The jury is in. A huge number of shopping malls in America aren’t going to make it. Is there anything we can do?

There are two primary drivers of this rapid death. 1. Amazon and other online retails are grabbing an ever-increasing share of the retail industry. 2. Consumer preferences have shifted away from buying “things” and toward buying “experiences.”

It’s tough to find an excuse to walk into a mall anymore. Online shopping experiences, for the most part, offer better variety, more convenience, generous return policies, and the ability to quickly compare pricing. There are categories of retail that will probably always make sense in a brick and mortar location. Unfortunately, very few of those live inside a typical shopping mall today.

This crisis looks a lot of like the death of retail in downtown districts a few decades ago. The solution many downtown areas discovered is the same prescription for the seemingly terminal illness facing malls today:  entertainment.

For a decade now, I’ve believed that entertainment can save the shopping mall. And the evidence of the power of this prescription continues to grow. In a new piece published by Forrec – an entertainment design company based in Toronto – Steve Shah and Matt Dawson describe two approaches to using entertainment to drive traffic back to shopping malls. It’s a very quick read, so hop over and take a look.

In short, the prescribed solutions include experiential retail and transforming malls into destinations that locals and tourists want to revisit time and again.

Experiential retail has been around for a long time. But more companies join the ranks every year. The idea is simply that retailers need to give consumers a reason to get off the couch and into the store. Entertain them. Wow them. Make them feel like they’re missing out on a life experience if they don’t come to your store. Give them something they can share on social media and brag about on Monday morning. When was the last time you experienced something in a store that you had to tell your friends about? Give consumers more of that. One bit at a time, this approach will transform shopping experiences.

But a holistic approach needs to be considered as well. Malls used to work because people didn’t have anything better to do. Now practically everyone has a home theater setup that rivals most movie theaters and a world of entertainment in their pockets. People are easily distracted by the digital world. But the truth is that they still want to experience real life. We just need to make public spaces, well, better. Cooler. Engaging. Charming. Memorable. Noteworthy. We can’t expect modern consumers to drive to a giant concrete box and wander an overly-commercialized space. We need to create spaces that people feel represent them and their values. We need to give people opportunities to socialize and fall in love with their neighborhoods.

To make this happen, developers need to step up their game. They need to recognize that tenants can’t pull all of the weight because that results in a disjointed experience. Involve designers and placemaking specialists. Think big about what type of attraction your mall could become. Work hard to attract and retain your customers. And invest in the future.

We’ll see this happen. The question is how many mall operators will figure it out before shutting their doors?

Dustin Smith

Author Dustin Smith

Dustin is the father of four awesome kids and works as a consultant and entrepreneur in the entertainment attractions industry.

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