Malls dying? These in US have found a way to thrive

They buck the trend by focusing on giving shoppers an experience they can't get online

NEW YORK • Some retailers in the US have turned to extras like virtual-reality headsets and touch-screen mirrors to give shoppers an experience they cannot get online.

Aventura Mall, a shopping complex between Miami and Fort Lauderdale in Florida, is using a nine-storey slide.

The double-chute tower, which began offering rides in 2017, invites children and adults to grab hold of mats and then rocket around corkscrew turns and whoop 28m down.

In emphasising low-tech entertainment over cutting-edge gadgetry, Aventura is betting that bricks-and-mortar retailers can beat online vendors without having to play their game. The mall's owners, Turnberry Associates and Simon Property Group, have also installed whimsical sculptures, a terrace-lined party venue and carnival-style games of chance.

And as unlikely as it is for a 37-year-old property filled with chain stores to be at the forefront of anything, Aventura may have stumbled on a winning formula. With nearly a 100 per cent occupancy rate, according to Turnberry and outside analysts, it is widely considered one of the most successful in the US, which may be particularly notable as store closings mount.

Sears and Kmart, which have the same parent company, have shut down about 3,500 stores in the past 15 years, and will soon close 100 more, according to a November announcement. Macy's has had more than 100 store closings since 2016, and Toys 'R' Us liquidated all of its US locations, about 800, in 2018. And this month, Pier 1 Imports said it would close about half its stores, or 450, as it weighed bankruptcy.

Despite the struggles that physical stores face, the number of enclosed malls in the US has grown, clocking in last year at 1,170, which was higher than at any point in the last 50 years, according to the International Council of Shopping Centres, a trade group. Some malls have gone out of business and have even been demolished, but others continue to take their place, according to the trade group, suggesting that the death of the mall has been exaggerated, as Aventura can bear out.

Aventura is not the only mall that is bucking the trend. Other large, luxury-focused properties seem to be weathering the retail apocalypse equally well. One is Mall of America in Bloomington, Minnesota, the largest mall in the United States at 3.1 million sq ft. Others are South Coast Plaza in Costa Mesa, California; the King of Prussia Mall near Philadelphia; and Fashion Show in Las Vegas, which all have healthy vacancy rates of less than 3 per cent, said senior consultant Kevin Cody at CoStar, which provides analytics on commercial real estate.

At Westfield Century City in Los Angeles, customer visits rose 93 per cent from 2017 to 2018 after a US$1 billion (S$1.35 billion) renovation, according to Placer.ai, which analyses foot traffic using cellphone data.

With department stores like Nordstrom, Bloomingdale's and J C Penney, and long halls lined with smaller stores that have characterised mall design since the 1950s, Aventura in some ways seems to be a typical shopping destination.

But the property has not been shy about investing in its infrastructure, and has grown by about 50 per cent in size since 1983. Today, it offers 2.5 million sq ft of stores, making it the ninth-largest enclosed mall in the US, according to CoStar.

In emphasising low-tech entertainment over cutting-edge gadgetry, Aventura... may have stumbled on a winning formula. With nearly a 100 per cent occupancy rate, according to Turnberry and outside analysts, the mall is widely considered one of the most successful in the US, which may be particularly notable as store closings mount.

Aventura's third expansion, a US$214 million undertaking completed in 2017, added an airy 315,000 sq ft wing illuminated by a 347 sq ft skylight.

The expansion also made over an existing foodcourt, giving an upscale polish to a mall staple. Now called Treats Food Hall, the eatery sells lobster rolls, Cuban food and pizza. Nearby is a ceviche restaurant, a barbecue joint and Tap 42 Craft Kitchen and Bar, which, in an un-mall-like arrangement, has outdoor seating and serves drinks past midnight. Two hair salons, two manicure and pedicure shops and a Tesla dealership are also in the mix.

Art, inside and outside, seems to help, including figurative sculptures resembling huge heads by Ugo Rondinone, a sculpture of a strolling girl by Donald Baechler, and that curvaceous slide from Carsten Holler.

Events are also part of the equation. A sleek, third-floor event space that can be rented out for up to 700 guests for weddings, fashion shows and art exhibits opened last year. Every weekend, the mall hosts a farmers' market in an atrium. A train show, with a miniature model of the mall, takes place around Christmas. Violin ensembles play. And there is also the usual mall staple, a movie theatre.

"I think human beings are social creatures, which is why they go to Starbucks even when they can make coffee at home," said Turnberry chief executive Jackie Soffer, who added that even die-hard online shoppers needed to get out once in a while.

NYTIMES