Town Center mall weathers slow economy

Kenny Kemp
As Charleston Town Center Mall prepares for its 30th anniversary in 2013, it's undergoing a $7-million renovation. Part of the work will go toward making the mall a destination, rather than just a place for people to come buy merchandise.
CHARLESTON, W.Va.-- Lois Cruz goes to the Charleston Town Center Mall three or four times a week.The 56-year-old, who works down the street, said she drops in to visit the post office, shop, or get a snack. On July 25, she was heading into the building to buy a Peanut Buster Parfait at Dairy Queen.As Cruz walked inside, Charleston-resident Tim Keenan, 36, stood underneath the awning at the front entrance, holding a shopping bag.He comes to the mall to visit his friends who work there."It's just a nice place to get around," he said.Nationally, malls are struggling, but people with the Charleston Town Center mall say sales have remained consistent. The mall, which is undergoing a $7 million renovation as it prepares to celebrate its 30th anniversary, has the benefits of location and limited competition that other malls lack. And as it undergoes renovation, the mall is working to enhance the consumer experience -- a tactic malls across the country are also adopting.Before the recession, malls grew too quickly, said Jane Lisy, senior vice president of marketing for Forest City Enterprises, the Cleveland-based company that manages Town Center. This led to too many shopping centers and too many stores being built, Lisy said.The peak year for mall construction was sometime in the early 1990s, but then locations became saturated and didn't need more malls, said James Edwards, executive director for the Charleston Urban Renewal Authority. There was also more competition introduced, from big-box stores and from open-air shopping centers.And since the recession, mall sales have fluctuated. The International Council of Shopping Centers publishes reports on mall sales each month and has declared a "widespread slowdown" in mall growth. According to the council's most recent data, mall sales per square foot in May were the lowest they'd been since December 2011. The council's report said malls saw a slight increase in sales from May of 2011 to May of 2012 of this year, but the pace of growth was slower than projected. There have also been drops in sales month-to-month in 2012, according to the report.That's not the case in Charleston, Town Center officials said.Lisy said it's company policy to never release numbers about sales, but, overall, Charleston's mall has seen continued growth -- unlike most malls, which had sales slump during the recession.Part of that's because Charleston had less to lose. Lisy said the mall didn't experience the same boom shopping centers in California or on the East Coast did, so it didn't fall as hard. Lisa McCracken, marketing director for Town Center, said because Charleston isn't a major metropolis, it escapes the highs and lows other malls have.She pointed to newspaper articles tacked to her office wall, reading aloud a headline about consumers shopping less in June.
"Here in West Virginia, it's almost as if the mountains protect us," she said. "We just stay consistent."The rural nature of the state helps, too, McCracken said. Other than Town Center, there aren't many high-end retail options available to West Virginians, unless they want to travel a few hours."As a regional center, when anyone in the area talks about going to the mall, they mean Charleston Town Center," McCracken said. "We are the mall."Within the city, much of what helps Town Center thrive is the mall's location. Both Edwards and McCracken said that, unlike many national malls, which are in the suburbs, Charleston's mall is downtown. It's accessible by bus, and it's just off the interstate.The mall is also across the street from the convention center and hotels, so people coming in for sporting events, conventions or business trips walk over and spend money.
There's also not been much competition. Edwards attributed some of that to the limited quantity of flat land in the surrounding area -- there's just not space for someone to build a new mall.
The other major shopping area in the city is Corridor G, but McCracken said she doesn't view the corridor as competition. While shopping at Corridor G does cut into the total amount of money consumers have to spend, the mall and the corridor provide different products.The mall offers boutique stores-such as Coach, White House Black Market and Francesca's Collections -- and Corridor G has primarily big-box retailers."We all have that need to go to Target or Lowe's, but we also have the need to go to Macy's and to go to JC Penney, and how about coffee at Starbucks?" McCracken said.Places like the mall's niche stores and Starbucks are some of the ways Town Center is striving to improve the experience consumers have at the mall, which industry experts say is becoming crucial for shopping centers on a national scale.Lisy said the focus is shifting from building new malls to improving what already exists. One of the major differences between shopping online and shopping at a mal, she said, is that ability to touch and feel products and have social interactions, so malls are trying harder to provide that for customers.Some retailers have upped the quality of their dressing rooms to give them more of a "lounge feeling" or started to serve shoppers refreshments, Lisy said.Jesse Tron, spokesman for the International Council of Shopping Centers, said, in general, malls need to move beyond just offering goods for purchase to remain competitive.That can mean providing places for people to congregate -- such as cafes or sit-down restaurants -- or offering services and entertainment, such as movie theaters and beauty salons, he said.Part of the mall's renovation addresses these changes, McCracken said. In center court near Starbucks, for example, there will be a technology bar, where professionals can plug in their laptops and work for a few hours. And at the newly opened Sephora, customers can try on lipstick and eye shadow, and they get the help of consultants who can tell them how to apply the makeup or advise them on what colors look best. McCracken said she's learned the mall is more than just a place where people go to shop"We're much more vital to the community than that," she said. "We've become the social go-to place through the years." Although the focus for malls right now is adding dining and entertainment, it could be different in 20 years, Tron said. So in some ways, the future of malls remains uncertain.But he said there's no way to replace the experience of in-store shopping malls offer."I don't think they're going anywhere," Tron said. "People are always going to need that outlet."And McCracken remains confident about the mall's future."I think we'll be here another 30 years," she said with a smile, "and we'll be evolving as the industry evolves."Reach Alison Matas at or 304-348-5100.  
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