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Shifting retail landscape brings changes to Dover Mall

The Dover Mall has seen significant changes recently as the retail landscape continues to evolve.
Tom Byrne
Delaware Public Media
The Dover Mall has seen significant changes recently as the retail landscape continues to evolve.

Shopping malls across the country are remaking themselves as the retail landscape that once led to their growth and popularity continues to shift in ways that leave many of them struggling now.

The latest mall to see some major changes is the Dover Mall. Like Concord Mall in North Wilmington, the Dover Mall is trying to find ways to reclaim foot traffic.

This week, contributor Eileen Dallabrida reports on the Dover Mall and how it's making a comeback.

Contributor Eileen Dallabrida reports on major changes to the Dover Mall

For the first time in six years, the lights are going on in the former Sears anchor at Delaware’s longest-operating mall.

It’s My Style Home Furnishings, operated by Furniture & More, is opening late in April or early in May at Dover Mall in the space previously occupied by Sears. The largest furniture retailer at the Delaware beaches, family-owned Furniture & More has seven locations in the First State and Maryland, including an outlet in South Dover, as well as a 100,000-square-foot warehouse.

Like most second-tier malls, Dover is evolving as department stores decline and traditional brick-and-mortar retail is challenged by online shopping.

The closed AMC theatre at Dover Mall.
Tom Byrne
Delaware Public Media
The AMC theater at Dover Mall is permanently closed.

As It’s My Style Home Furnishings was working toward its grand opening, AMC Dover, the mall’s multi-plex theater, closed its doors leaving the shopping center without a movie venue for the first time in 40 years. AMC said the decision was based on regular performance reviews.

“AMC routinely reviews the theatres in our circuit, as well as opportunities outside of our circuit, and makes decisions based on what will best strengthen the company going forward,” AMC Theatres spokeswoman Cassie Nichols said in a statement.

With Macy’s and JCPenney in the process of closing underperforming stores, 46% of malls have a dark anchor, according to Gitnux, a provider of market data and statistics. Dover is among the minority of malls that is replacing a dark anchor with another retailer, as mall operators turn to nontraditional tenants such as healthcare centers. In 2020, Target replaced Sears in the Prices Corner strip shopping center.

In a Colorado mall, a vacant Sears was repurposed as a shooting range. In Idaho, the Sears space is now occupied by Planet Fitness. In California, the shuttered Sears department store and tire center at Buena Park Downtown Mall are being converted to 1,176 apartments and 126 townhomes. In San Jose, the anchor store was reinterpreted as a mega Asian food market. At Brea Mall, Sears will be demolished to make way for a mixed-use development of luxury housing and resort-style boutiques and restaurants.

At Concord Mall in North Wilmington, where Sears folded in 2020, the two-story 180,172-square-foot store remains empty. Management at the state’s second-largest mall has floated such alternative ideas as a community theater.

Reinterpreting a mall is not a new concept. Witness Delaware’s first enclosed shopping center, the Blue Hen Mall, which debuted on South Bay Road in August 1968 and dominated Kent County’s retail scene until Dover Mall opened in 1982 and wooed Sears from its downtown Dover location. In the 1990s, the moribund mall was converted into the Blue Hen Corporate Center. Tenants now include the Delaware Department of Labor, Veterans Administration Outpatient Offices, and Bayhealth Medical Center.

In its heyday, Dover Mall boasted seven anchor tenants, including Sears, Macy’s, JCPenney, Boscov’s, Dick’s Sporting Goods and Old Navy. Sears closed in 2018. Macy’s discontinued in-store sales and transitioned its department store into a fulfillment center in 2020, as many consumers shifted to buying online during the COVID-19 pandemic. Nationwide, 9,300 retailers went out of business.

A directory at Dover Mall.
Tom Byrne
Delaware Public Media
A directory at Dover Mall.

In 2021, in response to shopping trends, Dover City Council approved an amendment to the zoning code to allow distribution and warehouse use at the mall, which is located next door to Dover International Speedway.

Cindy Small, a longtime Dover resident, has long been a loyal customer of Boscov’s department store at the mall. But she stopped going to the movies years ago and rarely ventures out of Boscov’s anchor to shop at the other stores, which range from national brands like American Eagle and GameStop to indie retailers like Steppin in Style, a women’s fashion boutique. She isn’t sure the mall model works for today’s shoppers.

“One wonders if the mall could transition to a nice outlet center, especially if it could get Route 1 access,” she says.

Shifts in consumer sentiment have inspired some retailers, Foot Locker and Bath & Body Works among them, to exit mid and lower-tier malls and focus on lifestyle centers and mixed-use developments.

Real estate values have been impacted, too. Dover Mall was valued at $129 million in 2011 and slid to an estimated $41 million by 2021, according to loan data from Trepp, an analytics firm. The mall is owned by Simon Property Group, a publicly traded real estate investment trust based in Indianapolis. Simon is the largest mall operator in the United States, with more than 200 properties.

On the flip side, a recent report from Coresight Research suggests that post-Covid shoppers are returning to malls, which provide a sense of community that online shopping does not. In 2022, more stores opened than closed for the first time since 2016. Sales at malls were up more than 11%.

At 927,414 square feet, Dover is the third biggest mall in Delaware, boasting 83 shops and a food court. The biggest mall, and the state’s only “A” mall, is Christiana Mall, with 1.27 million square feet, 182 stores, and a near 100% occupancy rate. “A” malls represent the top 20-30% of the market and feature marquee retailers.

A Simon spokeswoman did not respond to a request for comment on new tenants and future plans for the mall. Recent additions suggest is Dover being creative in repurposing vacant space. An empty storefront is now a classroom for Walmart’s truck driving school.

Slime Zone & More opened at Dover Mall in March on the site of a former tuxedo shop.
Alyssa Brown, Slime Zone
Slime Zone & More opened at Dover Mall on the site of a former tuxedo shop.

Vacancies in malls also present an opportunity for independent retailers and service providers. In March, Slime Zone & More opened at Dover on the site of a former tuxedo shop near the Boscov’s anchor.

Owned by early childhood educators Shakiah Davis and Alyssa Brown, Slime Zone focuses on science-oriented activities for kids. Customers don white lab coats and are guided through activities by employees, who are referred to as science techs.

For $11.99, patrons can conduct an exploding volcano experiment, which “erupts” in a cloud of non-toxic smoke. Amateur scientists combine food-grade hydrogen peroxide, food coloring, and iodine crystals to make extravagantly foaming elephant’s toothpaste.

“Slime is our big seller,” notes Brown. “You pick the color and the scent and add glitter, beads, and sparkling gems.”

Brown and Davis say Dover is a good fit for them. They got a favorable deal on rent and parents shopping with their children are providing a steady stream of customers, including a few adults. It’s also convenient for them to pop into their favorite stores, Old Navy, Rue 21, and Boscov’s.

“We have exceeded our expectations and plan to add more experiments to our lineup,” Brown says. “The mall is a good place for us to reach people and grow.”

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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.
Tom Byrne has been a fixture covering news in Delaware for three decades. He joined Delaware Public Media in 2010 as our first news director and has guided the news team ever since. When he's not covering the news, he can be found reading history or pursuing his love of all things athletic.