This past June, headlines across America rang out a unified death knell: The mall as we knew it was dead (or at least in hospice). A report from Credit Suisse estimated that 20 to 25 percent of malls in America would close within the next five years, and its prognosis for the following decade was equally grim—online clothing sales would double, while brick-and-mortar retail would suffer.
But a funny thing happened on the way to extinction: The malls fought back. Many owners and developers have retooled their retail centers to appeal to new generations, installing urbanist elements or reinventing their sites as pedestrian-friendly “town centers.” Others have initiated canny marketing strategies to remind shoppers that there’s no substitute for the in-person experience, especially when it comes to locally made goods. And while it’s too soon to tell if such gambits can turn those dour numbers around, Baltimore-area malls are trying hard to buck the national trends—and for some retail centers, the evolution seems to be successful.
If you ask Barbara Nicklas, senior general manager of The Mall in Columbia, mass-market retail is doing just fine, thank you very much.
“I can tell you that the mall is actually thriving,” she says. “We’ve announced over 100,000 square feet of new shops and restaurants, we’ve been able to quickly backfill any vacating tenants, and several of our stores have recently gone through expansions and renovations, including H&M and Forever 21.”
Makes sense, as Credit Suisse cited fast fashion as one of the few retail areas that continues to grow. But even Columbia’s department stores (JC Penney, Lord & Taylor, Macy’s, Nordstrom and Sears), a category that has seen major declines in the past year, seem to be doing well.
Is there a secret to this unorthodox success? Nicklas believes it’s the mall’s “multi-dimensionality.”
“We’re in a strong market between Baltimore and Washington, and our sales continue to be attractive to retailers,” she says. “But we’re attractive to consumers because we have the retailers, restaurants and experience they’re looking for. We’re family-focused, with a great play area and family fun events every Thursday. We have free WiFi and a parking app that people love. And the mall itself is open, airy and sunny. We work really hard to give the customer a good experience.”
Other suburban shopping centers haven’t fared so well, however. DeadMalls.com lists 12 defunct spots in Maryland alone, including the Hunt Valley and Owings Mills malls. The deterioration of the Owings Mills site, in fact, inspired filmmaker Dan Bell’s “Dead Mall Series.”
Yet there’s also proof that suburbia’s not giving up. The past several years have seen a number of open-air, mixed-use concepts popping up in the counties surrounding the city—Hunt Valley’s mall was replaced with Hunt Valley Towne Centre and Owings Mills will undergo similar redevelopment in an as-yet-unnamed outdoor shopping space in the old mall lot.
Retail and development giant Greenberg Gibbons owns Hunt Valley Towne Centre, along with Foundry Row in Owings Mills (on Reisterstown Road and not at the site of the former mall), Annapolis Town Centre, Turf Valley Towne Square in Ellicott City and soon-to-be-opened Towson Row.
“The proliferation of internet selling is changing how retail is today,” says Tom Fitzpatrick, the company’s president and chief operating officer. “E-commerce emphasizes value and convenience, so value and convenience are our biggest drivers.”
The key to the success of these centers, according to the Greenberg Gibbons philosophy, is the presence of a very different brand of retail: grocery stores.
Despite the rise of food services like Blue Apron and HelloFresh, he says, “groceries are something that people are still going out to buy. At the end of the day, the strength of the retail center is the strength of the anchor. Department stores are failing as anchors, but food has become the most important category in today’s retail mix.”
The Shops at Kenilworth’s new Trader Joe’s is a perfect example—since the hipsterish grocer came to the mini-mall, the parking lot has been looking significantly fuller.
Once consumers have been drawn in by food, the onus is on the centers to get shoppers to stay—and with brick-and-mortar shopping trending downward, simply filling stores doesn’t cut it anymore. Many mixed-use developments now offer outdoor concert series, panel discussions and other activities in hopes of transforming a simple shopping center into what Fitzpatrick calls “a meeting place and focal point for the community.”
What does that look like? Green Spring Station has turned their courtyard into a fashion show venue, for example, and an outdoor holiday mart.
In the city, though, it’s almost the exact opposite: Rather than building a community around retail, many developers are building retail around an existing community.
“I don’t necessarily believe that retailers who have shuttered did so because of the online shopping revolution,” says Tim O’Donald, president of Harbor East Management Group. “To say that brick-and-mortar retail is dying is a fallacy. We see more people wanting to live back in cities, and the shopping districts in these places are thriving. Businesses that have historically done well in online retail, like Warby Parker or even Amazon, are now opening brick-and-mortar stores. The new trend is omni-channel retail.”
It’s worth mentioning that Amazon, of course, recently bought Whole Foods Market which has a location in Harbor East. In fact, the grocery chain will be relocating from their current Fleet Street store to larger space on Central Avenue, a move announced well before the Amazon bought the parent company and one that reflects growth in the area.
For Harbor East, that means continuing to build a neighborhood, not just a retail center. Events like fashionEASTa and the Fit+ Festival may seem a bit more like sponsored content than naturally occurring neighborhood fun, but the area’s critical mass of local, regional and national goods makes it a city favorite.
And while malls used to be accused of shutting down small businesses, Charm City’s boutique retail destinations seem to be having the opposite effect. Benn Ray, owner of The Avenue’s Atomic Books and president of the Hampden Village Merchant’s Association, says that more stores seem to be opening than closing in the northern Baltimore neighborhood, and that there is definitely a newfound focus on locally made goods—which not only trumps mass-market malls, but online sales, too.
“In the store, people are looking for local zines and mini-comics, things they can’t find anywhere else. They’re seeking out things they haven’t seen online,” he says. “Most of our customers prefer to be in a bookstore, to see something before they buy it. They prefer not to support an evil giant corporation bent on world domination.”
Most interesting? Some of the most avid brick-and-mortar buyers are from the younger generation. Not all kids are “as interested in living their lives online,” Ray says. “They’re not on Twitter, they don’t care. It’s not cool anymore. Amazon is for their moms and grandmas. It’s the Kmartification of the corporate model.”
Instead, millennials and Gen Z-ers are seeking products that are as unique as they are Instagrammable. Case in point: the girl-power goods at Brightside Boutique, which recently opened its third location.
“[The market’s] gotten so unbelievably saturated,” says owner Christie Griffiths. “At every store in the mall, everything looks exactly the same and it’s cheaply made. When fast fashion first popped up about eight years ago, it was great. But now, people don’t want to wear something everyone has seen. They want something more special and we’re delivering.”
For Griffiths, that means tailoring her inventory to a “typical” customer for each location—the young, trendy shopper in Federal Hill; the more conservative, Baltimore-loving tourist in Fells Point; the artsy, hipster student in Hampden—and getting creative with sourcing.
“Last week, I had a customer tell me she loved our raunchy greeting cards,” Griffiths laughs. “I was like, ‘I’m literally buying them from a grandma in Kentucky!’”