Need A Chicken With That Blouse? Shopping Malls Search For Ways To Remain Useful.

Malls and COVID-19
Kids play at Oakbrook Center, which has added landscaping and attractions such as large inflatable rabbits to draw families to the outdoor mall in the west suburbs. Manuel Martinez / WBEZ
Malls and COVID-19
Kids play at Oakbrook Center, which has added landscaping and attractions such as large inflatable rabbits to draw families to the outdoor mall in the west suburbs. Manuel Martinez / WBEZ

Need A Chicken With That Blouse? Shopping Malls Search For Ways To Remain Useful.

On a recent Saturday afternoon, North Riverside Mall in Chicago’s west suburbs was filled with people. Teenagers were hanging out in the food court. Parents pushed children in strollers, shopping bags hanging from the handles.

Brandon Wilkinson came to the mall to buy new clothes for his seven-year-old son now that schools are back to in-person learning. Wilkinson said he likes going to the mall, but he has doubts it will be around much longer.

“Online shopping is taking over,” he said.

While North Riverside Mall still has more than 100 businesses, there are signs that the 46-year-old shopping center is in trouble. Two of the three ends of the fluorescent-lit indoor mall are closed with metal gates. Carson Pirie Scott and Sears left. Smaller stores have followed them out the door. JCPenny is still open, but the company has an uncertain future after emerging from Chapter 11 bankruptcy late last year.

North Riverside Mall was hit by all the woes of 2020: shut down by COVID-19 and then looted during unrest over the George Floyd killing. Its owners are in the process of trying to refinance, which experts say could be difficult as they owe more than the property is worth.

The mall is not alone in its challenges. Before March 2020, vacancies in U.S. malls were at a 20 year high and they continued going up during the pandemic, according to Moody’s Analytics. Currently, more than 11% of storefronts at malls around the country are empty.

“There’s a crisis, and it’s been brewing for years, and it really has come to a head during COVID-19,” said Mark Cohen, a former executive at Sears and the director of retail studies at Columbia Business School in New York City. “COVID-19 doesn’t create the crisis. It just has accelerated the effects of the crisis.”

But all is not doom and gloom at malls. Most experts agree that malls won’t die entirely. Instead they say there will be far fewer of them, and they will cater to more than just the shoes and blouse shopper.

Cohen and other experts say some will recover and thrive. They predict that malls with high end, well-kept stores and luxury anchors such as Nordstrom and Bloomingdales will do well. They also point to malls where developers have aggressively brought in new mixed uses as ones that are positioned for the future.

Oakbrook Center, just seven miles west of North Riverside, could be one of them. The outdoor mall located in its namesake upscale suburb was even busier than North Riverside Mall on a recent chilly but sunny day. Because COVID-19 restrictions limit the number of shoppers in stores, there were lines outside of several, including Louis Vuitton and Victoria’s Secret.

There are a few empty storefronts, but no vacant corridors or huge empty spaces.

A lot of people were buying, but there were also many people sitting on a rectangular stretch of green turf, taking pictures in front of some goofy inflatable bunnies or chatting by a fountain that spouts water in time to music.

Tim Geiges, the senior general manager for Oakbrook Center, chooses the music that plays at the mall. He looks for upbeat tracks that put people in a good mood and make being at the mall an experience.

The trend in malls is to integrate them more into the lives of people, said Adam Tritt, the chief development officer for Brookfield Properties, which owns Oakbrook Center and hundreds of other malls around the country. Tritt points to a Life Time Fitness that is being built at Oakbrook Center. He’d also like to see an apartment complex there.

Malls and COVID-19
Shoppers on a recent spring day at Oakbrook Center. The mall is adding a Life Time Fitness and hopes to attract apartment units as it looks for ways to offer lifestyle services as well as shopping. Manuel Martinez / WBEZ

At other malls, grocery stores and Targets are opening.

“There are not many moments where a consumer or a member of the community is going to want to come to a property and buy a skirt and a chicken on the same trip,” Tritt said. “But that same person probably does need both skirts and chickens. If we can satisfy both of those needs and create a more meaningful connection with people, that’s how we move forward.”

North Riverside Mall is also trying to reinvent itself. Though they won’t say who they are negotiating with, the mall’s owners say they are talking to a business to replace the vacated Carson Pirie Scott, said Lidia Darkova, the marketing director.

The first floor of Sears is already taken up by a bowling alley. A virtual reality entertainment place is moving in and part of the parking lot will be used by a circus this summer.

“We want families to come spend time here as an entertainment destination,” Darkova said.

Brookfield Properties also owns Water Tower Place on Chicago’s Magnificent Mile, which lost its anchor store, Macy’s, this year. Many smaller stores have also closed, leaving the massive vertical mall with entire floors of scattered businesses.

There were reports last month that Target may be looking to occupy some of the former Macy’s space at Water Tower Place. Brookfield Properties isn’t commenting, but Tritt said the company is always looking to bring businesses to its malls that provide “relevant daily experiences” and “create an emotional bond.”

Craig Furfine, a clinical professor of finance at Northwestern University who studies retail trends, believes Water Tower will recover.

“It’s a prime location with wonderful demographics, especially once people are starting to live and work back in the downtown area,” he said. “Whatever goes into that space will make it a popular destination.”

But Cohen is not so sure. He said Water Tower Place has some problems, including that it is vertical and doesn’t have free parking.

Cohen thinks the broader issue for American malls in the post-pandemic economy is that there are too many of them and they take up a lot of space. He blames the downward spiral of many malls on online shopping — as well as department stores not doing enough to be vibrant and attractive to shoppers.

Once the anchors go, it spells trouble for malls. Smaller stores usually have clauses that allow them to break leases when an anchor closes. Also, when anchors exit a mall, it can result in entire stretches of parking lots being empty, Cohen said.

“The mall looks like it’s out of business, even if it’s not,” he said.

Sarah Karp covers education for WBEZ. Follow her on Twitter @WBEZeducation and @sskedreporter.