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Are malls dead? The landscape of retail in the D.C. area

Wednesday - 8/21/2013, 11:21am  ET

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With one department store, the Ballson Common Mall is an example of a mall that struggles to maintain big retailers that attract consumers to the enclosed retail development. (WTOP/Rachel Nania)
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WASHINGTON - Fornash, a local jewelry and accessories boutique, opened in The Shops at Georgetown Park on M Street N.W. in 2002.

"It was dark and there was hardly anyone there," says Ava Mutchler, Fornash's marketing and web manager. "Tourists didn't know we were down there, no one knew that that mall was there."

The store, which originally started with custom handbags, expanded to sell wholesale in 2003 and eventually needed a larger location for its growing inventory. In 2012, the company moved to the Ballston Common Mall on Wilson Boulevard in Arlington, Va. In addition to a larger space, the move also promised cheaper rent than leasing space in D.C.

For Fornash, the move was strategic. But for retailers who do not sell online or through wholesale, maintaining a storefront at a mall can be a struggle.

"The retail (space) is more to just have a way for people to come and see the collection and to kind of just be a part of the community," says Mutchler, who has been with the company for five years.

"(The customer traffic) is really not that great ... I just feel like malls are kind of dying."

The decline of malls: ‘The perfect storm'

According to David Versel, senior research associate at the Center for Regional Analysis at the George Mason School of Public Policy, only one enclosed mall has opened in the U.S. in the last decade.

While some malls continue to flourish -- such as Tysons Corner in McLean, Va., which sees an average of 25 million visitors each year -- others are experiencing empty parking lots, abandoned retail space and fewer customers.

Versel says the overall decline of malls can be attributed to many different factors, including the economy, access and evolving consumer interest.

But he predicts these abandoned places provide an opportunity for revival, citing Springfield Town Center as an example.

The evolving consumer demand

Bruce Leonard, the managing principal with Streetsense, a Bethesda-based company that specializes in development, retail and residential patterns and planning, says the changing landscape in retail, and malls in particular, began around the market crash of 2008, when many baby boomers lost half of their net worth.

"This really put a bucket of ice water on their spending habits," Leonard says.

Now, the millennial generation is the predominant buying force in the U.S. economy.

Around the same time as the market crash, Leonard says Wall Street and investment groups pushed retailers to expand. This expansion caused companies to lose sight of strategic planning. Many put too many stores in certain markets, which Leonard says, caused them to go from "exclusive" to "a commodity."

"You become a little more ho-hum. If you take a national retailer that's in every mall and every project, they're not really perceived in the same light as somebody like Tiffany's, as an example where they only have a few locations in top markets," Leonard says.

In an effort to correct the expansion, many remaining brands are pulling back their retail locations -- some by 50 percent. At a national brand level, there are fewer retailers to put in these shopping environments, creating available spaces in malls, Leonard says.

Of Ballston Common's 76 retail stores, salons and kiosks, approximately six, excluding wireless providers, are big, national brands, including Macy's, Victoria's Secret and Bath and Body Works.

Arlington resident Ann Bloome says she shops at the Ballston mall somewhat frequently, mostly for Macy's and the building's restaurants, which include Rock Bottom Brewery and Panera Bread. However, she says if the mall retained more big- brand stores, she would frequent it more often.

"We were just recently at the Macy's and Nordstrom in Tysons Corner because I was looking for a dress for a wedding and I knew they would have something. If I knew that this mall would have something, I would come here," Bloome says.

With the millenial generation becoming a more powerful consumer force, retailers are being forced to reorganize their strategies.

"This generation is brand-aware, but more brand indifferent. They look for value, they identify with different patterns. It's a much more complex generation for the retailers to target," says Leonard of Streetsense.

George Mason's Versel says this is because millennials are less interested in "stuff," in general, and more interested in "experiences."

"They don't want to have 4,000 or 5,000-square-foot houses and fill them up with stuff," he says, adding that the resurgence in urban living and town center-type developments, such as Reston Town Center and Fairfax Corner, have contributed to this pattern. "That whole sort of complete lifestyle center has taken over from the mall as a predominant model of retail."

Instead, the millennial generation is increasingly spending its income in the food, beverage and entertainment sectors. Neighborhood-based developments and revitalization projects at Union Market, Bethesda Row, H Street and Barracks Row are products of this trend in the D.C. area.

Now, development companies are looking more along the lines of creating spaces adaptable to "experiences," such as condos or apartments with retail and food on the ground floor.

"When (people) come home, they don't want to drive far. They really want to come out of their building and have it all for them," Leonard says.

In 2012, Bloomingdale's did not renew its lease at White Flint Mall in North Bethesda, Md. But on Aug. 13, 2013, the national retailer announced its interest in returning to the mall if the space moves forward with plans to turn the enclosed shopping area into a 5.2-million-square-foot mixed development with new shops, offices, restaurants and residential units, The Washington Business Journal reports.

"That (announcement) really speaks to the fact that it's not just enough to have a big shopping mall in the middle of a parking lot anymore. You have to make it more exciting than that," Versel says.

Eliminating parking lots does more than enhance ambiance for mixed-use retail developments. The strategy is reflective of another added stress on old retail buildings: access.

According to Kaid Benfield, director of sustainable communities at the Natural Resources Defense Council and author of "Even teenagers don't want to go to the mall anymore," published in The Atlantic Cities, fewer people are showing interest in driving and obtaining a driver's license.

"More and more people these days are not driving. They really can't access those places at all, or they have to get there through means that are somewhat difficult. And then when they get there, they find the inventories aren't what they used to be because of the other factors."

Public transportation is one reason why local malls that have retained big-brand stores, such as Pentagon City Mall and City Place Mall in downtown Silver Spring, Md., continue to do better than other malls in the region.

Is online shopping to blame?

These days, everything from toilet paper, to swim trunks and furniture are available for purchase online.

According to Leonard, 18 percent of shopping today is done online. Before 2008, he says 5 percent of sales could be contributed to online shopping.

While the number of consumers who purchase goods online continues to increase and put added stress on retailers, Versel says online shopping, alone, is not to blame for the decline in brick and mortar retail activity.

Another notable strategy has retailers offering the combination of online and storefront access to lure consumers.

"We see now more and more an integration of the two, where you can purchase something online and return it in person … or you can pick something out in the store and then purchase it online," says Uwe Brandes, executive director of Georgetown University's Master of Professional Studies in Urban and Regional Planning program.

The future of retail

Some malls, such as Tysons, will continue to prosper and will not be affected by the fluctuating trends in retail, Versel says. He attributes Tysons' foreseeable success to all of its top stores and restaurants, as well as businesses in the area.

"They're doing the lifestyle center experience, except it's in a mall because there is so much to see and do there, it's not just another place to go and buy stuff," Versel says.

Leonard predicts that while top national merchants will remain with successful malls and shopping centers, such as Tysons, they will continue to pull back on less successful malls as they try to regain their exclusivity and expand in international markets.

For these struggling locations, experts predict they will eventually be redeveloped to include outdoor and residential components.

"I think the most exciting possibility is that as these older, commercial properties -- whether they're big boxes or malls or strip malls -- reach the end of their functional lives, they then provide an opportunity for redevelopment. And then that redevelopment can be made with shopping and housing, together, so that it's more walkable, along with restaurants and entertainment," Benfield says.

One mall already undergoing redevelopment is Springfield Town Center, formerly Springfield Mall, in Springfield, Va.

"When Springfield Mall comes back to life in a year or so, it's going to be a much different place than it was," Versel says. "It's going to have less space. It's going to be more oriented towards the outdoors and less oriented towards the air conditioned, controlled space inside the mall."

And while revitalization projects will take place on older retail centers, Leonard says he doesn't expect to see a huge push in the direction of retail.

"Really, retail is going to be smaller in the future, not larger," Leonard says. "It's going to be more neighborhood based, it's going to be more neighborhood serving."

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