Finding the Future Podcast: Retail Innovation Doesn’t Wait for a COVID Cure
Walk anywhere in the five and a half million square feet that make up Mall of America and you will find signs of COVID…literally signs that help keep guests safe as they visit and shop the country’s largest retail destination. Sanitation stations are a few feet apart in every hallway. Masks are required and strict limits are observed in the theme park and other entertainment venues serving guests of all ages.
“As soon as we closed our doors in mid-March, we immediately began looking at how we could reopen and what to factor in to make sure guests feel safe when they reenter our property,” said Jill Renslow, Senior Vice President of Business Development for Mall of America. “It is really important to collaborate with other businesses in our industry, not only retail but also entertainment. We think every day about how to assure tenants, shoppers and employees that the country’s largest retail and entertainment venue is safe.”
To quickly clean rides and other attractions, Mall of America partnered with Graco, a local industrial company, to adapt their paint sprayers for use with sanitizers. “It is important that we have a level of consistency throughout our building,” said Renslow. “Early on we learned a lot about safety parameters from essential retail and we have the benefit of our size, but it was also important to take the time to make sure that people felt like it was a different environment when they walked in.”
Today, the entire building is reopened but some venues are under strict attendance limits. “Nickelodeon Universe is open, at limited capacity,” according to Renslow. “In Minnesota, entertainment venues are limited to 250 people. We have a seven-acre theme park with only 250 people, it’s like they have the whole place to themselves. We’re hopeful we can work with the state in the coming weeks and months to increase capacity a bit.”
A recent innovation, virtual shopping, started before COVID hit. Renslow and her team tested virtual shopping during the last holiday season giving guests the opportunity to shop from home. After the mall reopened in June, they partnered with Popshop Live to enable mall staff to host live shopping episodes which shoppers can watch from an app on their phones.
“There’s a variety of different brands and channels,” said Renslow. “You just look for Mall of America and you can find a listing of upcoming shows. You can tune in and engage with the host. They will also do some personal shopping while you’re active with the show at that time.” Renslow said, “It allows us to bring the fun shopping experience of Mall of America into your home or wherever you are to conveniently shop from your mobile device.”
If the pandemic has accelerated innovation at the mall, community engagement has caused managers to reach beyond their doors. Community Commons opened in retail space at Mall of America to showcase retailers displaced by the civil unrest on Lake Street in Minneapolis following the tragic death of George Floyd in May.
“We immediately reached out to community leaders to see what we could do to help,” said Renslow. “You can imagine they were inundated with support and a bit overwhelmed. It took us a few months, but our conversations resulted in a collaborative retail environment for a number of the businesses affected.”
Out of 50 applications, Renslow’s team selected 16 retailers that offered a complementary mix of products. “Listening to their stories, we wanted to make sure that we were helping those with the greatest need. It’s been received so well.” Retailers receive free rent for six months and the opportunity to access shoppers during the critical holiday shopping season. Afterward, they can choose to stay, expand, or return to their old locations.
If short term success at Mall of America means making guests feel safe and engaging shoppers in new ways, in the longer term, Mall of America looks to stay relevant by increasing the number of entertainment options for visitors. Attractions are the driver at American Dream which recently opened in New Jersey with a 50/50 mix of retail and entertainment. The project was developed by Triple Five, the owner of Mall of America and West Edmonton Mall.
Kurt Hagen, Senior Vice President of Development for Triple Five, talked about reopening the American Dream. “They’ve received a great response from the New Jersey market – people are really excited to see Nickelodeon Universe open. The waterpark is open, they have miniature golf, and the ice rink.” Hagen added, “Again, it’s a large environment, that’s safe, where families can get out of the house and have some fun again.”
Hagen hopes to restart plans for the Bloomington waterpark project soon. “As you know, we were a couple of months from getting the waterpark financed when the pandemic hit. It would be under construction now,” said Hagen. “It’s part of the secret sauce for these large projects, our resilience is driven by the entertainment component. Guests come here and experience something they can’t in a typical shopping mall or buy online at Amazon.”
At five and half million square feet, Mall of America is only halfway there, as Hagen likes to point out. “We have entitlements for 10 million square feet of development, and we have some great ideas. Covid was very much a setback, but it has really amplified the importance of diversification and entertainment for Mall of America.”
Clearly, a global pandemic has not shaken confidence in the business models created by Triple Five over 40 years ago in Edmonton, Canada. Neither Renslow nor Hagen would trade their careers at Mall of America for something more recession-proof.
“I would just say the family ownership has always been extremely supportive of trying new things,” said Renslow. “They had this vision from the very beginning of Mall of America, and they support the management team on change and trying new things.” Renslow added, “We do a lot of pilot projects with technology companies, but we’re very careful not to lead with technology. We want to drive change, whether it’s utility or convenience for the consumer, and then find technology to support that.”
Kurt Hagen echoes Renslow in talking about his experience with Triple Five. “It’s a company that really allows us to be innovative and they provide the resources to do cutting edge stuff. Where else can you build the largest waterpark in North America. What you see at American Dream – the sky’s the limit, they really push innovative ideas, innovative development.” Hagen concludes, “I love my job. COVID is a little setback we’re going through right now. We’ll get past this.”
As we wrapped up the interview, it was clear that Mall of America plans to lead retail innovation in the future for the same reason they have in the past – they are driven to push the boundaries of their business model – mixing shopping, entertainment, and now virtual shopping and online retailing with new attractions. Perhaps, the most compelling indicators of future success are their care for the guest experience, and their desire to create bridges to those working to improve the community for the benefit of all.
Bill Griffith practices real estate and municipal law and is the host of Finding the Future, a podcast that explores innovation in land use and sustainability. Listen here for the interview with Jill Renslow and Kurt Hagen. If you have a story about innovation in land use and sustainability, please reach out to Bill.