Christmas trees are already up at some of the stores in Rosedale Center and, at midweek, the mall was busy and shopping brisk.
Roger and Lori Stippel drove in from Star Prairie, Wis., and searched the Rose & Loon home goods store for a charcuterie board intended as a holiday gift for their daughter. They said they were at the store because it had interesting items and they liked buying things in person.
"We are still old school in that way," Roger Stippel said.
Rising foot traffic and optimistic holiday spending estimates have local retailers and mall operators hoping that they will see many people like the Stippels in the next two months — something they've been waiting for since the start of the pandemic.
"I think people are just eager to shop," said Heidi Mueller, founder of Excelsior Candle Co., which operates a store in the Southdale Center in Edina. "We didn't really get a holiday [season] last year."
The early signs are good for local, small businesses, and they may have been helped by news that backups at ports and trucker shortages are making it hard for retailers to get goods from overseas. L.L. Bean's website declared last week, "We want to be real with you: we're facing some unique challenges this year."
But malls and physical retailers of all varieties were under pressure long before the coronavirus forced many of them to temporarily close in spring 2020. Many malls had lost anchor stores and were seeing vacancies rise as they were forced to contend with e-commerce, well before they had to shoulder state mandated closures and tenants who no longer could pay their rent.
During the pandemic, consumers' move to digital became more pronounced as they went online to buy everything from groceries to clothes, a shift that retail experts predict will have long-term effects. In the first three months of 2021, the vacancy rate for regional malls in the United States hit a record 11.4%, according to Moody's Analytics, a market researcher.
Some local malls, like the Mall of America, fell months behind on their mortgages and were forced to restructure those arrangements. Burnsville Center was sold in a foreclosure auction. The owner of the Maplewood Mall and Northtown Mall in Blaine filed for bankruptcy.
But now, the recovery from all that is starting to look significant, even if it's too early to know whether it will endure. Some malls in the Twin Cities region are seeing more shoppers than they did at this time two years ago.
According to analytics firm Placer.ai, which tracks anonymized location data from mobile devices, Southdale Center in Edina had foot traffic that was better this summer for the span of two months than during the same time in 2019, peaking at an increase of more than 17% in weekly visits reported at the beginning of August. At the end of August, the Mall of America peaked with visit numbers almost 20% higher than in 2019.
Those increases took a hit as virus case rates grew with the delta variant this fall. But the most recent data shows shoppers coming back again.
The decline in reported COVID-19 cases, pent-up demand for a more "normal" holiday and some continued limitations on travel are reasons local store managers could feel "very optimistic about the potential for brick and mortar retail to overperform this holiday season," said Ethan Chernofsky, vice president of marketing at Placer.ai.
According to local data by the professional services firm Deloitte, Twin Cities residents are expected to shop earlier and spend about 6% more this holiday season than last year.
Shawnte Williams opened her store Daughter of Ra at the Maplewood Mall in March of this year after she featured her products in the mall's pop-up market, Bread, last holiday season. She asked the mall's management for a temporary lease so she could test her concept, selling candles, teas, crystals and other mystical aids, at the mall for a year before deciding if she would stay.
It only took Williams half the amount of time she originally thought to let the mall know she wanted to keep her store for the long term. "The spring really was very strong when we first launched," she said.
Williams believes many people make it a point during the holiday season to visit small businesses like hers that are minority and women-owned. She dubbed the phenomenon "the rise of the underdog" and hopes to see it play out in coming weeks.
Normally, Mueller, of Excelsior Candle Co., wouldn't start to sell her popular holiday candles such as "Christmas hearth" and "Santa's hot tub" until November. But this year, she put them out in September and they're already finding buyers.
"Something people missed out on last year was being able to put on jewelry or touch clothes … so this year I think they are going to really make up for that," she said.
Mueller, who also co-owns a local makers collective store called Founders Co. at Southdale Center and a similar makers market at Ridgedale Center called Minnesota Strong, said last holiday the malls saw few crowds. She has noticed the malls have felt more lively in recent months, and she thinks the trend will continue through the holidays.
"I think it will be busier," she said. "I think it will be like 2019, even better; I think people will be so excited to shop."
Logan McKee, owner of Games by James, said sales are up 20% compared to 2019 at some of his stores, as people continue to visit his mall shops to grab board games, jigsaw puzzles and other novelties.
"I think we are all set up to have possibly our best holiday season ever and the only thing that would stop us from being even more successful is that if we run out of stock," said McKee, who has stores at numerous malls including Rosedale, Southdale, Ridgedale and the Mall of America.
Jill Renslow, executive vice president of business development and marketing at the Mall of America, said she is optimistic about the holiday season. In the last month, the mall has reported a round of new tenants and announced plans for an 18,000-square-foot e-sports venue that will open early next year.
"There's a lot of things happening, and it's just great to see people come back and shop in person," Renslow said.
Already some tenants have started their holiday sales, and the mall's holiday marketing and decorations will start to go up this week after Halloween, she said. The mall has also begun to book appointments to visit with Santa.
During the back-to-school season, the Mall of America experimented with an online marketplace that showed a searchable inventory of 15 stores. By Black Friday, the mall plans to expand that marketplace to 50 stores. It is also discussing providing deliveries during the holidays within a limited radius of the mall, Renslow said.
Rosedale will have in-person Santa events, including a new "cocktails with Santa" experience for adults who don't want to miss out, said Lisa Crain, the mall's senior general manager.
Some shoppers will return to malls this holiday because they are less concerned about COVID-19 and perhaps feel nostalgic, said Joe Redden, a marketing professor at the Carlson School of Management at the University of Minnesota.
"Everybody has got their traditions and I think shopping at the mall is one that I think a lot of people have," he said.