How not to save a dying shopping mall


It comes as no surprise that when it comes to advice on running a business, The New York Times is the last place one should turn to. The NYT ran a story about an economically failing mall in upstate New York which is turning itself around with a lot of feel-good strategies that won't help the bottom line:

When the Payless ShoeSource at the St. Lawrence Center closed this spring... Erica Leonard, the mall’s manager... turned over vacant storefronts to local merchants who sell bourbon maple syrup and wood sculptures carved with chain saws.

How much revenue is a storefront selling maple syrup and wood sculptures going to generate?

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Near the mostly empty food court, a local Mohawk tribe member opened a specialty popcorn stand.

How many bags of popcorn will they need to sell to get the Mall out of the red? (Sorry--I just realized I used the word "red" in reference to Mohawks!)

And in the space that used to house a Sears store, residents of the area created a “winter wonderland” — an elfin village fashioned from discarded cardboard boxes that once held refrigerators.

How much revenue will the viewing of discarded cardboard boxes generate?

This year, a group of Canadian real estate developers bought the mall and made some basic improvements: new lighting in the hallways, patches to the leaky roof, cleaning supplies for the janitors.

Hey... cleaning supplies for the janitors! That should boost revenues tenfold!

She found a new kind of anchor: a group of residents who had formed a company, North Country Showcase, to sell wares from local artists. It has filled the vacated Express store with bowls, mittens, mugs and miniature wooden reindeer earrings carved by a retired technician at the power company.

This is a new kind of anchor tenant? Anchor tenants usually are big department stores that generate sales in the millions of dollars.

An Amish farmer delivers handmade fly swatters and other goods to the store by bus since he does not drive a car. The store writes him a letter if they sell out and need him to make more because he does not use a phone.

Is this The Onion or the New York Times?

This article reads like a puff piece that was paid placement by a PR firm. I spent years advising shopping centers about legal, management, and marketing issues, and no serious person in the industry would take this seriously. Malls are having trouble competing because people are buying more products online. The strategy for malls to survive is not to sell fly swatters and popcorn, but to focus on service industries.

Malls should revamp and rent their space to gyms and health clubs. They should rent their space to charter schools. They should rent to doctors' and dentist offices and physical therapists. They should rent to dry cleaners. In short they should rent to businesses which cannot be replicated online and can generate significant revenue, more, say, than popcorn and fly swatter sales.

Malls can also turn their spaces into office space which can be rented out as well. These are productive, high rent uses of space that can substitute for failing retail. Only the writers, and many of the readers of The New York Times who know nothing about running a real world business, would think that selling Indian popcorn and Amish fly swatters would be a viable recovery strategy for a large retail establishment.

[originally in AT]



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