Vancouver Mall: Still packing a punch after 40 years

Shopping center turning to experience amid growing competition

By Troy Brynelson, Columbian staff writer

Published:

 

It wasn’t exactly good weather, but it was a good sign. Outside Vancouver Mall, static gray clouds spelled the arrival of the fall and winter shopping season.

An indoor shopping experience offers at least a slight competitive edge this time of year.

“Rain is favorable for our indoor shopping mall,” said Vancouver Mall Manager JB Schutte.

Still, Schutte and other leaders of Vancouver Mall aren’t going to leave their future up to the weather. With the holiday shopping season here, malls are hoping to lure customers with a new array of tenants, an emphasis on service and experience, and some new marketing ventures.

Vancouver Mall recently turned 40 and now faces a wave of competition. Online sales grow every year and investments are pouring into new retail hubs.

Despite the challenges, Schutte and marketing director Jessica Curtis, as well as some tenants, say they aren’t worried.

New names and faces

Since its sale last year by Westfield Holdings Ltd. to Dallas-based Centennial Real Estate, the mall has evolved.

For starters, Vancouver Mall has two new tenants to replace the recently departed Nordstrom. On the first floor is clothing store H&M; the second floor is home to Gold’s Gym, a particularly eye-catching offering for newcomers to the mall.

“That is crazy to me,” said Jesse Gillihan, 25, an Olympia native who recently moved to Vancouver.

The gym is part of a push to add more service tenants and turn the mall into a more complete one-stop shop, said Schutte. He said he’d add a grocery store if he could.

“That’s really what a shopping mall is about: having the convenience of being able to get most of your stuff at one location,” he said.

New ownership has helped Schutte and the local team make those changes. With a larger capital construction budget, the mall has added new staircases and build-outs for tenants. Its marketing budget has also grown, though Schutte declined to specify numbers.

“They are very aggressive in making sure the properties present well,” he said.

New amenities

That has manifested in some new amenities for modern shoppers. Charging stations for devices are peppered throughout the mall, and wireless internet access became available in the past year. There is an ATM-style machine for the cryptocurrency BitCoin. Mall officials are planning more electric vehicle charging stations.

Many of the amenities cater to families. Besides a kid’s area in the food court, play structures and parking spaces dedicated for families, there is also a new tenant called Mall Nanny that offers on-site childcare. Hilarie Conrad, a stay-at-home mom toting three children around the mall’s second level on Monday, said she visits the mall once or twice a week and has been happy with the changes she’s seen.

“I like that they try not to leave storefronts empty, for the most part,” she said.

Event planning has also become more important. For its 40th anniversary over the summer, Vancouver Mall put on a fashion show and a concert. Holiday shopping promotions are underway in the second week of November.

A lot has stayed the same, too. Retail anchors J.C. Penney, Macy’s and Sears have performed well despite store closures across the country. In the case of Macy’s, Vancouver Mall may have benefitted from the upheaval.

“Probably because the Macy’s in Kelso and the Macy’s in Portland closed, we drew a few of their local customers,” Schutte said.

The 850,000-square-foot mall has hovered around 150 tenants, he said.

An escape

Still, management has taken note of the orbit created by more entertaining tenants.

After the multiplex Cinetopia Vancouver Mall 23 first opened, it even drew in people from Portland, Schutte said. The theater has since added a lounge area called Brewtopia.

The new priority on “experiential” tenants has opened the door for such businesses as Mythic Escapes. At first, it appears to be a board game store, but it houses an increasingly popular game called an escape room where people are immersed in a room of riddles and challenges to be completed in a set amount of time.

Escape rooms are thriving in malls throughout the Pacific Northwest, said cofounder James Omelina. The rooms pair naturally with malls because they don’t need space much bigger than a mall suite, while bringing in groups of people who might visit nearby businesses.

Mythic Escapes opened in July 2016 and has already grown to 20 employees with two spaces at Vancouver Mall. One space follows the story of being on board a pirate ship with Blackbeard; the other is a tie-in with the stories of “Alice in Wonderland.” It also has a location in Kelso and another planned in Longview, Omelina said.

“We’ve had several malls approach us, and we’re definitely looking at expanding our escape room businesses there,” he said.

For Halloween last year, Mythic Escapes was able to temporarily lease a former dental office in the mall. It built a spaceship-style escape room.

“If malls want to be successful, they need to look for those cinematic experiences,” he said.

Sales at Vancouver Mall rose in the first two years of Cinetopia’s opening, Schutte said. After being flat from 2013 to 2015, sales rose more than 5 percent in 2016.

The National Retail Federation predicts total retail sales to climb 4 percent this holiday season, to $682 billion nationwide.

Stem the tide

If Vancouver Mall is growing, it is doing so despite mounting competition.

On the national scene, publicly traded owners of malls and shopping centers have been bracing for a swoon in sales and the closures of anchor tenants like J.C. Penney and Macy’s. Commercial real estate brokerage Cushman & Wakefield Inc., based in Chicago, reports that as many as 13,000 mall tenants could close in 2018, compared with 4,000 in 2016.

The boogeyman of malls and brick-and-mortar retailers continues to be online shopping. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, e-commerce accounts for about 10 percent of all retail sales, but that stake is growing steadily every year.

Chuni Shepherd, manager of apparel store Francesca’s, says she believes shoppers will always come into the boutique for customer service.

“They want that customer service or experience,” she said. “I think that our experience is that they’re truly our friend and our family and our guest, not just a customer.”

There is also a rise of competition closer to home. Downtown Vancouver has added several new businesses, including restaurants and breweries, and The Waterfront Vancouver is set to add its own restaurant and breweries on the shores of the Columbia River next summer.

Schutte said he supported those developments “1,000 percent.”

“What’s good for the community is good for everyone,” he said. “The revitalization of downtown, the waterfront properties going in, the restaurants, all that does is make us a more viable community.”