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Shopping Malls Thriving as Customers Adopt Technology

LaToya Dennis
More than 90 percent of sales still occur in brick and mortar stores

Its Black Friday - the official start of the holiday shopping season. In recent years, there’s been talk that the growing number of online sales would signal the death of traditional suburban American malls. The prediction hasn’t really panned out. Experts say that while shopping malls have had to adapt, they’re now seeing some of their best numbers since the late 1980s.

Walk into any shopping mall these days and the sound of Christmas music floats through the air, holiday decorations are center stage and Santa, well of course he’s there waiting on kids who’ve been naughty and nice to make the big ask. That’s the scene at Southridge Mall in Greendale where Mary Mokwa is general manager. She says people continue to shop at her mall because of the experience.  

“The entertainment factor, it’s good to have restaurants and things for family members to do in addition to shopping. So you’ll see we have a trackless train here for the kids to ride, we have a Buca Di Beppo family restaurant and lots of events for the family to come and have entertainment,” Mokwa says.

Southridge bills itself as a family mall. It underwent a huge renovation a few years ago and while Mokwa stops short of giving exact numbers she says sales are up, way up. She says the people who predicted the death of indoor shopping malls ignored a big factor.

“Certainly you can go online and order a product and get your product delivered to you and complete that task, but it lacks the actual experience of and the enjoyment of being with your family members and experiencing the experience of buying something and touching something and looking at something and enjoying that together. And that’s what a shopping mall does,” Mokwa says.

As much as 93 percent of retail sales in the U.S. occur in physical stores, according to Jesse Tron of the International Council of Shopping Centers. Still, Tron admits people shop differently these days.

“The way that people are influenced while they’re standing in a store before they make a purchase has significantly changed. For instance, our latest Black Friday survey found that 80 percent of shoppers said they were going to use their mobile device while they’re standing in the store. They’re going to be checking prices, they’re going to be checking inventory, they’re going to be getting second opinions from they’re friends and they’re going to be downloading of course coupons or other discounts and stuff like that,” Tron says.

Tron says across the country, the shopping mall industry has been experiencing solid sales growth.

“We’ve been seeing that steady three…in the range of 3 percent growth for several years now. When you have that three percent year in, year out, that’s really solid, steady growth. I’m saying it’s the most robust economy that we’ve seen, of course not, but it is significant, steady growth and that’s important because that’s sustainable,” Tron says.

Tron says that while upwards of 80 percent of the market is performing very well, higher end malls, those with stores such as Apple and Nordstrom’s are outperforming most others. Mark Eppli is a finance professor at Marquette University. He says higher end malls benefit from what’s called the spillover effect.

“A Nordstrom is able to draw a far broader set of tenants, in other words other retailers that follow them to that mall as well as consumers. And those consumers end up spending more as well,” Eppli says.

More customer spending could mean even better news for Mayfair mall where Nordstrom’s recently opened. Yet Eppli says not all shoppers are looking for high end; so malls such as Southridge and Brookfield Square - which plans to open several new restaurants will probably continue to fair just fine.

LaToya was a reporter with WUWM from 2006 to 2021.