America’s New Malls: Have You Been ‘Experienced?’

Growing up, the mall was that “third place” where people went to shop, eat, go to the movies, stroll, and just be out and about. Nowadays, we hear of the end of retail as we know it due to mass adoption of online shopping; ‘clicks’ over ‘’bricks.’ Many malls didn’t make it and closed, some still linger, while others are transforming themselves.

Malls successfully transforming themselves are redefining their composition. Taking the place of traditional anchor stores, experiential brands are entering these spaces with entertainment, health and wellness centers, and new types of restaurants more prone to seating than food courts―all tenants that can’t easily be displaced by an online option.

At the same time, bespoke brands are entering malls, something they would never have done in the past. An acute case in point is 3DEN―an urban oasis where one can relax, recharge, and even shower―at the brand new, one million square foot Hudson Yards, arguably the most expensive and fanciest mall in the world, which recently opened in New York City.

Hudson Yards is an interesting retail phenomenon in today’s world. Located in what was some of the dankest land in Manhattan for decades―across from the NYPD Tow Pound, the Subway Yards, and the entrance to the forever-clogged Hudson Tunnel―speculators have dug in their heels to build the world’s swankiest live/work mega-mall in a city where traditional retail is on its last legs, with vacancies aplenty across pricey Manhattan commercial real estate.

While Hudson Yards is largely a real estate project with high-priced condos and apartments for New York’s Masters of the Universe, its mall is critical to its vitality as a nexus “third place” for residents, citizens, and beyond―an incubator for understanding what will, and will not, work in the 2020s. Its discerning clientele will be quick to screen out what isn’t working, and its high stakes will quickly weed out the unsuccessful. Laissez-faire capitalism will provide an unforgiving taskmaster amid its gleaming glass and metal gates.

One interesting theme is dedicating 77,000 square feet of retail space to e-retailers. The thought is that by providing an environment beyond an electronic screen, these brands will have a chance to present themselves to consumers in a new and different manner―with the “e” in e-retailing now standing for “experience.”

Hudson Yards isn’t the only new player in the transformation of today’s American mall experience. Just outside Manhattan sits Hudson Yards suburban cousin, American Dream Meadowlands, in East Rutherford, New Jersey. Owned by the folks who brought us the infamous Mall of America outside of Minneapolis, American Dream also plans to redefine the mall experience, albeit from a less cosmopolitan perspective―keeping with its suburban roots, unlike Hudson Yards, there will be no work or live options, only retail and entertainment.

A Meadowlands complex has been on the drawing board, in various forms, for 25 years. Safe to say, the project has had its ups and downs, but is planned to finally open this fall. And while Hudson Yards will always be its Uptown blueblood cousin, American Dream will simply dwarf Hudson Yards in size―450 retail shops to 100 of Hudson’s; an indoor theme and water park, as well as an indoor ski slope; two mini-golf courses; a bowling alley, aquarium, and rock climbing; the list goes on and on. Did I mention a huge water fountain that turns into a catwalk for retail fashion shows and the occasional American Idol strutting their stuff?

What’s most telling about American Dream is that overall rentable square footage will be 55% to 45% entertainment over retail space, adding up to one mega-gonzo “experience.” This may give American Dream the edge over Hudson Yards when it comes to a full spectrum of offerings―more things for more types of people gives it an opportunity to tweak its model; whereas Hudson Yards is squarely aimed at Manhattan’s millionaires (and those who love them), and just may be a bit ‘too’ cast in one mold, given the shifting sands of the demimonde, i.e., uptown, then downtown, now midtown. But then, Hudson Yards will always have its live and work spaces, the true backbone to the project, whereas American Dream is one big building, shaped like a Star Wars battleship hangar, anchored in the New Jersey wetlands.

Each project is a high-stake bet, doing their best to foster a sense of belonging and participation in the communities they represent. That’s what the mall has always been: an of-the-moment interactive museum of modern consumerism, reflecting the tastes, habits, and practices of those who frequent their spaces. Time changes, yet people still need somewhere to gather, experience, and choose from a bevvy of options, and malls are ideal spaces to provide these needs.

Today’s malls will be less transactional and more experiential. Consumers can buy things anywhere, but as they lead increasingly insulated, regulated lives malls are still a defined physical space in which to provide sensory stimulation and overall experiences.

So, while there will be bumps in the road, the road to happiness is still just around the corner!

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