Shoppers visit Santa Monica Place, which reopened in August after a two-year,… (Mariah Tauger, Los Angeles…)
For the better part of a decade, the buzz in retailing has been focused on online sellers, free-standing stores and street-level boutiques.
But there's still nothing like the mall.
As retailers look forward to what is shaping up to be their best holiday season since before the recession, the power of the shopping center is evident in the jammed parking lots, crowds of jostling shoppers and a sea of shopping bags.
"A few years ago, I looked at malls as a deteriorating retail concept because consumers were shopping them less and less," said Britt Beemer, chairman of consumer behavior firm America's Research Group. Now "I feel more encouraged. The malls that are definitely going to survive are being more proactive."
Nearly 52% of retail spending takes place at shopping centers today. That's down slightly from 55% in the early 1990s, but is still formidable and better than mall performance in the years leading up to the recession.
For proof of that, swing by Fashion Island on a Wednesday. Or check out the outdoor Grove in the Fairfax district during recent rainstorms. Or hit Glendale Galleria, well, any day of the week.
Hordes of people packed Los Cerritos Center like an amusement park recently, with an hourlong line to take photos with Santa Claus. At the entrance to the mall's Forever 21 store, exhausted shoppers sprawled on the floor, their shopping bags at their feet. Over in the Sephora cosmetics boutique, 33 people waited in a checkout line that stretched from the back of the store to the exit.
Similar scenes were found at Newport Beach's upscale Fashion Island, where shoppers rested on the ledge of an ornate fountain because all of the outdoor tables and patio furniture were full. On the Westside, a line of cars half a block long waited to enter the parking garage at the newly remodeled Santa Monica Place; nearby, valets wearing Santa hats raced around trying to move the luxury cars along.
Even through the pouring rain this weekend, shoppers hit the Grove in force, wearing yellow ponchos and toting colorful umbrellas. A mile away, the Beverly Center was inundated with significantly more shoppers than on the same weekend last year.
"Malls are never going out of style," said 24-year-old Kim Hewitt, a substitute teacher from San Clemente who was laden with bulging bags from Nordstrom, Charlotte Russe and Foreign Exchange at Santa Monica Place. "It's the No. 1 place to go to get the most done."
The recent resurgence in mall shopping was a major reason several groups, including the National Retail Federation and the International Council of Shopping Centers, raised their holiday season sales forecasts in recent days. The retail trade group is now predicting a 3.3% rise over last year; the shopping center council is expecting a 3.5% to 4% rise, which would make the season the best since 2005.
Mall executives are defiant about talk of shopping centers' waning relevance.
"It's always popular to predict the demise of the king of the hill," said Art Coppola, chief executive of mall operator Macerich, which owns 71 centers nationwide including Santa Monica Place. "But when the king still stays on top of the hill for 30 or 40 years in a row, it's hard to argue with success."
Other major mall expansions and remodeling plans are in the works in Southern California that will bring more shops, restaurants, grocery stores and services to local shopping centers in the coming years.
But mall owners acknowledge that success comes with a different formula these days.
An American institution, malls' main challenge has been to move beyond the old-school, fortress-like behemoths with their random groupings of stores and neon-lighted food courts wafting with grease.
Time-strapped consumers today are looking for more, so many mall owners used the recession as a time to regroup and think about ways to make their centers more than just a place to shop. The malls that have thrived in recent years tend to be the outdoor "lifestyle" centers that function as modern-day town squares, with as many nonretail offerings as there are stores.
"You do have to work harder for the customer," said Matt Middlebrook, a vice president at Caruso Affiliated, which owns the Grove in Los Angeles and Americana at Brand in Glendale, both open-air centers. "People do have limited attention spans and limited resources, and we have worked extraordinarily hard, particularly in this downturn, to give people more."
But mall owners are limited too. Unlike in the 1980s when land was readily available and building costs were relatively cheap, new mall projects have grinded to a halt in recent years. The name of the game now is remodeling, expanding or renovating existing properties.