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Local Retail Spending Shift Leaves Future of Malls in Question

4 min read

It is no secret the retail industry has changed dramatically over the past decade. Although consumer spending has increased, the growth of online shopping and shifts in spending trends led to record store closings and more than 300 retail bankruptcy filings in 2017. 

As tenants and anchor department stores disappear, shopping malls across the U.S. are being forced to close or reinvent themselves. Analysts estimate that a quarter of the country’s 1,200 malls could be out of business by 2022. And experts say that malls graded “B” or below based on area demographics and sales per square foot, like Jonesboro’s Mall at Turtle Creek, will likely have the most difficulty adapting to the evolving retail landscape.

Completed in 2006, the 731,000-SF single-level complex is the only enclosed shopping center within a 75-mile radius. The mall is surrounded by restaurants and retailers at Jonesboro’s most highly trafficked intersection, which sees an estimated 51,000 vehicles per day. Located in the largest city in a 17,000-square-mile land area, Mall at Turtle Creek serves a trade area of more than 450,000 people. 

But despite its coveted location, the mall has numerous vacant storefronts, a half-empty food court and plethora of available parking. In just the last two months, three stores in the mall have announced closing dates. On Tuesday, Express said it would close its store on Jan. 27. Dress Barn, one of the mall’s original tenants, closed on Dec. 16, and Versona, a clothing and accessories store that had been in the mall since 2012, closed on Christmas Eve. 

The Future?

With local unemployment rates at around 2.6 percent and local sales tax revenue at an all-time high of $19.9 million in 2017, residents are wondering what the future looks like for area retail.

Rouse Properties Inc., which operates The Mall at Turtle Creek and more than 30 other properties across the county, did not respond to multiple interview requests. But trends suggest the mall may be the last of a dying breed. In fact, it was the only enclosed shopping mall completed in the entire country in 2006. When Rouse Properties announced its purchase of the mall and the adjacent Turtle Creek Crossing for $96.3 million in 2013, the company described the complex as a “newer vintage property.”

Contrast that with many of Rouse’s recent projects, which are transforming malls into heavily programmed indoor-outdoor centers. These facilities boast a range of amenities, including restaurants, movie theaters, fitness studios, housing, parks and water play areas. Like a majority of newly constructed or renovated malls across the country, the models require downsizing the amount of designated leasable apparel retail space from about 50 percent to 30 percent. 

These newly designed shopping and residential centers seek to offer something that the online marketplace, which saw an 18 percent increase last year, cannot — an experience. According to a report by Mintel’s American Lifestyles, such properties are specifically aimed at millennial shoppers who are more likely to spend money on dining, travel and technology as opposed to apparel. 

Main Street Revamp

On a smaller scale, increased spending power and desire for individual customer service have led many community developers to build small outdoor shopping centers. 

Often offering a narrow range of goods and services like grocery stores, restaurants, salons, laundromats and boutiques, more than 2,300 of these models have been built since 2010 — a total of 114,683 centers across the country. 

In Jonesboro, the revitalization of Main Street and an increase in neighborhood shopping centers and boutique clothing stores exemplifies the shift toward consumer experience. Many businesses are moving away from large-scale retail complexes like the mall and in to smaller, less expensive centers with street frontage. 

The Jonesboro Chamber of Commerce reports that there are at least 15 small apparel retailers or boutiques in the city. That number has increased dramatically over the last few years. 

Allison Howard, who owns a women’s clothing franchise boutique called Fab’rik, was one of the first to open in Jonesboro.

“When we started in November 2013, there were only three other boutiques in town,” Howard said. “We’ve been successful because we were able to establish brand loyalty.” 

Howard said that while she competes with online retailers like Amazon, she’s also used the Internet, “especially social media platforms like Instagram, to communicate with clients and showcase merchandise.”

Howard’s store, which is located in a four-store shopping center across the street from The Mall At Turtle Creek, is one of 42 Fab’rik franchises across the Southeast. Targeting women between the ages of 18 and 55, the store offers trendy clothes and accessories at $100 or less. When asked how the mall affects her business, Howard stated that customers are now more likely to look for clothing in boutiques before going to the mall. 

“You’re just another door at the mall,” she said. “Customers are looking for convenience, comfort and great service. We want you to feel like you’re visiting friends here and shopping in your best friend’s closet. That is why brick and mortar retail will always survive.”

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