Adapting to Thrive

By Wendy Long
Photo by Rachel Lock

Once a popular hangout for teenagers and gathering place for adults, shopping malls across the country are beginning to become obsolete thanks to the shopping Mecca called the Internet. While retail analysts cannot put a number on how many malls have failed, they do know how many have been built in the past eight years—2.  In fact, as reported by CNNMoney, Howard Davidowitz, chairman of retail consulting and investment bank firm Davidowitz & Associates, Inc., predicts that half the nation’s 1,500 malls will fail in the next 20 years. Critics claim those losses are exaggerated and specific to economically disadvantaged areas, but even so, the decline of local malls is evident.

While many shopping malls slowly fade into oblivion, others have adapted and seized opportunities to turn things around. A March 2014 CBS News report told the story of a formerly dying mall outside of Atlanta that was transformed into Plaza Fiesta, designed to meet the needs of a growing Hispanic population. According to the Economist, other malls are being repurposed into mixed-use space combining traditional retail with unconventional tenants such as condominiums or universities.

According to Robin Lewis, author of “The New Rules of Retail,” if malls are going to survive, they need to give customers a reason to go and spend time there that they can’t get online.

West Ridge Mall in Topeka has not suffered to the extent that many other Midwest malls have, but it hasn’t come out of the economic downturn unscathed either. Paying attention to the challenges it faces, West Ridge Mall has implemented a strategy to help it not only survive, but thrive.

“We want to provide what people want – an eclectic mix of businesses,” said Jessica Kinsey, director of marketing and business development for West Ridge Mall. “We have everything from local favorites to national retailers, all meeting the diverse needs of our customers.”

Understanding that shoppers want a more unique shopping experience, West Ridge Mall needed to offer more than just the same national brands as any other mall. Kinsey said they actively sought local merchants that could fill their spaces with products and services unique to Topeka and that could provide customers with a richer shopping “experience.”

Local Businesses at West Ridge Pink Suitcase“We like the idea that the mall is taking smaller businesses and working with them to get a start. We were fortunate they were able to do that with us,” says Sarah Gollier, co-owner of The Pink Suitcase.

Mall manager Angela Broxterman said having local businesses in the mall is good for everyone.

“Our leasing team works with local business owners to help them find just the right size space and location for their business, so a space in West Ridge Mall can fit in a variety of budgets,” Broxterman said.

Adapting to Thrive

The largest locally-owned business to move into West Ridge Mall, the Furniture Mall of Kansas, is evidence of this mutually beneficial relationship. Before moving into the mall, the owners had multiple stores in various locations in Topeka, creating a disjointed shopping experience for the customer.

“We can now offer everything in one location,” said Jeff Winter, co-owner of the Furniture Mall of Kansas. “We wanted to make it easier for our customers to shop for the things they needed.”

West Ridge is also enriching the shopping “experience” by offering special events such as a Bridal & Prom Expo in February, Severe Weather Awareness Expo each spring, and the Back to School event. Seasonal opportunities are available for Easter, Halloween and Christmas.

“Our guests are able to participate in events designed to create a shared experience around shopping,” Kinsey said.

A little creative thinking and a progressive strategic business plan has helped West Ridge Mall go beyond simply surviving the failing mall epidemic, to creating the type of social shopping experience that will make it thrive.