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NRF Reveals What Will Get People Back to Shopping Centers

The mall is not dead—to the contrary, it’s merely outlived its usefulness to a modern breed of digital consumer.

WD Partners polled 4,000 consumers—split into younger “digital natives” and older “digital immigrants” to find out what kinds of amenities would entice them to return to shopping malls and reverse a trend that’s seen footfall plummet 10 percent annually in the wake of the Great Recession.

One key theme emerged from the findings, EVP of thought leadership and marketing Lee Peterson told the audience at NRF on Sunday. More than anything, both natives and immigrants want to tickle their tastebuds.

Both food halls and farmers markets topped responses from both demographics, though natives more strongly favored eating spots (78 percent vs. 61 percent) while immigrants most preferred the fresh fruits and veggies from a farm stand (75 percent vs. 77 percent). Both groups also indicated an interest in buy online, pick up in store (BOPIS) centers (74 percent for natives vs. 39 percent) as well as grocery stores (66 percent for natives vs. 47 percent for immigrants).

Shopping mall owners might be troubled by one glaring stat: 29 percent of digital natives said there’s “nothing” that would compel them to return to a retail center—not fitness center, not beauty boutiques, not health and wellness centers, nor indoor sporting arenas. “What could be more fun than being on a trampoline and playing dodgeball?” Peterson said.

According to Peterson, the data shows that people are flocking to stores where merchandise seems to be an afterthought—if there’s any at all. Inside Chicago’s House of Vans you’ll find half pipes and a stage where bands entertain but none of the racks of clothing and shoes you’d expect to find from apparel and footwear retailers. The restaurant within Rapha Cycling Club—which the New York Post dubbed the “biker gang for the 1 percent”—is far bigger than the rest of the store, Peterson noted, because the focus in that space is on hanging out and talking with friends. Though with merchandise priced at $350 for a bib and jerseys selling for $250, “$600 later, to say nothing of what you spend on food, you have just become a member of the Rapha Cycling Club,” he added.

Similarly, showrooms are catching on with consumers who want to see a curated, uncluttered assortment and are happy to trade the convenience of that experience for the “perk” of toting purchases home same day. That explains why Walmart acquired Bonobos, according to Peterson, who described the digitally native brand’s sales as “not even a blip on a half a trillion-dollar radar company.”

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“They bought it for the algorithm to understand how a showroom store works,” Peterson explained. Walmart, he believes, wants to figure out which merchandise a showroom should keep close at hand and what’s worth shipping to customers—and how that whole value proposition is communicated to shoppers.

Showrooms continue to test highly among young consumers, Peterson added, who may not have grown up going to the typical maze-like big boxes such as J.C. Penney and Sears.