This is a story about a mall. It is also a story about perceptions.
The perceptions at play at this mall are those of consumers, those who manage consumer perceptions for a living, and finally, those seeking to understand this mixed soup of perceptions — at the mall.
The challenge of doing a story on Eden Prairie Center—complete with comments from some anchor tenants and from the business community—is that potential interviewees seem to be running away down the road and disappearing over distant fences.
J C Penney’s manager is not permitted to speak to the press. The manager suggests talking to J C Penney’s Corporate Media Relations in Texas. With some difficulty in getting the right phone connection for Media Relations, a person at J C Penney Corporate Solutions suggests e-mailing J C Penney News. “Thank you for thinking of JCPenney. At this time we are unable to provide anyone for your interview request,” replies Aubrey DeZego, director of J C Penney Internal & External Communications and Philanthropy.
The mall’s Target store offers Target corporate Media Relations, which seems to have a phone number where voice mail messages go to die. Eden Prairie’s Chamber of Commerce is not prepared to offer comments on Eden Prairie Center. It would seem that executives prefer not to talk about the business of business. At least that is my perception.
A channel for communication does gradually open up. It is Jones Lang LaSalle (JLL), a worldwide real estate investment and management firm, that manages Eden Prairie Center. The JLL manager of the mall passes an interview request to JLL’s marketing manager for the mall, who in turn passes the request (and the reporter’s list of questions) to the corporate offices of JLL.
Two weeks pass.
The reporter sends a slightly starchy e-mail to the marketing manager. The reporter receives a phone call from Ted Gonsior, executive vice president in JLL’s Minneapolis offices. While Gonsior cannot talk about specific dollars-and-cents matters, he can and does respond fully on what mall existence and mall management are like in these strange times.
Regarding online sellers, Gonsior says that the consumer has a “perception” that online sellers have very little overhead cost and readily available inventory. The reality is that online sellers do have to rent space, deal with complex shipping problems, and cope with handling individual customer returns. The world of brick-and-mortar stores is a world of the consumer’s “five senses.” The consumer can experience the product in a kind of educational process, with the aid of trained, informed staff.
(Right now that trained, informed staff might not be fully available. A salesperson at one of Eden Prairie’s major retailers confides, “We’re 60 percent down in staff.”)
Per Gonsior, the mall is a place of “all things,” following the old marketing adage of a place where we “live, work, play.” The variety of the mall—including dining opportunities—addresses multiple needs of the consumer. Visiting a number of freestanding stores is a lot of work. If a mall store also has an online identity, this “omnichannel presence” helps the mall store even more.
A separate interview with Assistant Manager Natalle of Eden Prairie’s Walmart store elicited the observation that while Walmart is just one store, it offers “everything in one place”—including groceries– and also has an online identity. Walmart is perhaps a kind of mall unto itself.
Gonsior notes that if we acknowledge that for many Americans shopping is a kind of entertainment or holiday, the mall is a magnet. Before the pandemic, the Mall of America speculated that 40 percent of its traffic was what might be called shopping “tourists.” Evidence from as far away as China suggests that when mall movie theaters open up, consumers will flock to see even inferior movies. And now mall restaurants are opening up.
Gonsior says that consumer housing in a section of the mall or built on the periphery of the mall can underscore the old “live, work, play” concept of the perfect retail environment. Again, of course, you can get your goods immediately, instead of waiting for them to be shipped.
If workers stay at home to work remotely and live in “walkable” neighborhoods with several stores, how do you get them out of their cocoons and into the mall? Gonsior says people will still leave their neighborhoods—to see relatives, to get some variety, to try different food. Americans are a people “on the move.”
What about shoppers who go to stores to touch, size up, and price check a product and then go home to order the product from an online source? Gonsior believes that retail has embraced this consumer behavior. Ideally, a retailer does not try to force you to buy and instead is “willing to advise.” Retailers focus on quality products with quality service, with a view to building a relationship with the consumer.
Gonsior sees consumers as existing as three subsets: those who are quality-driven, those who are somewhat frugal, and those who demand low prices. Still, just about everyone does want quality. In the end, of course, “quality” is different for each consumer. Rather than product price being the only decider, consumers are looking for the “best value.”
Now is a time when some mall tenants are in trouble. Acknowledging that mall management wants to be supportive and that replacing tenants is expensive, Gonsior says that management has to consider these situations on a case-by-case basis, looking at the tenant’s long-term viability. What is the tenant’s business strategy? Can he adapt, evolve along with the consumer’s evolution?
Reviewing the many months of the pandemic, Gonsior says that early on we did not know enough, and there was a kind of acceleration into forced bankruptcies. As time has passed, however, “more daring decisions” have been made. Cooperation and collaboration are necessary.
Taking a moment to look at JLL’s website, we see that along with stores, restaurants, and theaters, a mall may come to have doctors’ offices, business offices, a satellite college campus, a cluster of residential housing, or an industrial fulfillment/distribution center.
The mall is here to stay.
(Frank Malley is a volunteer contributor to Eden Prairie Local News.)