Reinventing retail: Developers thinking outside the box to try and save local malls

WARWICK, R.I. (WPRI) – Shopping malls have long been a staple of consumer culture across the country. But as brick-and-mortar stores face growing competition from online shopping, some mall owners are trying to reinvent the retail experience.

Over the past couple of decades, Southern New Englanders witnessed the near collapse of several malls: the New Harbour Mall in Fall River, the Lincoln Mall, and the Rhode Island Mall in Warwick.

“It was hard to watch something slip down,” said Warwick Mayor Scott Avedisian. “About a year and a half ago I think we came through on a tour – it was like going into a life-sized time capsule; nothing had been moved since the day they closed, so all the mannequins were still there all dressed in the clothing.”

According to the R.I. Department of Labor and Training (DLT), retail employment in Rhode Island peaked in 2003 with 53,200 jobs, then started falling years before the 2008 recession. The numbers never recovered to their pre-recession levels.

Private-sector employment, however, did: 2017 marked its highest number yet, with nearly 435,700 jobs in Rhode Island. The situation is similar in Bristol County, Massachusetts, where retail jobs peaked in 2005 and have yet to return to pre-recession levels.

Ron Golub works for The Stonewood Companies Inc., one of the developers of the old New Harbor Mall in Fall River. “As retail started to change, as shopping habits started to change, the mall didn’t change,” he said.

First Bradlees, next Walmart, then Kmart either closed or moved – eventually leaving the mall nearly vacant. But that recently changed.

“A lot of the country’s best retailers weren’t anywhere near Fall River and wanted to be,” Golub said.

Golub is one of several developers who came up with a new vision for the mall – turning it inside out. Each store at the newly renamed SouthCoast Marketplace now has its own parking lot entrance and sits alongside new restaurants, a movie theater, a liquor store and a grocery store.

“What we tried to do is really develop the balance – the best balance that we could – of people that we thought that would be the most successful and benefit each other,” he said.

One of Golub’s goals is to rebuild the one-stop shopping experience because, he said, “one of the advantages of an open-air project is you can see the other stores.”

“They are going to PetSmart because they have a dog or a cat at home and they see 110 Grill – they haven’t been before. So they go and they sit down and they have a meal at a great restaurant and they leave,” Golub said. “They come back – they bring their dog in for the grooming station at PetSmart which they didn’t even know was there until they had visited the store, [then] they go into Five Below.”

In addition to a diverse mix of retailers, developers also need businesses that keep customers coming back, more than once a week. Another one of Golub’s goals for the new shopping destination is to create an experience that drives greater shopper frequency.

“There is a reason to come every week,” said Golub. “There’s a reason to come every month.”

A similar formula was used to build the Lincoln Mall back up, and is currently being deployed at the Rhode Island Mall. Clothing retailer Burlington just opened there last year, Dicks Sporting Goods is opening this month and Raymour and Flanigan is moving into the old Sears store.

“They are really at looking at being a destination and not just the same 12 stores that everyone else has,” Avedisian said.

Mall developers are also considering welcoming businesses that they used to turn away. For decades, fitness chains were not welcome tenants, with reported complaints ranging from from taking up too many parking spots, to attracting clientele that didn’t shop.

Just a few weeks ago, Planet Fitness held its grand opening at the Rhode Island Mall.

“Now in the new world every landlord wants a gym because you’re bringing shoppers, right?” said Steve Eddleston, a Planet Fitness franchise owner. “You’re keeping them away from their Amazon at home,” he added.

Eddleston currently operates 17 different Planet Fitness locations in Rhode Island and southeastern Massachusetts.

“I think malls in America, more so today with the Amazon effect, they are having some huge issues,” he said. “But I think what you have here is a model for how other malls could renovate themselves in the future.”

Other malls are already making similar moves. A CycleBar is moving into Providence Place mall and SouthCoast Marketplace is in the process of adding a new yet-to-be-named fitness facility.

According to the DLT, the number of health and fitness clubs in the state has increased 15 percent in as many years. That means an increase in jobs: the number of people employed by health and fitness centers in the state is up 24 percent since 2002.

“It seems like a lot of the smart retailers are making these kinds of moves,” said Eddleston. “It makes all the sense in the world.”

Avedisian said he expects the Rhode Island Mall to be filled up by September 2018.

Golub said he hopes to have 85 percent of the retail space at SouthCoast Marketplace occupied by the end of March.

The parent companies of Providence Place and Emerald Square malls declined to comment for this report.