Jingle all the Way?

By Mike Lewis
Signs of the holiday season popped up in early November at the Valley Mall near Hagerstown, Md.

Mall continues to evolve through another holiday season

By Mike Lewis
mlewis@crossroadsbizjournal.com

Shoppers will ring up a larger share of their holiday gifts online this year, according to national forecasts, bringing more change to brick-and-mortar-based stores.

But retail change is nothing new, according to Julie Rohm, property manager of the Valley Mall near Hagerstown, Md.

In fact, she said the mall has been changing practically from the day it opened 45 years ago. And it’s still evolving, with more changes, such as renovations to Regal Cinemas and a new Dick’s Sporting Goods store, slated to open in 2020.

“You have to continuously change (to meet) your shoppers’ needs,” Rohm said.

At the Valley Mall, that means mixing the traditional retail focus with entertainment options, from restaurants and movie screens to a fitness center and an amusement studio. Retail ventures might have accounted for 90 percent of the mall’s store space at one time. Now that might be about 70 percent, she estimated.

The mall is about 98% occupied, in terms of leasable square footage, she said.

‘Primary engine’

In its annual forecast, the National Retail Federation said it expected national holiday retail sales during November and December to increase between 3.8 percent and 4.2 percent over 2018 to a total of between $727.9 billion and $730.7 billion. The numbers, which exclude automobile dealers, gasoline stations and restaurants, compare with an average holiday sales increase of 3.7 percent over the previous five years.

At the same time, NRF expects online and other non-store sales, which are included in the total, to increase between 11 percent and 14 percent to between $162.6 billion and $166.9 billion, up from $146.5 billion last year.

“The U.S. economy is continuing to grow and consumer spending is still the primary engine behind that growth,” NRF President and CEO Matthew Shay said in the annual forecast. “Nonetheless, there has clearly been a slowdown brought on by considerable uncertainty around issues including trade, interest rates, global risk factors and political rhetoric. Consumers are in good financial shape and retailers expect a strong holiday season. However, confidence could be eroded by continued deterioration of these and other variables.”

NRF Chief Economist Jack Kleinhenz added that there were probably “very few precedents for this uncertain macroeconomic environment.”

“There are many moving parts and lots of distractions that make predictions difficult. There is significant economic unease, but current economic data and the recent momentum of the economy show that we can expect a much stronger holiday season than last year,” he said. “Job growth and higher wages mean there’s more money in families’ pockets, so we see both the willingness and ability to spend this holiday season.”

‘It manages you’

Signs of the season have been up in stores for weeks. At the Valley Mall, Santa Claus has taken up his annual residence at center court to greet children and hear their holiday wishes.

Santa’s routine and a few other standards, such as JC Penney’s spot as an anchor store, are among the few unchanged parts of the mall, Rhom said.

She pointed to a 1974 map showing the locations of businesses in the mall. The map shows a slot for Eyerly’s Department Store, a business that was later bought by the company that operated the Bon-Ton Department Store. Bon-Ton recently closed and has, in turn, been replaced by Belk.

The mall also had second-story space, now unused. It was occupied by shops with names like Freeman’s Crafts and Valley Candle Shop.

Another chunk of mall space was devoted to McCrory’s, a five-and-dime store. Much of that square footage is now devoted to mall administrative offices.

And next to the office space sits a bank of Amazon lockers, where shoppers can pick up items that they’ve ordered online.

Brenda Shanholtz, the mall office manager who also holds the unofficial title of resident historian, said brick-and-mortar stores have long faced remote competition.

A couple of generations ago, the competition came in mail-order catalogs.

“Your catalog has gone from a physical book to a computer,” she said.

And at its start, the mall was about half of its current size. The major addition happened in the late 1990s and a fourth anchor location was added in 1999. The opening of Regal Cinemas in May 2000 completed that expansion.

Rohm came on board as marketing director in 1999. She was named property manager in 2007. She said the title is something of a misnomer.

“You don’t manage the property. It manages you,” she said with a laugh.

‘Try to be cutting edge’

More recently, troubles for large retailers brought more change to the mall.

What had been Macy’s Department Store space has been taken up by Onelife Fitness Center and the Tilt Studio amusement facility. The former Sears space is being renovated to house Dick’s Sporting Goods.

PREIT, the real estate trust that owns the facility, also has developed more property outside the main mall.

It has developed other businesses, from a hotel to restaurants, on the out parcels. And it launched launched an effort to change the front of the mall, bringing more restaurants with access from the parking lot.

“I’ve got to give PREIT a lot of credit,” Rohm said, noting that the company encourages its properties to develop strategic plans to they can take advantage of opportunities as they emerge.

“We try to be cutting edge. We try to look ahead at what’s coming,” Rohm said.

As an example, she pointed to teenage shoppers. A generation ago, a social chiché centered on groups of teens gathering in shopping malls.

The teens are still there, Rohm said.

“They’re in Tilt. They’re in the movie theater. It’s not unusual to see a group of teens at one of the restaurants. … They’re quick shoppers, because they’ve already done all their shopping on the internet,” she said.

For teens and other shoppers, the mall also retains one advantage during the holiday season, Rohm said.

“First of all, we’re an indoor facility, so when weather outside is frightful ….”