It wasn’t your usual Saturday crowd at Chapel Hills Mall.
If you were at the mall the weekend of Aug. 25, you might have seen a Darth Vader look-alike perusing the merchandise at Dick’s Sporting Goods, a Daenerys Targaryen sipping a soft drink in the food court, and a few Star Trek crew members strolling the aisles.
Tens of thousands of fans, many in costumes depicting pop culture icons or fanciful creatures, lined the hallways waiting to get into Comic Con, the three-day geekfest hosted by Chapel Hills at its Event Center.
Once inside, attendees could circulate among scores of merchandise booths offering everything from vintage comics to lightsabers, and meet celebrities such as Lou Ferrigno, known for his portrayal of The Incredible Hulk, and Natalia Tena, the actress who portrayed Osha in Game of Thrones and Nymphadora Tonks in several Harry Potter films.
Jill Lais, regional marketing director for Chapel Hills Mall and The Citadel, said 10,000 tickets were presold for the event, and another 5,000 people were expected to purchase tickets at the door.
Events are one of the biggest ways the malls are attracting customers.
“Comic Con brings people to the center who may not realize what shops are here,” Lais said.
Most of those people are in the desirable kid-to-35 demographic, and many of them shop in the mall during breaks from the event.
“A lot of merchants were super busy” during Comic Con weekend, Lais said. Store owners she talked with after the conference said their sales were up over the same weekend of last year. “Some beat their plan numbers.”
In addition to Comic Con attendees, the vendors who offered items including costumes, masks, jewelry, videos and collectibles shopped in the mall as well, Lais said.
The Event Center has been the site of several other events, including a model train show in January, the Housing and Building Association’s annual Home & Garden Show in February, and a military veterans employment expo and KoboldCon, a tabletop gaming convention, in May.
Other events take place in the mall’s central courts and open spaces. The mall hosted a sidewalk sale July 27-29, a kids’ safety day in August and a country music karaoke contest that took place over several Saturdays in June and July. A farmer’s market sets up in the parking lot outside Sears each Saturday.
Individual stores also can sponsor events that bring additional shoppers into the mall.
“When we had Pay-Your-Age Day at Build-a-Bear Workshop, we had several thousand people here,” Lais said.
The store caters to families, who can stuff and dress a bear, unicorn or other plush toy. The toys usually retail for $15 to $45, but on Pay-Your-Age Day, July 12, fees equaled a child’s age, so a 3-year-old got a new furry friend for $3.
The event generated long lines, and other stores benefited.
“A lot of stores reported average transactions but increased sales,” Lais said.
“We do know events bring people to the malls,” she said.
Besides generating immediate sales, events may stimulate shoppers to return later once they see what’s there.
Malls under pressure
Conventional, enclosed malls survived for years by luring shoppers with a convenient place to find nearly everything they could need or want, regardless of the weather. They served as hangouts for teens and places where kids could spot the latest clothing trends.
Now they’re competing not only with trendier mall configurations such as shopping villages — the Promenade Shops at Briargate and First & Main are two local examples — but also with online shopping.
Chapel Hills and The Citadel certainly have been feeling pressure.
Macy’s at The Citadel closed in 2009, and the 193,000-square-foot space is still vacant, although Lais said interest in the property has recently been expressed. Dillard’s downsized and converted its store into a regional clearance center.
A consortium of Namdar Realty Group, Mason Asset Management and CH Capital Group owns both malls.
The New York investment group bought The Citadel mall in December 2015 for $20 million, after it had been taken over by a Maryland-based lender. That price was a bargain compared to the last time the mall changed hands. In 2007, at the height of the commercial real estate market, it brought $153.2 million.
The New York consortium acquired Chapel Hills in March of this year for $33.5 million, less than half of the price the previous owner, who faced foreclosure, had paid seven years ago.
“It is important for malls to reinvent themselves,” Lais said, adding she thinks it’s something of a misconception that online retailers are killing sales.
“A lot of stores are letting you order online and pick up items at the store,” she said.
That includes smaller, local stores as well as larger retailers. There is no doubt, however, that malls are evolving.
Writing on Forbes.com, retail analyst Deborah Weinswig said malls across the nation are converting space to leisure and entertainment uses, and hosting events and pop-up stores.
“The U.S. mall is certainly not doomed, but it may look quite different in 2023,” Weinswig said in “Three Major Changes Predicted to Reshape the U.S. Mall in the Next Five Years,” an article published May 22.
“I expect the malls of 2023 to be diverse ecosystems that incorporate more non-apparel retailers such as grocery stores, more leisure and entertainment tenants, enhanced food-service offerings, spaces for events and pop-up stores, and more physical stores from digital-first brands,” Weinswig wrote, adding the malls of the future may also add business services such as coworking spaces and offices.
The Citadel and Chapel Hills malls have already started employing many of those strategies.
“What’s making these malls successful is the mix of stores, the events we bring in, nontraditional retail, nonprofits, activities, gaming and all of that,” Lais said.
The two-level, 44,000-square-foot Event Center fills a space at Chapel Hills formerly occupied by Gordman’s, which closed in May 2017.
“At The Citadel, we don’t have that type of venue, and we have to be more strategic,” Lais said.
A big event is coming up Sept. 1 from noon-1 p.m. at The Citadel’s midlevel Center Court: the SoCo Teen Pop Star Karaoke Finals for young singers ages 13 to 19.
Three elimination rounds have pared down the contestants to nine, who will compete to win a $1,000 shopping spree at the mall. The contest is co-sponsored by radio stations Sunny 106.3 and MY99.9.
“Events like this bring in families, fans and supporters, and people who haven’t been to the mall before,” Lais said.
It’s important to let people know about upcoming events, she said, adding, “We advertise events; social media is big for us.”
Another strategy at both malls is to bring in nonretail entities that target youths and their families.
“At The Citadel, we have Fun for Kids, an indoor play area, and we will be opening one at Chapel Hills as well,” Lais said.
Glowgolf, glow-in-the-dark miniature golf courses, are found at both malls. They are popular sites for birthday parties and other group events.
Gaming to You, a mobile video game and laser tag truck, is coming to Chapel Hills.
A youth-focused gym, Kinetic Sports Performance, works with middle- and high-school kids to help them hone their skills for team sports. Located on Chapel Hills’ upper level outside Sears, it offers classes and one-on-one coaching, and is adding classes for adults such as Zumba, Lais said.
At both malls, reinvention involves bringing in “nontypical retail” such as Gaming to You along with a mix of national, regional and local retailers.
KJ Comics, a local store that sells comic books, toys and collectibles at The Citadel, soon will be gearing up for Halloween.
Wing It, a food court retailer at The Citadel, is also expected to open a location at Chapel Hills as well.
The Citadel has implemented a unique strategy in inviting nonprofit organizations to open their doors and present events within the mall.
For example, the Women’s Resource Agency, a nonprofit that serves low-income women hoping to get a job or find a better one, is located on the upper level near JCPenney.
Staffed by volunteers, the agency offers donated clothing through a boutique called Suit-Up for Success and provides workshops and classes on a variety of topics including resumé writing, interview skills, self-advocacy and women’s empowerment.
Helping Hands Helping the Community sponsored a series of holiday bazaar fundraising events last year at the mall. Among the beneficiaries were children, families and disabled veterans.
Both malls also offer specialty leasing programs for kiosks.
“To keep shoppers coming, we have to address everything for everybody,” Lais said, “and focus on specific market segments when we can.”