“We’ve been successful in looking around the corner for both the retail landscape and consumer behavior,” said Heather Crowell, executive vice president of PRIET, the real estate investment trust that oversees the Dartmouth Mall.
According to Crowell, the secret to a successful mall is looking beyond traditional retail. Malls are no longer only about shopping, but should focus on how to be day-long experiences that, besides shopping, include such amenities as dining, entertainment and fitness.
“We actually have all of the key categories at Dartmouth,” Crowell said, no that PRIET oversees 18 other malls across the country. “We’re making deliberate moves that are more attractive to today’s consumer and becoming that community hub with more than just shopping.”
Since 2015, PRIET’s main goal is to replace low performing department stores with corporate tenants. With the addition of Burlington in 2020, and now ALDI which opened on Sept. 23, there’s been a 30% increase in foot traffic, according to Crowell.
A major shift to the mall’s vibe
The Dartmouth Mall opened in 1971 as a single-level shopping mall. It was renovated in 2000, adding a food court and in 2016, a 12-screen luxury-seat AMC theatre. JCPenney and Macy’s also have been major factors in the mall’s success.
“There’s a lot of positive energy here in the mall,” said Cory Stellmark, owner of Rainoni’s Pizzeria & Grill. “We’ve seen a significant increase in business.”
Rainoni’s has been a tenant since 1982. Originally located near Spencer’s, the pizzeria moved to the food court in 2017. Stellmark recently took over as owner in February.
“The mall feels renewed,” he added. “All positive vibes.”
“It’s always been busy,” said Andrew Khoury, owner of Khoury Jewelers and a 20-year tenant. “But with Burlington and ALDI… it’s helping make it busier.”
“There’s a good assortment of stores,” said Lois Eveless, a retired teacher who has been visiting the mall for 15 years. “I’ve been very happy. I live in Tiverton, and it’s worth the journey I have to make to come here.”
More:Dartmouth Mall continues to enjoy success amid changing business landscape
“There’s plenty for the younger crowd to do,” said New Bedford’s Gordon Coombs, another long-time shopper. “I do miss Sears. But I like the new ones here, too. I keep coming back.”
Nicole Foisy, manager of Windsor Fashions, which opened on Sept. 16, also has noticed a change in the mall’s vibe. “I think the mall needed something like this to kind of like add some spice back into the mall,” she said in a previous interview.
Foisy, a Dartmouth native, has been visiting the mall since she was a kid. “I feel like it’s been a little quiet in recent years. So, people are definitely pretty excited about us — which is cool to see.”
Malls closing across America
Unfortunately, not all malls are as prosperous as Dartmouth.
According to a recent CoStar report in a USAToday article, more than 40 major retailers have declared bankruptcy and more than 11,000 stores were announced for closure in 2020, which beats past store closings records.
Mall occupancy rates hit 94.4% during the second quarter of 2020, their lowest level in at least ten years, according to CoStar Group, which tracks real estate.
In March 2019, Swansea Mall closed permanently. It started its downfall after losing both Sears and Toys “R” Us. The final straw was when Macy’s closed in January 2019.
“Unfortunately, when you have these big anchors leave and they’re not replaced, a mall can fall out of favor quickly,” said Aaron Jodka, an analyst for the real estate firm Colliers International in Boston, in a USAToday article.
Susan and Bill Crombie, co-owners of Swan Framing and Gifts, were Swansea Mall tenants. They opened their business at the Dartmouth Mall in August.
“There’s a big difference,” Susan Crombie said. “With COVID being less ‘nast’, shall we say? There’s been a lot more people out and lot more people walking around. People are carrying bags, which is always a good sign.”
Patricia Volarinho, a manager for the pop-up store Sports and Things, said the Dartmouth Mall is by far her best experience versus other malls in the New England area.
“Half the stores are closed down in most of them. In this mall, it’s way heavier than other malls. Definitely,” she said.
“In 2021, the good malls will continue to do well,” said Neil Saunders, managing director of the retail consultancy GlobalData in USAToday. “It’s the weaker ones that will suffer…The future of the mall isn’t doomed or completely redundant.
“It’s just that 2021 will be a year of reckoning for underperforming properties.”
Foot-traffic analytics firm Placer.ai said the average traffic at 16 leading malls is down nearly 50% this year. “That shift is contributing to a shrinking number of retailers and a growing number of vacant spaces inside malls,” the study said.
Jeff Dupont, PREIT’s leasing director at the Dartmouth Mall, says that guests are alienated by empty storefronts. “The word they used was scared. It scared them,” Dupont said, recalling a comment from someone who went to a nearby mall.
“You walk in and there’s just nobody there. It was just like very unsettling vibe to them.”
Small businesses feed into achievement
Dupont oversees the local and regional business which makes up about 30% of the shop owners inside the mall. Nine of the business are part of a kart program, which are the mini kiosks found in the middle of the mall.
“We think the addition of small businesses is what makes our properties unique and makes that experience different than going to another mall,” Crowell said.
Amanda Eyssallenne, head of sales for the local business Herban Extracts, says that the accommodations by Dupont and the Dartmouth Mall have most likely kept their business alive.
“I feel like they genuinely care about the well-being of our business and they partner well with us,” Eyssallenne said. Open for two years, Herban Extracts sells locally grown hemp products.
The store debuted in a larger mall, but immediately switched to the Dartmouth Mall. “I felt like it was more of like, we were just a number. And they were less flexible with us,” she said. “Now, because of Burlington and the bus stop at the entrance, the foot traffic is much busier here.”
“It helps connect us with Dartmouth,” Dupont added. “It’s just a good mall that’s supported by the community.”
Standard-Times staff writer Seth Chitwood can be reached at [email protected]. Follow him on twitter: @ChitwoodReports. Support local journalism by purchasing a digital or print subscription to The Standard-Times today.