One of the most disturbing retail trends over the past few years has been the virtual disappearance of old-line department stores. Even if shopping trends aren’t exactly favoring them anymore (and I would argue that there’s not all that many people in the under 30 set who shop at Macy’s very often), there’s still a question of what to do with the real estate they leave behind: huge, hulking, bunker-like stores that serve as almost every anchor to almost every mall in the country. These centers are troubled enough without having to worry about the string of mergers and bankruptcies and shifting shopping patterns that have taken away their lifeblood.
One place to look to for guidance is Canada, which is a country that has long thrived with only two real national department stores (The Hudson’s Bay Company and Sears, which was formerly Eaton’s) along with a few discounters (Zellers). Many Canadian malls have filled out their anchor roster with other tenants, such as big box stores (electronics retailers, sporting goods stores, and bookstores) as well as supermarkets.
The last item–supermarkets–have been the bugaboo here in the United States. Few malls are anchored by them, presumably because shopping carts filled with food don’t exactly mesh with ladies in feathered hats buying Manolo Blancs. But no more! Faced with unfillable anchor store vacancies, some malls in the U.S. have begun experimenting with grocery anchors, most notably Westfield, who is adding a supermarket at their North County Mall in Escondido, California, outside San Diego.
What’s good about this for malls is that supermarkets generate many more visits per month than your typical roster of apparel retailers–an average supermarket may draw a consumer in a few times a week, rather than once or twice a month. That also opens up the center to appeal to different kinds of stores that thrive on more foot traffic:
It is a change that an industry analyst calls “mall-morphosis,” aimed at building miniature town centers where consumers can shop for a week’s worth of food, play with their children and maybe feel relaxed enough to wander over to a jeans shop and spend some money.
“Malls will become more of community center, destination locations,” said Marshal Cohen, chief retail analyst at the NPD Group.
“They are adding restaurants, community centers, playhouses, splitting big stores into slightly smaller stores,” he said. “Some are looking at warehouse clubs, fitness clubs, converting a big store into an indoor skate park (in Los Angeles).”
I think this is great, because it’s playing precisely on why malls should be fun–they’re places to gather, not just shop for clothing.
Also, you can open up a lot of possibilities. For example, Whole Foods, a chain that has a large prepared food section and typically has cafes in store, could face the interior portion of the mall with this offering–which appeals to hungry casual shoppers–while facing the regular registers out towards the parking lot for people running in just for groceries.
Another trend I’m seeing more of with vacant retail spaces is “pop up” stores, which typically are temporary shops intended to promote a specific brand or product. This isn’t a new idea–Trendwatching did a piece on them way back in 2004, and here’s another from 2006 by Retail Traffic. But Apple’s wildly successful retail store venture has proven that tactile brand experience stores can translate to improved sales, and given the ability to buy practically anything on the internet, the retail experience could double more as a showroom. This has been tried in a few ways with less success (Sony’s failed Metreon Mall in San Francisco, or the never-opened “Epicenter Collection” internet showroom concept) but these pop up stores have been generating some excitement in empty storefronts in hip urban neighborhoods, or in temporary installations in big cities.
Here’s a few new ones:
San Francisco may be getting a “mall” of temporary pop up stores in several structures along Octavia Boulevard in the city’s Hayes Valley neighborhood, an area with a burgeoning high-fashion shopping district that draws on the same type of culture and products commonly associated with Melrose Avenue in Los Angeles. Octavia Boulevard replaced an elevated freeway that was removed, and there are still vacant lots dotting the boulevard; the plan here is to fill the space with a series of structures intended to last a few years, showcasing a variety of goods and services.
And in the less conceptual plane, there’s a Puma brand pop-up store (pictured top of post) on the waterfront in South Boston, made of a bunch of old shipping containers and filled with excited consumers: