.

And it is very much not true of others.

Malls have been on a downward trajectory since the internet made shopping possible with the click of a finger. For years, experts have been anticipating their demise. As recently as last year, Business Insider cited a report predicting that one-quarter of all malls in the United States would close in the next three to five years.

But reports of the death of the American mall turn out to have been greatly exaggerated.

Even in the midst of the COVID pandemic, retail stores had a banner year in 2021. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, retail sales overall in the United States were more than $6.5 trillion last year, nearly $1 trillion more than the record set the year before.

One of the prime beneficiaries of the increased spending has been malls, or at least some of them.

Saturday shoppers visit West County Center

Kyla Cameron, left, points out an Apple HomePod to her friends Geary Kuzniar, center, and Madalyn Kuzniar, right, as they walk around the West County Center on Saturday, Sept. 24, 2022.

West County Center, for one, is thriving. A recent walk-through showed that only eight of the mall’s 140 stores inside the structure were empty.

And it is only going to get better, with new stores planning to move into the vacant slots in the near future, said senior marketing director Sean Phillips. All of the available store spaces should be filled by the holidays, except for an outdoor restaurant location and a few stands in the food court, he said.

“The pandemic was good for malls. All that time, people were only able to shop online or buy online and pick up at the store. If you search the headlines from 2017-’18, all the headlines were ‘Retail Apocalypse,’ ‘Online shopping closing down brick-and-mortar (stores).’ It was all negative, negative, negative,” Phillips said.

Saturday shoppers visit West County Center

Max Chi, 6, right, watches videos with his brother Luke Chi, 2, on their parent's phone during a lunch break at the West County Center food court on Saturday, Sept. 24, 2022. 

“During the pandemic, when everyone was online shopping, people came to realize how much they enjoy brick-and-mortar shopping,” he said.

The numbers bear him out, at least at West County Center. Using information that tracks people’s cellphone data, the mall has determined that its foot traffic this year is higher than it was even in 2019, the year before the pandemic.

However, the picture is not as rosy at some other malls.

Saturday shoppers visit South County Center

The inside entrance to a vacant space is pictured inside the South County Center on Saturday, Sept. 24, 2022. The space was previously occupied by Sears. Photo by Jordan Opp, jopp@post-dispatch.com

Chesterfield Mall is acknowledged to be on life support. The shopping center’s current owner, the Staenberg Group, has announced plans to tear it down in spring 2024, “if all goes according to plan,” said Tim Lowe, Staenberg senior vice president for leasing and development.

In its place, the company plans to build a downtown-like, walkable urban area with residences, shops, entertainment and restaurants. It hopes to open the first phase of that project in 2026.

For the time being, only a tiny fraction of Chesterfield Mall’s 1.3 million square feet is being used, and little of that is devoted to retail. Many of the remaining storefronts are occupied by rarely open museums, meeting spaces and a private club. Several pickleball courts and a floor for swing dance lessons dominate what is left of the mall’s available space.

When it is closed, it will join Crestwood Plaza, Jamestown Mall, Northwest Plaza, St. Louis Union Station and St. Louis Centre as once-popular shopping spots that have been shuttered, repurposed or demolished.

A casual walk around other enclosed malls in the area showed that while some are troubled, their situation is not yet dire.

At Mid Rivers Mall in St. Peters, a number of empty stores stand out like missing teeth on an old comb. The vacancies are fewer, but still noticeable, at South County Center.

But St. Clair Square, which came out of bankruptcy at the end of last year, has a healthy occupancy rate. The vacancies are even fewer at the high-end Plaza Frontenac. And St. Louis Galleria, which was hit with protests unrelated to the mall in 2017 and a fatal shooting in 2020, is showing its resilience. Many spaces that were empty there just a few months ago are now filled.

Even so, there are cracks in the facade. Several area malls have lost at least one anchor store. These large department stores or sporting goods stores bring in a lot of shoppers, who then go on to visit other stores in the mall.

Saturday shoppers visit South County Center

The vacant space previously occupied by Sears is seen inside South County Center on Saturday, Sept. 24, 2022.

Even at Plaza Frontenac, one of the two anchors, Saks Fifth Avenue, has consolidated several of its departments and has blocked off a large portion of its top floor. The basement, which was once full of merchandise, is home now only to some art for sale hanging on the walls.

Mark Cohen, a former CEO of several national retail chains and now director of retail studies at the Columbia Business School, said that a mall’s success or failure depends largely on its location.

“They have to be geographically located where people are interested in shopping. Many older malls now find themselves on the wrong side of town. When they opened 30 (or) 40 years ago, they were a bullseye. But the community has relocated to a different part of the area,” he said.

Malls typically expect to draw shoppers from up to seven miles away, he said. The actual distance may vary, depending on the time it takes to get there and the availability of alternative shopping options.

But in general, if a population shifts more than seven miles away from a mall, the mall will start to suffer. On the other hand, if residents move to within seven miles of a mall, it will see its sales increase.

When West County Mall was first built in 1969, it was on the farthest western edge of the high-density population area of St. Louis. Built by the Famous-Barr department-store chain, the mall anticipated that local residents would begin moving west of Interstate 270.

That hope has obviously panned out. The mall is now at the center of one of the most populous areas of the region. Its iconic sign showing a dove, significantly, faces west, Phillips said.

Saturday shoppers visit West County Center

Shoppers use the escalators inside the West County Center on Saturday, Sept. 24, 2022. Photo by Jordan Opp, jopp@post-dispatch.com

In terms of sales per square foot, West County Center is by far the most successful of all 60 locations owned by CBL & Associates Properties. Last year, the mall realized sales of $705 per square foot of leasable space (the mall has just under 1.2 million usable square feet).

The chain’s next best performer was Cross Creek Mall in Fayetteville, North Carolina, which saw $641 in sales per square foot.

The Chattanooga, Tennessee-based chain also owns Mid Rivers Mall ($355 per square foot), South County Center ($386 per square foot) and St. Clair Square ($463 per square foot).

Brookfield Properties owns the St. Louis Galleria and Plaza Frontenac; it is a subsidiary of a Bermuda-based company that does not have to report its sales-per-square-foot information to the Securities and Exchange Commission. The Staenberg Group is not publicly traded and also does not have to report the information.

Stacey Keating, a spokeswoman for CBL, said West County has been successful because of its mix of stores. Several national chains have their only St. Louis locations at the mall, she said, including Lego, Brighton Collectibles, Camille La Vie and more.

So, too, do some local companies, such as Pure Perfection Candles, Riviera Luggage & Leather and Across the Board.

Across the Board, which sells homemade wooden board games, opened last November as a popup; the lease was only supposed to last through the holidays, ending in January.

“It went so well that we ended up signing a 12-month lease, so we will be there through January, 2023, at a minimum,” said store owner Kim McDaniel.

Saturday shoppers visit West County Center

A shopper walks past an H&M advertisement inside the West County Center on Saturday, Sept. 24, 2022. Photo by Jordan Opp, jopp@post-dispatch.com

“When we started it we were cautiously optimistic. Just coming off the pandemic, we were not sure how people would return to shopping. We were hopeful, but it ended up being better than we anticipated,” she said.

McDaniel said she thinks the mall’s location has a lot to do with its success, but she also said credit should go to its management for “keeping it clean and safe.”

But it’s not just a sense of security that brings shoppers to malls, said Cohen. The facilities also must stay attractive and be well maintained.

For instance, West County Center was built in 1969. But it is in good condition now because most of it — except for two anchor stores — was demolished in 2001 and rebuilt in 2002.

Shoppers tend to stay away once malls begin to look run down, Cohen said. Sparsely filled parking lots — and even something as minor as cracks in the pavement — add to a sense that the mall is failing.

“With a lot of vacancies, a mall often takes on the look of an empty restaurant,” he said.

Cohen acknowledged that the mall business “has lost its luster,” and said that out of a thousand malls in the country, only a few hundred are still thriving. Those tend to be newer, with “a good mix of vibrant, healthy stores.”

So what went wrong?

“The mall at the bottom of Exit Ramp 2 was a success, so someone built a mall at the bottom of Exit Ramp 3,” Cohen said.

Too many malls were built, he said, and the spaces between the malls were filled with strip shopping centers. Too much competition took business away from everyone.

“Then along came Jeff Bezos,” he said.

The internet has hurt in another way, too. In the 1980s and 1990s, malls were where teenagers would gather to meet and socialize. But young people now stay home and socialize on social media, Cohen said.

But don’t count out malls completely. On weekends especially, it can be hard to find a parking space at one. And they will soon be packed with holiday shoppers.

“Now you have a business that is in significant decline, although you have a number of malls that will continue to thrive and be successful,” Cohen said.

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