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From mall to small

As cookie-cutter formula falls out of favor, more shoppers heading to (Main) Street.

On Main Street in New Hope, shoppers stroll, browse, and buy. Many there and in similar towns are choosing the diversity of non-mall shops.  (ED HILLE/Staff Photographer)
On Main Street in New Hope, shoppers stroll, browse, and buy. Many there and in similar towns are choosing the diversity of non-mall shops. (ED HILLE/Staff Photographer)Read moreED HILLE / Staff Photographer

Playing it safe by having the same layout gave enclosed shopping malls a level of familiarity to consumers for decades.

It's a cookie-cutter formula with the typical anchor stores, such as Macy's, Sears, and J.C. Penney. The rest are often popular-at-the-time retail chains, such as a J. Crew or Gap. (Forever 21 and H&M these days.) And in the middle, you have a food court with smaller kiosks lining the public spaces.

But that homogeneity may be abetting the mall's decline, say retail experts, as more than two dozen have gone under nationally since 2010 and several dozen more are on the brink. Anchor stores are closing - Macy's said this month that it was shutting 40 stores nationwide. And former mall powerhouses such as Gap are retrenching.

Main Streets in smaller, affluent towns such as Haddonfield, Wayne, and New Hope may be filling the void with an array of smaller specialty retailers, dining options, and a different overall feel, according to Pam Danziger, president of Unity Marketing, a marketing consulting firm in Stevens, Pa., that focuses on the affluent shopper.

Middle- and lower-level shopping malls "are becoming the 21st-century ghost towns," she said, citing the return to Main Street.

Danziger recently surveyed 1,200 affluent shoppers online and found that many were gravitating toward something other than the mall to shop.

"They are spending less money at department stores, a little bit more online, but they really spend 10 percent more in specialty retail and experiences [travel and dining], and that's where Main Street has the hook," said Danziger, author of What Do HENRYs Want?, a marketing guide released last week. "It hooks them by not just the stores it has, but with fine dining, brewpubs, and all kinds of experiences for the customer that no mall can match."

She said the ultra-affluent - households with incomes of more than $250,000 a year - make up 2 percent of earners and 10 percent of personal consumption.

Her new book focuses on the 18 percent of earners in the United States, known as the HENRYs (high earners not rich yet), who make $100,000 to $250,000 a year. They account for 40 percent of overall consumer spending. There are about 24 million HENRYs in the U.S..

The bottom 80 percent (those earning $100,000 or less) make up about 50 percent of sales.

"This is why the HENRYs are the heavy lifters of our economy," Danziger said. "They account for almost as much [in consumer spending] as the bottom 80 percent.

"The affluent who can afford to pay more are drawn more to smaller specialty retailers where they get something different," she said. "Main Street is offering interesting and different."

Sandra Renner, 49, recently made New Hope an afternoon getaway with daughter Keara Pirolli, 19. Among their stops was the Catwalk at 14 S. Main St., which specializes in women's accessories.

"I like it here because it's original," said Renner, of Pitman. "It's more relaxed than the mall."

Main Street in New Hope, about an hour and 45 minutes from New York and an hour from Center City, is undergoing a revitalization, contends the Greater Lambertville/New Hope Chamber of Commerce. Several restaurants - Odette's and Logan Inn - are expanding and new shops are moving in.

"This is total boutique shopping," said Phyllis Costello, owner of Heart of the Home at 28 S. Main St., which sells pottery, candles, and other homeware that's all handmade in America. "Nothing is cookie-cutter."

Downstairs, Steve Joslin, 45, of Ardmore, was perusing kitchen items.

"It's all about presentation," said Joslin, a former shop owner in Center City. "If it's a mall and it's cold, there is no sincerity in that. That's why I shop here and in Wayne, which has a similar Main Street."

"In the U.S., we're over-retailed, in general," said D.J. Busch, a mall analyst with Green Street Advisors, a research and advisory firm in Newport Beach, Calif. "There is too much physical retail space, and we are certainly overmalled."

Even with downsizing that has left about 1,100 enclosed malls and open centers, "that is still far too many, given the challenges the [retail] space is facing, particularly with e-commerce in the near coming years," Busch said.

Cindy Asta, 57, of Newtown, who recently visited Oxford Valley Mall in Langhorne with her daughter, Alana, 13, represents the shopping mall's second biggest threat next to being boring.

"We do most of our shopping online these days, especially during the holidays," Asta said. "You can order so much online and it's typically free shipping."

While the Class A "trophy malls" such as King of Prussia and Cherry Hill, which have few vacancies, are in prime locations and continually upgrade, thrive, it's the mediocre Class B and C malls (with lower sales and less attractive tenants than A malls) that will continue to die off, experts say.

"Because all of these retail sectors are dominated by just a few large players, we have reached the point where there is very little difference between a Class A mall in Augusta, Ga., and a Class A mall in Portland, Ore.," said Garrick Brown, an analyst with real estate consulting firm DTZ. "Nor is there much of a difference between a Class B mall in La Mesa, Calif., and a Class B mall in Schaumberg, Ill.

The dreariness of the Class B mall experience was in full display on a recent Saturday night at a more than half-empty Deptford Mall.

As she combed the racks in Forever 21 on the second level of the two-story mall, Marissa Roselli, 18, said she walked past several vacant storefronts, including one next to Michael Kors.

She said she goes to malls about once a month, at most, and usually for "everyday clothes."

"Malls are the same," said Roselli, a freshman at La Salle University. "You can buy stuff at one and exchange at another."

Gary Shah, 40, of Deptford, said sales at his Deptford Mall kiosk, which sells cellphone cases and does repairs, were down almost 20 percent from last year.

But he said he feared that last month's opening of Gloucester Premium Outlets, a sprawling outdoor mall less than five miles away on Route 42 in Blackwood, will make things even worse.

"It's been real slow," Shah said of foot traffic.

The only silver lining, he said, was the arrival of winter and the one key advantage that malls have over Main Street: More people shop in the winter in enclosed malls.

"With wintertime, we will get more people," Shah said.

Brown said malls have to change out of necessity, given the competition.

"I think embracing unique, local boutiques is going to be the way that many Class B malls find to survive, and in some cases, thrive," he said. "But the challenge is it is a high-risk strategy."

He cited artisan food venues as an important part of the mix.

"More operators will be more innovative going forward," he said. "They'll have to be.

"Or they won't survive."