Malls get creative to draw more shoppers in tough economy

Feel like riding a roller coaster before you hit the shoe department? Want to catch a jousting match after browsing for jeans?

One-stop shopping has taken on new meaning as malls, seeking fresh ways to revive declining business, have hit on a new strategy: Why not blend retail shopping with full-blown entertainment?

Consumer confidence is near record lows and many stores' sales are way down, so retailers and mall owners are pursuing fanciful new ways to lure shoppers. The more people they can attract, and the longer they can keep them there, of course, the more likely they are to buy.

As entertainment becomes more central to the shopping-mall experience, malls have sought out venues and stores that promise to draw crowds and are willing to bear some of the cost to see them realized.

There's no question retailers are struggling.

The International Council of Shopping Centers projects 144,000 store closures this year — up 7% from last year. That's the largest increase in the 14 years that the council has tracked the data.

"It's a tough environment for all retail," says Michael Niemira, the council's chief economist. "It's fair to say that the mall industry has been hurting."

Traditional malls now make up less than 16% of overall retail sales, down from nearly 40% in the mid-1990s, estimates Craig Johnson, CEO of Customer Growth Partners, a retail consulting firm.

"It's essential for mall owners to continuously renew (and) reinvent themselves to maintain excitement and newness for customers and to reflect how consumers like to shop today and what their needs are," Johnson says.

From the Bow Wow Vows event at Aspen Grove Lifestyle Center in Denver, which set the Guinness world record for mass dog weddings last year, to Inflatable World, a theme park of inflatable attractions in the parking lot of Westfield Mission Valley in San Diego, malls seem to be trying just about everything.

Foot traffic at malls declined for a year starting in March 2007, though it's ticked up for the past three months, says Bill Martin, co-founder of ShopperTrak, a research firm.

One theory why it's rebounded slightly: Gas, food and other prices are way up, so people are traveling less and looking closer to home for entertainment.

Here's what some malls are trying:

•Themed fun. Krazy City, an indoor park, offers rides, arcades, a full-service restaurant and often other attractions, such as miniature golf or bowling. The park already has four locations — two in New York and one each in Connecticut and Ohio — and expects to open two additional locations this year and more in 2009.

Wannado City, at the Sawgrass Mills mall in Sunrise, Fla., also has its eye on expansion. The role-playing theme park creates a city for its Kidizens, allowing them to choose from hundreds of professions. Since its opening in 2004, the park has received more than 600,000 visitors a year, says Claudia Vargas, a marketing coordinator. The company is opening a second park and has plans to expand throughout the United States.

Kids aren't the only target audiences for entertainment venues. Medieval Times, which has locations in two malls (in Georgia and Maryland), stresses fun for entire families. Its dinner theater transports customers to the Middle Ages for a meal and jousting show.

And 300, a for-adults bowling alley, club, sports bar and bistro rolled into one, can be found at the Oakridge Mall in San Jose.

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