Will foodie culture save the mall?

Photo: RetailWire
Oct 09, 2018
Tom Ryan

Food halls have earned a lot of attention among food lovers as they proliferate around the country, but retail observers have questioned their value. A study from WD Partners, however, finds that a number of different food concepts could be helpful in lifting traffic at malls.

Of 11 mall concepts tested, farmers markets, food halls and grocery stores were among the top four concepts preferred and most likely to increase visits based on responses to a related survey.

The power of food as a traffic driver was also evident when survey respondents were asked which concept they would add beyond their favorite one. The top addition was again found to be farmers markets, followed by food halls and grocery.

Source: WD Partners

Food concepts were also found to welcomed at malls across generations. Seventy-seven percent of digital natives (age 18 to 29) indicated that having a farmers market would influence their decision to visit a mall, versus 75 percent for digital immigrants (age 46 and older). Food halls scored 78 percent and grocery scored 66 percent for digital natives versus an only slightly lower (61 percent and 55 percent, respectively) for digital immigrants.

Digital natives were found to be significantly more interested than their older counterparts in adding other innovative concepts, including adding green space, indoor sports complex, fitness centers, a beauty mega store and co-working space to the mall. One finding from this was that the mall’s “entire format needs to adapt to the new realities of social and commercial life.”

But the study authors pointed out that malls are far from embracing the broad trends toward health and wellness, including local food and farm-to-table dining, that drives foodie culture. Wrote WD Partners, “The empty food culture of America’s dying, traditional malls, must die first. Otherwise, reinvention isn’t possible.”

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS: Do you see food concepts  farmers markets, food halls, grocery  helping to revive traffic at the mall? Would bringing food culture be a minor or major step in increasing the social relevance of malls?

Please practice The RetailWire Golden Rule when submitting your comments.
"If you make your space comfortable and vibrant and encourage people to hang out, they might just come more often!"
"It’s not enough. A mall is complicated because it represented many things to many people. That’s what it needs to change to now."
" The new mall could be the new food truck lot (figuratively speaking) surrounded by various shops."

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18 Comments on "Will foodie culture save the mall?"

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Cathy Hotka

Modern retail is all about the experience, and Millennials have grown up on myriad cooking shows. Let the best mall win!

Neil Saunders

The purchase frequency of food is high, therefore the addition of food concepts to malls does have the potential to drive traffic. All the more so if that food concept is niche like a farmers market.

That said, this is not a silver bullet for malls. Other factors also have to be in play: convenience, good mix of shops, pleasant mall ambiance. If those things are not present the benefits that food concepts bring are diluted.

A good example of this in action is Natick mall in MA. It is a great mall and the addition of a Wegmens in the space JCP used to occupy is helping to amplify this success by bringing more customers in.

Zel Bianco

Part of the foodie culture is experiencing the atmosphere of the actual place, like Katz’s Deli. It is an experience. The butchers, the waiters, the photos of celebrities on the walls, etc. Yes, you can mimic the decor, but it’s just not the same. Going to the farmers market at the mall sounds pretty depressing to me, but hey, I live in a city where farmers markets are plentiful and yet there are no farms or mountains nearby, so perhaps they will work at a mall.

Phil Chang

It’s not enough. A mall is complicated because it represented many things to many people. That’s what it needs to change to now.

In my opinion, a mall is everything that a community center isn’t. It’s a gathering place where seniors can walk (especially anywhere the climate can be an issue) but it should also be where kids can go to play sports/video games and somewhere you can get the experiential element.

In this regard, retailers need some help from local legislators. Change by-laws to allow commercial spaces to re-build themselves into something different.

Bob Amster

Farmers markets, food halls, and grocery are components of the total concept of a town center – which we have discussed before – and as such, they will have their impact on the revival of the mall concept but certainly will not be the only factor in their comeback.

Nikki Baird

Food halls are the wave of the future. I think they’ve grown up in a world of “third spaces” competing for attention and dollars. Traditional malls suffer from the lack of variety and the vibrancy that comes from smaller vendors that might change out more frequently, but they also suffer from a design that is there to force people to move around, rather than hang out. Funny thing — if you make your space comfortable and vibrant and encourage people to hang out, they might just come more often!

Jeff Sward

YES! But chain burgers and pizza can be as lackluster as some chain apparel. Let’s take it up a notch! A chain burger is not a reason to visit the mall. A new and interesting nosh would be welcome. Plus, during my year in China I saw how almost every “supermarket” was a mall anchor. Sure there were lots of free-standing neighborhood stores. But the supermarket is where the foot traffic lives.

Ray Riley

It’s definitely “a brick in the wall” in the effort to boost foot traffic. Simon Property has done an interesting job here in bringing in artisanal selection and local favorites to their “dining districts.” Having said that, nothing beats the Australian shopping center with the large format grocery store, pharmacy, doctor’s office and your full traditional mall offering all under one roof!

Harley Feldman

Food concepts have been somewhat of a savior of mall traffic for years. Food courts have attracted people to malls as a place to refresh while shopping. Food courts have grown and attracted more diverse food options to support this trend. Farmers markets, food halls and grocery can add to the mall draw. Bringing food culture to the mall would be a minor step in increasing social relevance of malls. Only a few malls in an area with be successful with such content. All of the malls trying this content would dilute the success.

Art Suriano

The food culture is already changing in some malls, and the trend will continue. New malls have a more natural opportunity to improve their food court design and selection than existing malls. However, The Garden State Plaza, a 60-year-old mall, already has numerous places where one can eat, and those establishments are doing very well. We are becoming more health conscious as a society, but change is slow and not everyone is aboard. So we need a more eclectic approach with food selection and for the most part that is what I see when I visit different malls throughout the country. Keep in mind, the economy is the strongest it’s been in years, and we have an 18-year high consumer confidence level. Traffic is beginning to come back to stores and malls because customers have more money to spend. So changes we make should be gradual because nothing lasts forever. Cater to the majority with lots of choices and you’ll have a great chance of success.

Dick Seesel

People spend far more on food (eating in or dining out) than they do on general merchandise, so it makes sense to add food halls, restaurants and grocers to the mall mix. But it can’t be “just any grocery store,” or the mall visit becomes just as boring and prosaic as it was before. Mall developers need to think carefully about food-related tenants that can draw frequency of visit on their own but can also drive positive traffic for the rest of the stores in the mall.

Adrian Weidmann

The new mall could be the new food truck lot (figuratively speaking) surrounded by various shops. The food (and craft brewery!) experience set in a comfortable environment becomes the destination supported by shops for convenience.

Ralph Jacobson

Malls need all the help they can get. As everything in life is cyclical, food courts, while significantly updated for today’s tastes, are again a driving force to keep malls thriving. This is a natural evolution.

Ken Morris
Ken Morris
Retail industry thought leader
1 year 7 months ago

Foot traffic is the key to success for malls and with anchor brands that are no longer a draw for shoppers, the brands become a literal “anchor” for the mall. Many of the malls that are surviving and thriving have found creative ways to infuse entertainment into their malls and food can be entertainment for many people.

A good example of a food concept that is a destination dining experience is Eataly, in Boston and a few other major cities. Eataly’s approach is to gather, under one roof, high-quality food at sustainable and reasonable prices for ALL, celebrate Italian food’s biodiversity, and create an informal, natural, and simple place to eat, shop, and learn. If you have never been to Eataly, I highly recommend it if you are visiting a city with one of their locations. Whole Foods is a major draw for town center locations and Wegmans’ Natick Mall location outside of Boston are great examples of creative anchor locations that are generating buzz.

Malls should consider turning food traffic into foot traffic!

Ananda Chakravarty
Most malls have a food court already, and on average three or four higher-level restaurants tagged alongside. There are candy stores and fast food shops, drug stores and specialty retail side-by-side. At least two-thirds of the malls in my area (northeast U.S.) also have a movie theater attached or across the street. I love the idea of grocery at the mall — which will increase foot traffic for sure, but given the fact that there are so many grocers in an area, it’s not clear what the “social” relevance will turn out to be. Highlighting food can help, but for the mall to continue to be a destination, I would suspect entertainment becomes just as important. Some great options for some malls would be tasting competitions (for nearby restaurants) or cooking classes and local band events. There are so many things malls can do to revitalize themselves, and food is just a part of the picture — but it takes localization and engaging with social infrastructure native to the region. A-level malls already do these… Read more »
Brian Kelly
1 year 7 months ago

No, the food court won’t save the mall and it won’t hurt it either. Without historic anchor traffic, most food courts take up too much square footage. Empty anchors exacerbate the real estate challenge. Food, entertainment and shopping as a benefit bundle seems the best, most relevant mall solution for trading areas with healthy local economies.

Millennials, once in family formation, relocate away from city centers to train line, suburban towns and are living closer to the town center. Small town centers are growing within commuting distance, and local/walking distance restaurants are strong. They are choosing older/smaller residences within stroller distance and avoiding the further away McMansions and the car ride into town.
Of course, not to be confused with rural town centers which unfortunately continue to struggle. The malls that serve that trading area will also struggle.

Patricia Vekich Waldron

Food culture is right in line with the trend of consumers spending more on experiences (like interesting dining) than buying more stuff.

Susan Viamari

There’s no question that mall formats need a refresh to bring back shoppers who have moved on to newer, more exciting channels. Adding new food concepts appears to be a step in the right direction, given that digital native generations like Millennials and Gen Z value a healthy lifestyle (with fresh food playing an ever-increasing role), value-added services, and variety. If malls and their respective stores and concepts can find a way to weave personalization into the experience, they will be even more successful.

"If you make your space comfortable and vibrant and encourage people to hang out, they might just come more often!"
"It’s not enough. A mall is complicated because it represented many things to many people. That’s what it needs to change to now."
" The new mall could be the new food truck lot (figuratively speaking) surrounded by various shops."

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