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.

•Stores as entertainment. The line between retail and entertainment blurs further among such stores as Adrenalina and Bass Pro Shops. About 30% of each of Bass Pro Shops' 50 stores are dedicated to a theme associated with its location, bringing in elements of a natural-history museum, an art gallery and an aquarium.

Each store is singular, from the Florida shop that features the hull of a sunken ship to a 30-foot-long blue whale displayed in Massachusetts. And each receives more than 3 million visitors a year, the company says.

Bass Pro Shop stores have assumed the status of a tourist destination, the company says, and some people are spending vacations driving from store to store.

Malls, or even whole cities, will often help pay for construction, investing in the store to help attract customers as well as other retailers. Bass Pro Shops typically pays the money back over time through rent. "A lot of malls come to us to be the anchor for them, like a Sears or a Penney's used to be," says Larry Whiteley, manager of communications for Bass.

Adrenalina, an action-sports retailer, has also negotiated favorable rent and defrayed construction costs. Its two existing Florida stores each house a FlowRider wave machine, which lets customers test surfing equipment on a simulated wave.

Of five stores under construction, at least two will have their full construction costs covered by landlord allowances. The retailer expects to announce more store openings soon.

"We're getting swamped every week by many landlords," says President Jeffrey Geller.

•One-time events. Musical tours such as Simon dTour Live and the Zumiez Couch Tour continue to bring in kids and teens to mingle with stars such as the All-American Rejects and Alkaline Trio.

It's also becoming more popular for malls, especially those with an open-air forum, to hold summer concert series, says Erin Hershkowitz of the shopping centers council.

Politics is seen as a draw, too. General Growth Properties will delve into the presidential election this year with its UR Votes Count event in 150 malls over a six-week period.

UR Votes Count is designed to get teen shoppers informed and involved in this year's presidential election. Teens will be able to learn about the issues and vote in a mock election, which automatically registers them for a variety of prizes.

In a survey, the company found that nearly 49% of teens were interested in both the election and in UR Votes Count. Of the teens who said they would attend the event, 96% said they'd make a special trip to the mall to do so.

Perhaps more to the point, teens spend an average of $101 per trip to the mall, General Growth Properties says.