Amid the ongoing ‘retail apocalypse,’ outlet malls seek ways to stay afloat

Glossy – At Norfolk Premium Outlets, a Simon Property Group outlet mall that opened last month in Norfolk, Virginia, shoppers arrive bright and early to navigate the 332,000-square-foot complex that houses 85 stores. The property includes a man-made lake, several gazebos, a walking trail and an indoor courtyard with oversized chess games.

While traditional malls have started shuttering around the U.S., leaving carcasses of empty storefronts in their wake, outlet malls are holding their ground even as they fall prey to the same challenges wrought by e-commerce. The Norfolk mall is one of several that Simon has opened in the last year, including an international push with recent launches in Malaysia and Canada.

“The premium outlets aim to provide three things: value, fashion and experience. If we can find markets where we can check those boxes, then we’re very interested,” said Les Morris, director of public relations at Simon Property Group.

However, outlets are also starting to feel the strain of shoppers moving online. Tanger has slowed down its growth rate — it’s been reported that the company has no plans for store openings in 2018, for the first time in several years — and its stock prices have been declining for several quarters, signaling struggle.

Despite the halt on expansion, Ken Morris, principal at Boston Retail Partners, said this is neither cause for concern nor indication that Tanger is in dire straights. “[Discount shopping is a] phenomenon that hasn’t gone away as the economy has improved — people are still shopping that way. As evidenced by the success of stores like T.J. Maxx, it’s grown tremendously. It’s the treasure hunt idea. It’s the idea of finding a bargain. It doesn’t matter your economic status, and outlet malls play directly into that.”

Part of this experience is buoyed by the many amenities and perks outlet malls provide in an attempt to lure customers. In many ways, outlets are taking a cue from regular malls that are experimenting with new anchors that go beyond the usual department stores. For example, some malls have found success by opening premium grocery stores like Whole Foods or movie theaters.

“Having the right anchors is huge,” Morris said. “People will always come out for things like entertainment. You get people to come out if you have the right sort of mix. When you think of malls that are vibrant, it’s because of that mix of entertainment, night clubs and restaurants.”

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