Heading to the mall for Black Friday shopping has a different feel these days − but that doesn’t mean the mall is dead.
“The mall” as we once knew it no longer exists in communities nationwide, including several throughout the Milwaukee area and other Wisconsin cities.
Some have been demolished, or await demolition, with the land to be used for housing, light industrial buildings and other new uses. Others have seen their shopping space reduced in favor of apartments, restaurants, hotels, offices and entertainment businesses.
Wisconsin has fewer malls compared to 20 years ago as online retailing continues to grow and full-service department stores lose market share to discount and specialty retailers.
Along with Milwaukee’s Northridge Mall, which closed in 2003 and remains vacant, Sheboygan’s Memorial Mall was demolished in 2017 to make way for a Meijer supermarket-discount store and downtown Green Bay’s Port Plaza Mall was demolished in 2012 and replaced with new uses − including Schreiber Foods’ headquarters.
City Center Mall, in Oshkosh, was converted to call centers as well as a restaurant and event hall, Becket’s, which hosts weddings in the mall’s former center court.
Many malls operate as they have for years, outperform other retail space
But other malls remain a place to shop, find a job and connect socially.
“There’s a sense they’re proving more resilient than people thought they would be,” said Forrest Morgeson, associate marketing professor at Michigan State University’s Eli Broad College of Business.
“People are still going to want to shop in stores even though we have e-commerce,” said Ray Wimer, professor of retail practice at Syracuse University’s Whitman School of Management.
Malls account for 5.5% of the nation’s brick-and-mortar retail space, down from 5.7% in 2014, according to a report from Coresight Research.
However, 12.9% of U.S. consumer spending on retail goods and retail-adjacent services during the first quarter of 2023 went through malls.
Translation: malls generally outperform other retail formats per square foot, according to New York-based Coresight.
Malls “are not going to vanish in our lifetime,” Morgeson said. “It’ll be an evolution of the spaces.”
The Corners of Brookfield part of a new trend
Indeed, shoppers have been lured from enclosed malls by online retailers as well as newer shopping centers featuring stores with their own entrances.
That includes developments such as The Corners of Brookfield, which features southeastern Wisconsin’s only Von Maur department store.
So, Wauwatosa’s Mayfair Mall and other older malls have responded.
“You have hot concepts and not-so-hot concepts…so you’re constantly re-evaluating ‘Do we have the best retailer in the right location?’” said Silvia Vettese, senior director of leasing at New York-based Brookfield Properties, which operates Mayfair, Appleton’s Fox River Mall and Oakwood Mall in Eau Claire.
Mayfair has 20 stores which are those retailers’ only Wisconsin locations, and another 19 stores which are the retailers’ only Milwaukee-area locations. That lineup includes such brands as Bee & Co., Lush, Nordstrom, The Container Store, Ticknors and Williams Sonoma.
Another adjustment: moving the Santa Claus display from Mayfair’s center court to the Nordstrom wing.
That reduced center court congestion and opened up more sightlines for the stores, said Chris Jaeger, Mayfair senior general manager.
Newer developments at the Mayfair complex include The Renaissance Milwaukee West Hotel.
Meanwhile, plans are pending to build just over 900 apartments in the parking lot near Mayfair’s former Boston Store − with that store to house new retailers. That $400 million housing development would be tied to nearly $58 million in city financing.
Mayfair benefits from a central location within the Milwaukee area, as well as a strong daytime population of people working in the Wauwatosa area, Jaeger said. Attractions include stand-alone restaurants such as Maggiano’s, PF Chang’s and Cheesecake Factory, he said.
Stand-alone restaurants, apartments important at other sites
Other Milwaukee-area malls that have added stand-alone restaurants, apartments and other newer uses include Bayshore, in Glendale; Southridge Mall, in Greendale, and Brookfield Square.
Bayshore this year completed four mid-rise apartment buildings totaling more than 300 units − although residents from six apartments in one building were forced to evacuate in July due to unsafe levels of a dangerous carcinogen.
There’s been progress on resolving the problem, said Becky Rowland, a North Shore Health Department officer. Testing results will be reviewed this winter and spring before determining whether the building’s apartments are safe, she said.
Meanwhile, Bayshore has been building back its retail lineup with such newer tenants as Total Wine & More, Target and ACX Cinemas entertainment complex − which includes a bowling alley, gaming center and Backlot Pizza + Kitchen restaurant. Buchanan’s restaurant just opened in the mall rotunda.
Bayshore, which combines an older mall with newer buildings featuring outdoor entrances, still has numerous vacancies. Those include empty spaces on its public square, known as The Yard.
At Southridge, plans to demolish the former Boston Store and replace it with a four-story 790-unit apartment community and 50,000 square feet of commercial space remain stalled due to difficulties obtaining approval from the mall owner − complicated by a pending foreclosure sale.
The Southridge apartment developer is Barrett Lo Visionary Development LLC. That same firm is pursuing the Mayfair apartment plans.
Meanwhile, Dick’s Sporting Goods, Golf Galaxy, Round 1 bowling and amusement center, and TJ Maxx opened in Southridge’s former Sears store. A BistroPlex cinema and restaurant development, as well as higher-end apartments, were developed in the mall parking lot.
Along with Boston Store, the mall’s former Kohl’s anchor store remains empty. But a recent visit found only a handful of additional vacancies.
Brookfield Square mall is underused, but site transformed with other amenities
Brookfield Square’s original mall space is underused, with an empty Boston Store awaiting redevelopment.
However, several stand-alone restaurants added to the mall’s exterior, along with the WhirlyBall and Movie Tavern cinema and restaurant at the razed former Sears store site, have helped reinvent Brookfield Square.
Also, the Brookfield Conference Center and an adjacent Hilton Garden Inn were built on the former Sears Automotive Center site and its parking lot.
Meanwhile, a 231-unit apartment building, The Ruby at Brookfield Square, just opened on the site of a former Toys R Us store.
Brookfield Square was quiet during a recent weekday morning visit. Shoppers stopped at Barnes & Noble, JCPenney and a Christmas ornament shop boasting a deal: buy three and get one free.
Others, like Priscilla Williams, come to the mall to walk.
Williams visits weekly with her two-year-old granddaughter, who loves to play on the coin-operated kiddie rides near the food court.
“It’s nice and peaceful,” said Williams, who does her shopping online. “You can walk, and everybody’s pleasant. And you get used to seeing certain people here, too.”
Elsewhere in Wisconsin, Appleton’s Fox River Mall remains strong, said Jaeger, who oversees that mall for Brookfield Properties.
Youth sports venue boosts traffic to Fox River Mall near Appleton
Fox River Mall’s shoppers include people attracted to the nearby Community First Champion Center for youth sports tournaments, he said.
Green Bay’s Bay Park Square over the past decade or so lost three anchor stores to bankruptcies: Younkers, Younkers Furniture Gallery and Shopko.
“It’s not just shopping, it’s an entertainment experience in itself,” said Tracy Vassallo, Bay Park Square general manager.
Also, online shopping doesn’t offer a chance to sit on Santa’s lap, listen to local choral singers, or provide a festive holiday backdrop for a family photo, she said.
“There’s opportunities to build family traditions,” Vassallo said.
Rachel Brukardt’s mall memories date to the excitement of family trips from Menominee, Michigan, to Bay Park Square and her days working at the Fox River Mall Younkers cosmetics counter.
Now a Green Bay area resident, Brukardt and her 9-year-old daughter Kennley take regular trips to Bay Park Square. Sometimes it’s simply a respite from the bitter cold of winter, other times to check out new shops.
And there’s always the annual visit to see Santa.
Kennley each year mentions not only something she wants, but also something for others. Last year, she asked Santa for a car for her mom − who got a toy Matchbox car. She plans to modify her request this year to make it clear Rachel has to be able to sit in the car.
“Santa checks his list twice, but he won’t fool me twice,” Kennley said.
Mall walkers also find time for holiday shopping
A recent visit to Southridge found dozens of older people walking as stores were opening for the day.
Jane Tuma was among them. She mall walks three times a week to stay fit.
Tuma, of Greenfield, also makes shopping trips to Southridge around twice monthly. The mall remains a big destination for her holiday shopping with visits to JCPenney, Macy’s, Maurices and other stores.
Southridge and other malls also are featuring more locally-owned businesses.
Khalid Mohammad’s family operates two Southridge stores, Massimo clothing boutique and Hype Boys with the Toys, which specializes in sneakers, as well as two Mayfair clothing stores: Icon and Enzo.
Mayfair’s incubator program for small businesses helped the stores grow, Mohammad said.
Keeping malls alive is important, Mohammad said − lest they end up like the former Northridge Mall.
Northridge closed 20 years ago on Milwaukee’s far northwest side and is now targeted by a city condemnation case that’s tied up in court.
“That makes a hole in the community itself. Because this was one thriving area where everyone was going to, all the families used to chill,” Mohammad said.
“And once that’s gone, you feel like a piece of the community is gone,” he said.