America’s retail superstar is striving to reclaim its sparkle.
The Mall of America, where 520 stores beckon 40 million visitors a year, is in the midst of an ambitious $50 million makeover to refresh its interior as it seeks to attract more upscale and trendy stores in a fiercely competitive market.
The west wing between Macy’s and Nordstrom is in the midst of a major upgrade, including an impressive 450-foot-long skylight that will run the length of the corridor, brightening up what had become a somewhat drab area. The south and east wings already have been refurbished and have become the most coveted areas for new retailers.
“The mall is over 20 years old,” said David Brennan, co-director of the Institute for Retailing Excellence at the University of St. Thomas. “So it really badly needed some updating. If you were a retailer, would you want to go into a mall that looked tired and worn out?”
The ongoing face-lift is the first major update since the mall opened in 1992 and will be completed just as it prepares for its next major act — a $325 million expansion that includes a JW Marriot hotel, an office tower and more than 50 shops and restaurants set to debut in August 2015.
The Mall of America isn’t the only one sprucing up. Other malls in Minnesota and across the country are scrambling to attract the most popular stores at a time when shoppers have more ways than ever to shop, including online.
“Many retailers insist we update in order to come here,” said Maureen Bausch, the mall’s executive vice president of business development.
In Minnetonka, Ridgedale Center is undergoing a major overhaul that will bring it Minnesota’s second Nordstrom department store (the first is at the Mall of America). Macy’s also underwent a renovation that combined two stores at the center into a single large one. The Southdale Center in Edina, the nation’s first regional indoor mall, completed a $19 million update last year.
At the Mall of America, the new motif is white, bright, clean — and modern.
Some improvements are already in place. Plunging, custom-built chandeliers made of Swarovski crystals were installed in the south wing in 2010, and a futuristic metal mesh backdrop was installed behind a new jumbo screen in the east wing’s rotunda in 2011.
The overhaul is already paying off. Many stores have reported a double-digit jump in sales where the renovations have been completed, Bausch said. “There’s something about retail, when you change it up and do something new, people buy more,” she said.
The improvements have made it easier to attract stores, Bausch said, pointing to Michael Kors, Stuart Weitzman, Lululemon, Free People, and Madewell as examples of sought-after retailers that have been drawn to the mall in recent years.
But the Mall of America has had its setbacks, too — most notably, the shuttering of the Bloomingdale’s store in 2012, one of its anchors. The MOA has since invested $16 million to renovate that corner, knocking down some of the former department store to make room for an atrium. A flagship two-story Forever 21 store opened soon after in part of that space. The mall’s management team says it’s close to announcing other new occupants.
The ultimate test, of course, is whether the mall continues to grow sales and draw more shoppers during a period in which the mall industry as a whole has been struggling. Traffic has declined in many malls as they face more competition online and from big-box retailers such as Best Buy and Target.
‘World of difference’
Mall operators are pouring more money into redeveloping their existing properties at a time when few malls are being built.
“Redevelopment is really turned up right now,” said Jesse Tron, a spokesman for the International Council of Shopping Centers, adding that the increasing availability of credit is helping to fuel the projects.
Malls usually renovate once about every 10 years, Tron said, with updates ranging from new flooring and light to whole new additions.
“It makes the world of difference,” Tron said. “Nobody wants to shop in a place that feels outdated or run down just like you don’t want to live in a place that looks outdated or run down.”
But Brennan said the improving economy has probably been a big factor in those higher sales, at least at the Mall of America. And, he noted, tourism has picked up, too.
Nonetheless, he said the mall was wise to do a face-lift, especially since it’s adding a major expansion that is expected to attract more luxury retailers. This way, the contrast between the old and new won’t be as extreme.
“If they had not done anything for three of four years in the main mall and then you have this bright, shiny, crisp, more elegant deal, it would make the mall look pretty poor,” he said.
‘Creating a palette’
When the Mall of America was built, each wing was designed with a theme. The east side had a Broadway theme with neon and chrome, Bausch said. The south side had an art deco feel. The west wing was supposed to take on the feel of a European railroad market. And the north featured lots of greenery and lattice work.
The remnants of those themes are now being dismantled.
The inspiration for such a dramatic change came after Don Ghermezian, with Mall of America’s owner Triple Five Inc., visited Westfield Village Shopping Centre in London. He was so taken by the look that he hired its architect and interior design firm, New York-based Gabellini Sheppard and Associates, to chart out the Mall of America’s makeover.
“Now it’s about creating a palette for the stores to shine,” Bausch said. “We want to keep it like this because it does help the tenants stand out.”
Throughout the mall, the original carpet and colored tile are being replaced with shiny, white porcelain tile. In the west wing, the green railings in walkways are being painted white, and gold handrails are being replaced by more modern silver ones. Ten-foot-high LED lighting fixtures will be installed on columns.
And then there is the skylight.
“It’s going to be a game changer for the west avenue,” said Nathan Klutz, the mall’s construction director.
But installing such a big feature without disrupting the stores in that wing created an engineering challenge. After lots of back of forth, the mall decided to build the skylight on top of the current roof and then tear down the existing ceiling in stages. A platform on wheels that moves along a temporary steel rail structure was erected in order to avoid having scaffolding, Klutz said.
Most of the work is done after the mall closes. As many as 85 workers toil through the night and then clean up in the morning before the doors open.
The eight-month overhaul of the west wing is set to be completed by October, just before the start of the holiday season. In mid-January, the mall is slated to get going on a $12 million renovation to the northern flank.
As the mall heads into the final stretch of renovations, no one seems to be nostalgic about the old look — especially the green and tan carpet.
“It was dated and really faded,” said Bob Weinfurter, who runs Rybicki Cheese on the third floor of the west wing with his mother.
Joan Sedlacek, who works down the corridor at European Gifts, said many shoppers haven’t noticed the construction.
“It looks a lot nicer,” she said of the floors. “But I see how much work it is to keep the tile clean. The poor guys are always cleaning it.”