Malls get a makeover

At the turn of the century, retail developers were in love with outdoor suburban plazas. Today, malls are going back indoors — but with a twist. They are now family destinations.

By Martha C. White

Last month, the company behind the mammoth Mall of America in Bloomington, Minn., sealed a deal with the state of New Jersey to revive a stalled retail and entertainment complex. The company, Triple Five Worldwide, renamed the project American Dream and went public with plans for a project more ambitious than the Mall of America. It’s the biggest — but far from the only — example of how malls are being reinvented.

A decade ago, the traditional shopping mall seemed doomed. Developers planted stores and restaurants around outdoor plazas, creating “lifestyle centers” in far-flung suburbs where land was cheap and new homes were being bought as fast as they could be built. But then the real estate market took a turn for the terrible. The industry retrenched.

“They’re revisiting traditional mall properties and figuring out what they can do with them,” says Greg Ellis, retail strategist at consulting firm Kurt Salmon. Increasingly that means rides, exhibits and other experiential elements as mall operators try to create destinations for families looking for outings close to home.

An amusement park? Why not? The Mall of America has a Nickelodeon-branded theme park inside its walls, left, and an amusement park is planned for the American Dream project. While most malls don't have the square footage to cram full-size roller coasters under their roofs, the concept is appealing to mall operators. Legoland Discovery Centers include rides and play areas but take up a much smaller footprint than the brand’s Legoland amusement parks. One opened earlier this year at the Grapevine Mills mall in Texas, another is on deck to open next year in Phipps Plaza mall in Atlanta.

In its bid to turn a mall from a shopping hub into a daylong destination for both locals and tourists, Triple Five doesn’t just deliver amusement parks. The massive West Edmonton Mall in Alberta, Canada, includes a full-sized water park with slides and wave pools, left. A similar attraction is planned for American Dream. It’s another example of how the mall is evolving into an entertainment center.


One of the more fanciful elements in the massive Mall of the Emirates in Dubai is an enclosed, manmade ski slope, protected from the desert heat by a bubble-like dome. Triple Five has a similar vision for American Dream, seen here in an artist's rendering. Of course, there are actual ski slopes considerably closer in New Jersey, but the prospect of year-round skiing could draw both locals and busloads of New York City tourists, who can hit the slopes without visiting actual mountains. It's not the real thing, but then again, plenty of Americans take their picture in front of the mock Eiffel Tower in Las Vegas.

Ice-skating is another seasonal sport that's going under glass, as seen here at the Grapevine Mills mall in Texas. Indoor rinks are both a Triple Five signature attraction — they're at the Mall of America and West Edmonton Mall — and a popular feature in Chinese megamalls that are growing in number. A redevelopment project announced this year for the aging Cincinnati Mall includes an ice rink in the plans, and the Westfield Sarasota Square Mall in Florida added a synthetic ice rink last November. Intended only as a pop-up attraction for the holidays, the rink was such a hit that it has been kept open.

Miniature golf is a natural fit for mall operators who want to fill up vacant storefronts and add an experiential element to their offerings without a major renovation. Reg Boothe owns a pair of mini golf chains that operate in malls around the country, including the Glowgolf course in the Coral Ridge Mall in Coralville, Iowa, left. Boothe says the recession has been good to him; in 2009, he opened 18 locations. “When the recession really wiped out the retailers, the malls ended up with more space on their hands,” he says, which gives him negotiating leverage. Boothe's courses can go in and out of existing space such as vacant stores easily, which he says operators like because they can add an activity to their space without having to commit to a permanent installation.

Triple Five's first jumbo mall was the West Edmonton Mall, and the developer is borrowing liberally from this monolith in its design for American Dream. The indoor beach at West Edmonton, left, is a hit, so the company plans to replicate that in New Jersey. Again, as with the indoor ski slope being planned, there are actual beaches within a reasonable driving distance — maybe you've heard of the Jersey Shore? — but Triple Five executives seem to be betting that the appeal of lounging in a bathing suit in mid-February will lure people to their faux seashore.

The aquarium at the Mall of America is a popular attraction, so much so that Merlin Entertainments, the company that manages the Mall of America Sea Life, opened a second mall aquarium, at the Arizona Mills Mall in Tempe, left. For malls that have or can add the space, it’s a great way to distinguish themselves from other shopping centers. A third Sea Life aquarium is scheduled to open at the Grapevine Mills mall in Texas this summer.

Thomas Lohnes / Thomas Lohnes

Back in the early days of malls, grocery stores were typical in. But supermarkets operate on very slim margins. When operators could command higher rents, supermarkets decamped for other locations. Part of the problem with operating a mall in a deep recession is that the traditional retail mix tends to offer mostly discretionary goods. But American shoppers visit supermarkets more frequently than malls, so these stores are being viewed as attractive tenants once again. Some are no-frills discount grocers like German chain Aldi, while others are upscale or specialty food retailers, like Aldi's sister brand, Trader Joe's. Last year, Seafood City — a Filipino grocery store chain — opened in the Westfield Southcenter mall near Seattle.

Mall operators are embracing stores that offer interactive experiences rather than just browsing and buying. Disney just revamped its store design to include high-tech play elements; kids can talk to characters that appear on a screen, for instance. But in-store playtime isn't just for kids. Outdoor goods brand Bass Pro Shops lets customers test out and learn about some of the fishing and hunting gear it sells. At the Harrisburg (Penn.) Mall, Bass Pro Shops features a climbing wall, left. And one store in Altoona, Iowa, makes a concession to those who prefer indoor recreation with an in-store bowling alley. Skateboard apparel and accessories retailer Vans operates a pair of indoor skate parks at malls in California and Florida.

Shopping make your blood pressure skyrocket? The Mayo Clinic is setting up a prototype in the Mall of America this summer. There has been a growing integration of retail and wellness for some time now: Chain drugstores have blood-pressure machines and many regional malls have chair massage kiosks. Mayo will offer consumer education, wellness information and products in its space and solicit consumer feedback to determine if they will build a permanent facility there. “We don't want something that looks like typical healthcare,” Dr. David Hayes, a Mayo cardiologist and the physician lead for mall initiative, says. “We want people to see this as a place you're going for wellness and health, not illness.”