In The Hunt For Shoppers, Malls Look For An Angle

Shopping malls are looking for an angle to cash in on the busiest shopping season of the year.

In Connecticut, Danbury Fair has a “recharging room” for shoppers to pause before they head back into retail battle. The Connecticut Post Mall in Milford, hoping to entertain shoppers, offers an “augmented reality app” akin to Pokemon Go.

And at Westfarms mall in Farmington, a 6,000-square foot “reimagination of the North Pole” lets children become a “cadet in training” to save Christmas.

Malls and other traditional shopping centers are under pressure from online sales and changing tastes and habits among consumers who seek niche stores and smaller brands. Malls are responding with different strategies — entertainment, in particular — to capitalize on what the National Retail Federation says will be as much as $682 billion in holiday retail sales this year.

“We’re already seeing Black Friday sales this week,” said Amanda Sirica, a spokeswoman for Westfarms mall. “Black Friday has morphed into the Black Friday season.”

An earlier start to the first official shopping day of the season — kicking off as many Americans are still eating their Thanksgiving dinners — has undermined the traditional start on the Friday after Thanksgiving.

“Crowds have gotten thinner and thinner every year,” said Poonam Goyal, a Bloomberg Intelligence senior U.S. retail analyst. “You kind of start on Thursday.”

Blue Back Square in West Hartford has scheduled Dec. 1 as its milestone for the shopping season, with groups of high school singers entertaining shoppers and stores and restaurants offering samplings at night.

“Hopefully, it will create some buzz,” said Elizabeth Zigmont, marketing director.

Holiday retail sales in November and December are expected to increase between 3.6 percent and 4 percent, to a range of $679 billion to $682 billion, according to the National Retail Federation. That compares with about $656 billion in 2016.

The group’s president, Matthew Shay, said consumer confidence is rising on the economy’s “steady momentum.”

With Thanksgiving a week before the end of November, a longer shopping season also is expected to help boost sales, Shay said.

UPS, too, expects an upbeat retail season. The package delivery service says it’s planning to deliver about 750 million packages between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Eve, about 5 percent more than last year.

And it says it anticipates delivering an average of 33 million packages a day during its peak week of Dec. 18, or about 1 million packages each day more than last year.

That supports the case made by Greg Maloney, CEO of retail at JLL, an investment management firm specializing in real estate. He said the troubles related to malls are exaggerated.

Some malls are closing and others are losing anchor stores, including several in Connecticut such as Brass Mill Center in Waterbury, Connecticut Post in Milford and Enfield Square.

Venerable department stores such as Macy’s and Sears have closed stores and laid off workers as they grapple with falling revenue. Sears warned last March that its ability to keep operating is uncertain.

And as anchor stores depart, malls struggle to fill the newly empty spaces and continue to attract shoppers.

Maloney said those retail problems are limited and do not necessarily affect regional malls.

“A lot of the things that people are reading and hearing are not true,” he said.

Strip malls are “the ones that are losing occupancy, the rent is going down, they’re struggling to fill space,” he said.

“Everyone wants to go to the mall. No one wants to go to the strip center,” Maloney said.

And while online retailer Amazon gets attention for its ability to disrupt retail — it posted nearly $136 billion in sales last year — Maloney said retail businesses still pull in more than $4.5 trillion in sales.

But Goyal, the Bloomberg analyst, said brick-and-mortar stores still have a long way to go to catch up with Amazon in online sales. At Walmart, for example, online sales account for less than 5 percent of its $300 billion in revenue, she said.

To boost Christmas sales, Macy’s is increasing the number of items that can be had for free with rebates linked to a purchase, she said. And Kohl’s is looking to sales of TVs, gaming systems, jewelry and toys, “categories that are higher ticket,” Goyal said.

Such a retail strategy is familiar: aggressive promotions. “No surprise,” Goyal said.

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