By Christine Graf
As more retail stores are forced to close due to the rise of online shopping, malls are being forced to reinvent themselves in order to survive. They are adding attractions and businesses that traditionally wouldn’t be located in malls.
“What you have seen over the course of the last several years is the re-purposing of space within the mall to alternative uses that actually make our mall more diverse,” said Wilton Mall property manager Mike Shaffer. “This started for us back in 2012 with the opening of Healthy Living Market and Café at the mall along with Planet Fitness gym.
“And then we transitioned to putting a Home Goods in a mall site which is not typical for them. That took up six previous small spaces. We did the same thing with Ulta Beauty a few years ago. We boxed up three small spaces into one larger space. And now, the welcome addition of Saratoga Hospital is a re-purposing of Sears which was a large anchor store,” he said.
“Quite frankly, those kinds of retailers are hard to find to fill big spaces. It’s about re-purposing space to continue to keep the mall relevant.”
Saratoga Hospital moved into a 56,000-square-foot space in September.
The majority of the square footage is occupied by more than 100 information technology and health information services staff members. The employees were relocated to the mall from the main hospital campus off Church Street in Saratoga Springs.
The hospital’s mall location also includes the Center for Wound Healing and Hyperbaric Medicine, home to the hospital’s first hyperbaric oxygen chambers. Hyperbaric oxygen therapy utilizes pure oxygen in a pressurized environment to speed the wound-healing process.
According to Angelo Calbone, Saratoga Hospital president and CEO, the move allows the hospital to utilize more of its campus space for acute care.
“We have more than 20 locations throughout the Saratoga region, but only one place—our hospital campus—is equipped with the technology and expertise to meet the needs of our most critically ill patients,” he said. “We owe it to our growing community to make the best use of every square foot of that campus by dedicating it to services that can’t be provided anywhere else.”
In addition to Saratoga Hospital, Equitas Realty/Equitas Realty Management is another of the mall’s new tenants. The realty and property management company was previously located in downtown Saratoga Springs.
Hempire State CBD will be also be opening a store at the Wilton Mall in the near future.
Pyramid Management Group’s Aviation Mall in Queensbury is also evolving to meet the changing landscape of the retail marketplace. In June, they were granted a zoning change that allows the company to build an apartment complex connected to the mall by two short paths. The project has been temporarily halted due to COVID-19.
Aviation Mall general manager James Griffith said COVID-19 has also impacted other negotiations that were in the works. Retailers are hesitant to make any decisions until the pandemic has ended.
“We were working on quite a few things, then COVID happened. COVID definitely slowed down some of the momentum we had with some of these national tenants. We’re in a holding pattern,” said Griffith.
He noted the mall isn’t just going after retail tenants anymore. The mall is open to uses that typically wouldn’t be in a traditional shopping center.
“One use that has been great this year that is an entertainment use is Adirondack Zombie Hunters,” he said. They were in downtown Lake George and came here about a year ago. They are just knocking it out of the park.”
Adirondack Zombie Hunters occupies a 3,000-square-foot space. In addition to selling survival and military surplus merchandise, the store features two laser-based shooting range simulators.
“We’re fielding a lot of inquiries in terms of different uses coming into the center, so the landscape of what a shopping center is going to look like over the next decade is going to change,” said Griffith. “It’s going to be like a town center with a mix of experiences, services, retail, dining, and residential.”
Malls throughout the country face the additional challenge of reassuring shoppers that it is safe to shop at malls during the COVID-19 pandemic. Aviation Mall and Wilton Mall have intensified their cleaning and sanitizing protocols and are employing the use of electrostatic sprayers to clean nonporous surfaces. Both malls have installed MERV filters that remove a higher percentage of contaminants in the air. Shoppers at both malls are required to wear masks and follow social distancing guidelines.
Since being allowed to reopen in July, the malls have experienced a gradual increase in traffic.
“When we first opened, quite a few of our national tenants had not reopened,” said Griffith. “We saw the traffic steadily increase when these stores reopened. During the summer, we saw some pretty good traffic based on regional tourism. We’re not seeing traffic late into evening. That has a lot to do with Regal Cinema not being able to reopen yet.”
According to Shaffer, retailers are forgoing major holiday sales that would attract large crowds. Instead, they are spreading out their sales over a longer period of time.
“Retailers are prepared for an extended holiday season that started early due to a number of factors including pent up demand by shoppers who have missed in-store shopping,” he said.
The pandemic will not keep Santa from making his annual visit to Aviation Mall. Santa will be wearing a mask and following all CDC guidelines, which means children will not be allowed to sit on his lap. Virtual visits with Santa are also available for those who don’t feel comfortable with in-person visits.
For more information, visit shopaviationmall.com and wiltonmall.com.
By Christine Graf