The Evolution of Malls: Rethinking and remaking shopping malls to stay competitive

Visitors of Lansing’s two large shopping centers — Meridian Mall and Lansing Mall – are witnessing the retailing revolution that is reshaping the industry.

The real estate giants who own mall properties are shedding tenants such as large anchor stores, like Macy’s and even some smaller department stores like Gordmans. And while disruptive, it presents an opportunity to redefine and reinvigorate institutions integral to their communities.

Malls throughout the country are changing their retail mix by adding smaller specialty stores, offering more dining and recreation options, hosting arts and cultural institutions, and in some cases, even government offices. They are fashioning park-like settings, reconfiguring parking spaces and often looking outward rather than inward.

“The whole story that malls are dying is so overstated,” said Stacey Keating, spokesperson for CBL & Associates Properties Inc., owner of Meridian Mall. “Retailers and owners continue to evolve. Customers are more demanding than ever and more informed than ever. But, healthy and smart retailers will continue to succeed.”

For decades, Meridian Mall and Lansing Mall have defined the region’s shopping experience. Meridian Mall, just shy of 1 million square feet, sprawls across 80 acres at the busy intersection of Marsh Road and Grand River Avenue. It attracts millions of shoppers a year to its mix of 122 stores, according to General Manager Todd Huhn.

Lansing Mall, located on 80 acres north of West Saginaw Highway, has more than 70 stores and 840,000 square feet of retailing space. Both Meridian Mall and Lansing Mall serve growing markets with hundreds-of-thousands of demographically attractive shoppers.

Both shopping centers were built in 1969 on properties that, at the time, were far less suburbanized. Yet, even with multi-million dollar upgrades, they still reflect the style of retailing that was new and exciting 50 years ago. Now that they’ve been static; plenty has changed.

When Lansing Mall first opened, its anchor stores were Montgomery Ward, Federal Department Store and Wurzburg’s, which became J.W. Knapp Co. Meridian Mall’s big stores were Knapp’s, a Woolco discount store, and a G.C. Murphy. Throughout the years, both have hosted a roster of businesses upended by shifting consumer spending and competitive business challenges; introducing stores like Jacobson’s, Mervyn’s, Service Merchandise and Robert Hall Village.

What is different now for malls, and their customers, is the accelerated pace of change and the need to adapt quickly. The Urban Land Institute (ULI), a Washington D.C.-based nonprofit research institute, has published a detailed analysis of malls and how they can evolve to serve their business clients, retail customers and owners.

The study noted that “Malls are a unique and inescapable part of everyday life in America — and, increasingly, around the world. In many places, the mall is the community’s defacto downtown — the main public gathering spot, as well as a highly-valued shopping location. As a result, what happens to the mall may ultimately define what happens to the community.”

ULI cautioned the market for malls is now mature; most are decades old, aging rapidly and retail competition is ferocious as shopping preferences continue to diversify. Nonetheless it suggested in a report titled “Ten Principles for Rethinking Malls,” the future is secure, even buoyant.

“Exciting and innovative new shopping environments are being created from the bones of older malls, and the emerging phoenix bears little resemblance to what preceded. The old rules of mall development are breaking down rapidly as developers rethink what the mall could be. Their emphatic conclusion is that the age of the cookie-cutter mall is over: developers are remaking malls as quickly as they need to, in order to remain competitive.”

Rouse Properties, which owns and operates Lansing Mall, acknowledges what it terms the “occasional instances of tenant turnover.” Macy’s announced in January it would close its store there.

“What differentiates us is our ability to routinely re-lease any vacant space in our portfolio to nationally established brands and popular local favorites,” the company said in an email response. “For instance, at Lansing Mall, we brought in the state-of-the-art Regal Cinemas and leading dining and entertainment concept, Tequila Cowboy, which hosted country star Rodney Atkins last summer.”

“We will continue to ensure the long-term viability of the mall by leveraging our deep industry relationships to attract prominent retailers of all types when vacancies arise as well as host family-friendly events, like CommUNITY Day, Family Game Night, Yoga Saturdays and the Flint Water Drive, that the entire community can take part in and support.”

At Meridian Mall, where Gordman’s exited in April, management has begun refashioning the mix to accommodate non-traditional tenants.

Meridian Mall General Manager Todd Huhn cites the addition of the Michigan Women’s Hall of Fame, which is relocating from downtown Lansing, as an example of how the shopping center is evolving. In addition, the mall has sponsored a 3D printer-focused makers fair, tied in with new tenant Tinkrlab. In colder months, it stages the township’s farmers market.

“Those things really help differentiate us and solidify us in the Okemos area,” said Hunh.

As malls around the country transform and adapt, communities will help guide change by dictating wants and needs, ultimately creating custom hubs for entertainment, shopping and community engagement.

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Mickey Hirten

Mickey Hirten

Mickey Hirten is an award winning writer and editor. He has been executive editor of the Lansing State Journal, the Burlington Free Press in Vermont, and was the financial editor and a columnist for the Baltimore Evening Sun. He is the current president of the Michigan Press Association. His wife, Maureen Hirten, is director of the Capital Area District Library.

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