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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Finding new ways to draw customers is changing how malls look and operate

Friday night can be a bit quiet inside Silver Lake Mall, with a trickle of shoppers walking the beat between anchor stores.

But down the west corridor near Sears, a crowd starts to gather. Then the music begins – country, folk, bluegrass and gospel. It’s a weekly acoustic jam that began nearly two years ago and has built a loyal fan base.

“Everybody gets to play here,” said Ray Tapia, who organizes the gatherings in the community room of the Coeur d’Alene mall. “These musicians, they want to play.”

And mall management wants them there to infuse the place with some energy and hopefully give merchants a little extra attention.

“It’s another opportunity for our retailers to have the exposure to somebody that doesn’t usually come to the mall,” said A. Grove Ayers, the general manager of Silver Lake Mall.

“If you maybe came just to pick up one thing at Sears and on your way to the car you heard that music and you paused and hung out for a little while, then maybe you walk down a little bit farther and see Macy’s has this or that on sale … suddenly that 10-minute in-and-out experience turns into an hour in the mall,” Ayers said. “You can’t understate the value of that.”

With the recession still visible in the rearview mirror and personal technology rapidly changing how people shop, suburban malls are looking for ways to reinvent, revitalize and rebuild the traffic they enjoyed in years past.

“On the local level there’s only so much influence you can have,” Ayers said. “I can’t pick up the phone and call Nordstrom and say, ‘Hey, I think you should do a concept store here in my secondary-market, small-sized, low-volume mall.’ It’s just not the way it happens.”

But he can make the place a bit more vibrant and relevant by welcoming community groups to meet there. And so Scout troops, seniors organizations and Bunco players are among those that use the mall’s community room, like they might the library or a grange hall.

Kathy Allen, who lives in Post Falls, attends the music jams almost every Friday night to listen to her husband play banjo with other musicians.

“Otherwise I wouldn’t even be in this area,” Allen said.

And sometimes, when the weather is bad, she heads to the Spokane Valley Mall with her twin 2-year-old grandsons to let them enjoy the play area. That’s the draw, but once inside she’ll also spend a little money.

“While we’re there maybe we’ll have lunch, maybe we’ll shop a little,” Allen said.

Finding new ways to bring in customers is transforming how malls look and operate.

NorthTown Mall in Spokane has morphed many times over its nearly 60-year history and is doing so again. A major remodel underway on the north end will create a new grand entrance and redirect the flow of visitors through the collection of over 100 stores and restaurants.

But it’s not all about brick-and-mortar makeovers. It’s also how to make shoppers more comfortable and entice them to stay longer.

“It’s an overall experience. It’s not just going to one store, picking up what you want and leaving,” said John Shasky, senior general manager of NorthTown. “It’s staying for a while and having different things that you can do while here.”

To that end, the mall plans to add an Internet cafe area near the Kohl’s store with soft seating, a device charging station and a refreshments kiosk as part of the changes to be unveiled next spring. NorthTown and Spokane Valley Mall, both owned by Chicago-based General Growth Properties, added free wireless Internet earlier this year. Visitors can take a break to peruse social media, check out daily deals from retailers on site and learn about upcoming mall events.

“The use of social media, smartphones and everything is so prevalent in our society today, that we want them using it here,” said Shasky, who has worked in retail over 30 years and previously was an assistant store manager at the Bon Marché at NorthTown. “It’s an opportunity to come in and find out what’s going on with the different retailers and being connected.”

Another way malls are trying to stay competitive and relevant is to offer a more diverse mix of attractions. Later this fall NorthTown will welcome Get Air, a trampoline park, in the space formerly occupied by Wholesale Sports.

“So it should be fun – a good, healthy use as far as activities for kids and big kids, too,” Shasky said.

NorthTown also has worked to attract more restaurants and a wider array of cuisine, with plans for more of that in the redevelopment. “And that kind of adds to the whole experience. You’re not just coming in just to shop for your clothes and accessories and other home goods. Come in for dinner and a movie,” Shasky said.

“Hopefully we’re providing all the different avenues to make it a good time to go to the mall,” he said.

Evolving with consumers

In recent years, mall owners have reacted to shifting consumer habits spurred by the Great Recession and the proliferation of personal technology and the use of social media.

“The consumer is evolving and changing in their tastes in every way, including the food they eat, the clothes they wear and the shoes they wear,” said Daniel Butler, a senior adviser to the National Retail Federation.

That challenges shopping centers to continually reassess their tenant makeup and progress with customers who tend to be more mobile and tech savvy, Butler said. The retail landscape will continue to shift rapidly, he said.

“Where we are today is not where we’re going to be in two years or five years,” he said. “We’re just at the beginning of a new age where technology is driving how we serve the customer, but it’s all going back to how the consumer behaves and consumer preference.”

The consolidation of department stores in the 1980s and ’90s constricted the scope of tenants malls could pull from.

“They had to say, well maybe an anchor tenant might look different, it might be something like a Target or a grocery store. Or in some cases I’ve seen malls that have turned their top floor into education facilities or something like that,” Butler said.

Malls also are mixing in more locally owned businesses with the national chains and adding service-based businesses, such as a dry cleaner or shipping store, to lure customers.

“So they might have a FedEx office next to the food court, that sort of thing,” said Butler, who worked in department store retailing for 26 years.

The food court itself is changing, too, with more emphasis on variety and catering to palettes that are more sophisticated. Owners are asking “are we serving the kind of food people want to eat now versus maybe the types of foods people wanted 10 or 15 or 20 years ago,” he said.

Consumers changed their behavior dramatically as a result of the financial crisis, housing bust and surge in unemployment that began in 2007, Butler said. The Great Recession had a profound effect on those who came into adulthood during this period – young consumers who traditionally are an attractive demographic for retailers.

“The millennials are the most frugal generation since the Depression because in their lifetime they have not seen prosperity,” he said. “They save more. They will splurge on what they think is important to them, but they will economize or do without other things that just aren’t as important.”

And because people tend not to go shopping as often as they used to, mall owners and retailers want them to have a positive experience when they do go out, Butler said. One industry buzzword is “experiential design” – a focus on improving the entire shopping experience, from the moment they get out of their cars until they get back in and drive off, he said.

“Typically if a consumer is enjoying their experience they’ll stay longer and possibly spend more,” he said.

Staying fresh

Making the mall more attractive for the leisurely visit is one of the goals at NorthTown, Shasky said.

“We don’t place a limit on how much time you can spend here,” he said. “We do have open and close hours, but otherwise we want you to stay as long as you like.”

Drop-in-and-play areas – supervised playgrounds for children – came into NorthTown and Spokane Valley malls in recent years. Families hang out and let the little ones expel some of their energy, or parents leave their kids there for a time while they shop.

A new children’s play area plus family restroom will be part of the revitalized north end opening next year.

NorthTown’s last big redevelopments were in 1990 and 2000. Contemplating the current project along Queen Avenue, mall management aimed to fix two longtime problems: low activity between anchor tenants Kohl’s and Macy’s, and poor curb appeal outside the north end.

“Forever when you turned onto the property you saw a loading dock and compactor enclosure and institutional façade. Now we’re going to have … a whole new front door,” Shasky said.

The spirit of renewal extends throughout Spokane’s oldest mall, with new paint schemes, modern railings, changes to interior lighting and new signs going up on Division Street at Wellesley and Queen avenues.

“Even though you may have a footprint, it’s constantly changing,” Shasky said. “I even look back at when I was shopping here during my high school years. In the ’70s this was a different center than what it is today. It’s gone through a lot of changes. And our market has gone through changes.”

NorthTown kiosk retailer Shammy Rajendra said he anticipates a much-improved flow of shoppers through the mall once the north-end project is finished next spring.

“I think the facelift, the transition this mall is going through, is going to help all the tenants, definitely,” said Rajendra, who sells gift items including grilling accessories customized with college and pro sports team logos. “It was long overdue, but it’s happening and there’s going to be a lot of energy.”

Customers are noticing the changes, he said. “It’s definitely picking up. They are curious to see what’s going on.”

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