Mall of America's mission at 20: Attract millennials

  • Article by: JANET MOORE , Star Tribune
  • Updated: August 13, 2012 - 1:54 PM

As megamall turns 20, it's aiming to stay trendy with the young.

Two 20-year-old women, their shoulder purses slung purposely mid-hip and smartphones in hand, took their moxie to the Mall of America Thursday afternoon for a little back-to-school retail therapy.

Pals Leah Billstrom and Shelby Sorenson, college students from the Twin Cities, snapped a photo of their parking space (to promote a quick exit), posted other "random" pics from the day on Instagram, tweeted their travels to friends and checked out the sales online before even setting foot inside.

Mall of America, meet your future.

As the Bloomington megamall celebrates its 20th birthday Saturday, it is adapting to a tech-savvy, wallet-pinched generation that consumes in ways unlike any other. The mall has aggressively courted trendy "fast-fashion" retailers popular with millennials to its fold, and already markets its stores and events on social networking sites such as Facebook, Twitter and FourSquare, as well as its own blog.

"Communicating with our customers is completely different now than when we opened," said Maureen Bausch, the mall's executive vice president of business development. "We can talk one-on-one with them, we can develop a more intimate relationship."

The millennial generation, loosely defined as 16- to 34-year-olds, may be known for being debt-laden and jobless, but researchers say they like to shop. And they like malls, too.

The millennials, now 79-million strong, frequent malls for the "experience," and demand a "fun shopping environment" -- one that features "music, atmosphere, integration of mobile and trendy [sales] associates," said Christine Barton, a partner with the Boston Consulting Group, which released a study earlier this year that queried some 4,000 millennials.

The millennial onslaught comes at a time when Baby Boomers are retiring and downsizing, and as malls continue to decline in popularity. The last time an enclosed shopping mall opened in the United States was 2006, according to the International Council of Shopping Centers.

The Mall of America has already weathered its share of challenges in the past 20 years, including two recessions, increased security demands post-9/11, nasty court battles over ownership and taxes, and infrequent, but still-concerning, crime.

Yet it continues to attract some 40 million visitors annually and has long enjoyed a 96 percent occupancy rate, unusual at most other malls.

All along, the megamall "has had to stay top-of-mind to be successful, we've had to keep it fresh," Bausch said. Today, 30 percent of the stores at the mall are unique to the Twin Cities market.

It's that kind of uniqueness that is key to attracting millennials, who will visit a mall only if it has three to four of the retailers they like, usually in the apparel, footwear and accessories categories, according to Barton.

New stores

In recent years, the megamall has attracted coveted international retailers, such as Spain's Desigual and the U.K.'s Dr. Martens, which resonate with young shoppers. And there's been an influx of affordable fast-fashion stores -- such as H&M and Forever 21 -- which quickly translate trends seen on the catwalk into those ready for Main Street.

This speaks to millennials' need for instant gratification, as they "put a premium on speed, ease, efficiency and convenience in all their transactions," according to a BCG report, released this year with the marketing firm Barkley and Service Management Group, an analytics agency.

In that vein, the mall engages extensively in social media marketing strategies, including Facebook (with about 380,000 friends), Twitter (16,000 following), and Pinterest, to attract these so-called digital natives. millennials may use mobile apps to find an open parking space (through ParkMe), or rewards and special offers from retailers through ShopKick.

"Mall operators should offer an experience that will get millennials off the couch and into the mall," said Alden Lury, a retail strategist with the consulting firm Kurt Salmon. "The experience doesn't begin in the parking lot, it begins well before that. They're looking at the mall's website for special events or promotions and seeing what others are saying" on social media.

More than shopping

The mall has long championed melding retail with entertainment options, such as the Nickelodeon Universe amusement park, the Sea Life Minnesota Aquarium and more than 400 events a year, ranging from performances from popster Jordin Sparks to the Twin Cities BeerFest this weekend.

In terms of dining, Barton says millennials prefer fast-casual options that are quick and convenient -- and Barton says restaurants would be wise to court them by accommodating large groups with easy reservations and check-in -- all via mobile of course.

"This is social for me," said Sorenson, of Mahtomedi, who is a student at North Dakota State University. "It's a bigger deal to come to the MOA, and when I do, I always come with other people. If I want to shop alone, I'll go to Maplewood [Mall]."

Though millennials tend to trust their peers via social media, that can be tricky to navigate for retailers and malls, especially if a consumer has a negative experience that goes viral on social media. Last December, a melee erupted in the Mall of America when rumors of a rap performance spread (falsely) via social media.

Although the mall is smart to attend to the digital populi, retail expert Dave Brennan at the University of St. Thomas said the millennial demographic is so large, it's hard to make generalizations about their buying behavior.

Still, he noted, "the mall is so inclusive in how it appeals to different groups." Older millennials may be contemplating items for their children or new homes, while those on the younger end of the spectrum may just be concerned with what they wear to their prom.

"In the future, the mall should keep it fun and contemporary," Brennan said.

Janet Moore • 612-673-7752

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  • Leah Billstrom, 20, White Bear Lake,and Shelby Sorenson, 20, of Mahtomedi.

  • MOA 1992

    •333 stores • 150,000 people opening day • 4.2 million square feet • 77% occupancy • 0 likes on Facebook

    MOA 2012

    • 520 stores • 40 million visitors a year • Over $1 billion in annual sales • 96% occupancy • 380,798 likes on Facebook
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