Jan 9, 2020 - Economy

The year of the mall makeover

Stairway into the clouds

Illustration: Rebecca Zisser/Axios

In 2020, malls are trying to make a comeback — but with a twist.

Why it matters: Over the past few years, experts warned of a retail apocalypse and a massacre of malls that hasn't really happened — at least not the way they said it would. While the retail bastions of the 20th century, like Sears and Macy's, are hurting, America's big malls and shopping centers are still alive and finding new ways to get people through the door.

Driving the news: In March, American Dream — a 3 million-square-foot mall in New Jersey 20 or so years in the making — will be fully open. At a time when malls are struggling to find tenants, American Dream has already leased 90% of its storefronts, per the newsletter Retail Brew.

  • It follows the high-profile opening of New York City's Hudson Yards mall last year.
  • And American Dream's developers are planning a second location in Miami.

What sets American Dream apart from the dying malls of the last century is that it's just 45% retail. The other 55% of the mall's square footage will be entertainment options — from a hockey rink to an amusement park.

That trend is strengthening across the country, says Todd Caruso, a senior managing director and retail expert at real estate company CBRE.

  • Mall and shopping center vacancies left behind by bankrupt "anchors" — the big department stores that were once the leading drivers of foot traffic — are being filled with gyms, movie theaters and even co-working spaces.
  • Between 2014 and 2018, traditional retail's leased square footage decreased 6.7%, the International Council of Shopping Centers tells Axios.
  • Meanwhile, non-retail tenants, like fitness, entertainment and services, have seen a 5.6% increase. The space leased by restaurants also increased 1.1%.
  • The bet is that people will drive to the mall for these experiences — and end up buying a few things while they're at it.

The big picture: As e-commerce keeps taking a larger share of retail, some of the most resilient main street and mall tenants have been gyms, tattoo parlors and nail salons, all of which offer services that can't move online.

  • These places create a halo effect that helps the stores around them. "There's cross-shopping," Caruso says of the benefits to both retail and non-retail tenants like boutiques and grocery stores.

Yes, but: The death of malls may be overstated, but e-commerce continues to hack away at physical retail.

  • Close to 10,000 major U.S. stores closed in 2019.
  • That's impacting jobs: 59 U.S. cities saw a year-over-year decline in the number of retail jobs in 2019, per Barbara Denham, a senior economist at Moody's Analytics.
  • A number of department stores saw disappointing holiday seasons. Macy's announced today that it's closing 29 of its stores due to the drop in holiday sales.

The bottom line: The mall comeback is uneven — it's still largely limited to cities and wealthy suburbs, experts say.

  • In lower-income, rural parts of the country, the retail apocalypse is indeed leaving residents with few retail options beyond convenience and dollar stores.

Go deeper: Boom times expected for U.S. commercial real estate

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