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Local malls may need makeovers to stay competitive

Delaware Public Media

Malls were once a shoping staple, but many are now struggling and forced to reimagine themselves.

In Delaware, the Concord Mall in North Wilmington and Dover Mall are among those that may need to make big changes to survive.

Contributor Eileen Dallabrida took a look at where those malls fit into the landscape.

It’s a spring afternoon and Maggie Evans has just enjoyed lunch at one of her favorite restaurants, Bonefish Grill at Concord Mall.

In past years, the North Wilmington woman might have done a little shopping at Macy’s.

“But the store isn’t well stocked and I have to go to Christiana Mall when I want to buy petite sizes,” she says.

Pac-Sun, Express and Aeropostale, three stores her teenagers frequented, have closed. Other departures include Alpaca, Wet Seal and Noodles, a quick casual restaurant concept. Del Haven Jewelers recently exited to consolidate operations at its Kirkwood Highway location.

“When new stores come in they aren’t as nice as the ones that leave,” she says. “I’d like to see a little more upscale shopping.”

In an era of ferocious competition for consumers’ time and money, shopping malls are looking for ways to retain shoppers as well as attract new ones.

It’s a matter of survival. Retail analyst Jan Kniffen predicted that 400 of the country's 1,100 enclosed malls will fold in coming years. Blue Hen Mall in Dover was one of the first to fail. It closed in the 1990s and is now an office center for Bayhealth.

Christiana Mall, a regional supermall, boasts one of the highest sales per square foot in the nation following a massive makeover that transformed the property from a struggling center with two dark anchors to a bustling destination where visitors can shop at marquee retailers, dine at popular restaurants and enjoy entertainment.

Dover Mall, situated between Christiana and the Tanger Outlets in Rehoboth Beach, is intent on becoming a destination in its own right with a proposed $31-million road improvement that would funnel shoppers directly from Route 1.

Concord, privately held by Wilmington-based Allied Properties, has yet to announce a strategy. Allied management did not respond to a request for comment.

Still, it’s clear mall owners across the country are coming up with plans to rethink, revamp and reenergize properties. The Future of the Shopping Center Industry, a report on retail initiatives in the United States and abroad, says centers are embracing such nontraditional tenants as hotels and health clubs.

Presented by trustees of The International Council of Shopping Centers (ICSC), a New York-based trade group, the report predicts a growing connection between technology and shopping as apps enable retailers to communicate special promotions to consumers as they stroll the property.

Simon Property Group, the largest mall owner in the United States, already has outfitted its malls with Bluetooth-enabled technology with apps for participating retailers.

Dover and Concord Malls each count Sears and Macy's as anchor stores. Both retailers have recently announced store closings, but these First State locations remain open.

Among Simon’s 209 physical properties is Dover Mall, where civic leaders are focused on improving access.

Representatives from Simon and Western Development Corp. have joined city, county and state officials in a proposal to speed up a major expansion of Route 1 that would greatly enhance the mall’s visibility and funnel motorists to the shopping center and neighboring properties.

The public-private partnership calls for legislative approval to take out bonds and repay them through revenue generated at a new toll booth.

Currently, the project is far down the list at the Delaware Department of Transportation. The design process is slated to begin in 2021.

Simon’s attorney and local officials say the mall needs a boost sooner rather than later. Parent companies of two of its anchors, Macy’s and Sears, have announced a wave of store closings. The Macy’s at Dover is on a list of likely closings released by Morningstar, which list 2014 sales per square foot of $83 at the store, less than half the $169 per square foot sales of the average Macy’s.

James Waddington, director of the Kent Economic Partnership, says the road project would be an incentive for Simon to upgrade the mall, which hasn’t been refreshed in years.

“If this access road were to come to fruition I would suspect that the owner of the mall would be inclined to invest in the property to make it more competitive,” he says. “Traffic counts on Route 1 might work better for them than the current traffic counts on Route 13.”

The last enclosed shopping mall in the United States was built in 2006. The first stage of Concord Mall was completed in 1965, more than 50 years ago.

In the decade-plus since then, a number of properties have successfully reinvented themselves, including the iconic Cherry Hill Mall in southern New Jersey, the oldest mall east of the Mississippi. The fading Echelon Mall has been transformed into Voorhees Town Center, a mixed-use development that includes shops, restaurants, service providers, offices, condos and apartments.  Plymouth Meeting Mall in Pennsylvania, where Macy’s is closing, has brought in such nontraditional tenants as Whole Foods and Legoland.

Christiana is essentially built out with the addition of a freestanding Cabela’s sporting goods store and multiscreen theater. Steven Chambliss, the general manager, says Christiana continues to refine its mix. The mall will add two retailers in May: Cotton On, a 4,838-square-foot purveyor of casual clothes and home goods for the whole family; and Aerie, a 3,449-square-foot seller of lingerie and a spinoff of American Eagle Outfitter.

Credit Delaware Public Media
Delaware Public Media
30,202 of Concord Mall's 960,000 square feet is empty. Recent departures include Pac-Sun, Express and Aeropostale, Alpaca, and Wet Seal.

At 960,000 square feet, Concord currently has 30,202 square feet of empty space, according to a brochure on the company website. Unlike its competitors, it does not offer Wi-Fi. Mall walkers share that they piggyback off Sears’ service during their daily strolls.

Still, its ready accessibility on Route 202 and manageable size make it a good fit for Susan Forbes of Greenville.

“I don't get lost for hours like the bigger malls and I go there specifically for bargain or quick stop shopping,” she says. Recent purchases include a dress at Boscov’s, snapped up for $9.99.

Jeanne Bryce, a shopper from Wilmington, has drifted away from Concord in recent years, except for Fast Feet, a while-you-wait shoe repair shop.

“Rarely do I ever go into the mall,” she says. “The shoe repair shop is just inside the door between Sears and Macy’s.”

She occasionally pops into Sears but only to return items she ordered online from Land’s End.

That growing relationship between online buying and brick-and-mortar stores is proving beneficial to retailers, says a report by the consulting firm A.T. Kearney. The study says up to 20 percent of shoppers who return an online purchase to a store buy something new while they are at it. And 23 percent of customers purchase additional items when picking up an online order from a brick-and-mortar store.

In addition to Concord Mall, Allied owns Berkshire Mall in Reading, Pa., and a number of other shopping centers, including Christiana Town Center, Merchant Square and Christiana Fashion Center, a lifestyle concept that has attracted such first-to-the-market destination retailers, including The Container Store and REI.

Recently announced additions are Massage Envy, European Wax Center, Carters, Kirkland, and Hair Cuttery. Construction on the center continues.

Eileen Smith Dallabrida has written for Delaware Public Media since 2010. She's also written for USA Today, National Geographic Traveler, the Christian Science Monitor and many other news outlets.