After the Hanover Mall closed for the night on Nov. 13, a crew of flight mechanics set to work assembling a Cessna 150. Now, the two-seat, fixed-wing tricycle plane sits like an enormous toy outside the Sears in the mall’s east concourse.
The stunt was meant as a promotion for Plymouth’s Pilgrim Aviation, which is offering flying lessons as a holiday gift sold at mall kiosks. But mall management saw the plane as an opportunity.
“We knew this would be dramatic and bring in buzz, and it’s definitely drawn some people down to that wing of the mall,” said Lisa Berardinelli, assistant manager for the mall. “I think it will be a novelty for people to come and see.”
Even prior to Black Friday, retailers nationwide were already reporting better returns than last year, with early November sales up 2.3 percent over 2012’s numbers, according to the International Council of Shopping Centers, which attributes the performance to low gas prices and cold weather.
But e-commerce eats into the revenues of brick-and-mortar stores. With online sales continuing to rise — during the 2012 holiday shopping season, they increased by 16 percent, according to comScore, an online business analysis group — malls are doing what they can to draw people in.
“It’s certainly competition,” said Jesse Tron, spokesman for the shopping center coalition. “As a share of total sales, e-commerce is still about 6 percent, but it’s growing twice as fast as brick and mortar sales.”
To compete with the growing online marketplace, traditional malls and shopping centers are trying to offer something shopping on the Web can’t conjure: an experience. From ice-skating rinks to hayrides to random giveaways to unusual displays, shopping centers south of Boston are going to great lengths to drive up foot traffic.
Though some of these attractions may seem extreme, malls have a fine tradition of holiday marketing ploys to drive foot traffic, and Tron points out that sales and stunts pre-date online shopping.
“This is the season for a lot of these campaigns,” he said. “Bringing people in is half the battle here. Any type of marketing platform — going back to your traditional mall Santa — that draws people in will transfer to sales.”
Mansfield Place, Wareham Crossing, and Hingham’s Derby Street Shoppes all offer strolling carolers in Victorian-style dress, a tree-lighting ceremony, and horse-led hayrides through their parking lots. Laurel Sibert, vice president of corporate marketing for WS Development, the parent company of these locations, said the open-air shopping centers are meant to create an experience that’s different from an indoor mall.
“We already have this outdoor lifestyle, and we wanted to add this holiday flavor to it. We see our shopping centers as social gathering places, an open market place,” she said. “It’s been a philosophy of the company that we provide entertainment and programs that engage the community. Shopping can be stressful; we want to make it entertaining.”
Colony Place in Plymouth is renting space to a temporary pop-up version of Kingston’s renowned Sugar Plum Bakery. According to Deborah Keating, marketing director for the mall, the lease for Sugar Plum benefits the mall, too, since the bakery offers hour-long cooking classes for children age 7 and up, which ultimately serve as short-term day care for parents trying to finish up holiday shopping.
“In a temporary tenant selection, we will look to lease a store that could ultimately bring something back to us,” Keating said. “With Sugar Plum, those classes will mean parents can drop kids off and then go shopping. We knew a bakery would be a great addition, but it’s also a good marketing opportunity for us. It’s kind of backwards leasing.”
Patriot Place in Foxborough has hosted an outdoor skating rink for the last five years. Mall management did not respond to requests for comment, but the Patriot Place website bills its Winter Skate as “a perfect remedy to cabin fever” and “a fun and affordable activity” in the middle of the shopping complex.
At Legacy Place in Dedham, management has launched a promotion called The Gift of Giving. Retailers at the mall have donated gift cards ranging from $10 to $100 for the program, and mall employees will approach random shoppers throughout the holiday season and offer them the chance to reach into a bag of goodies and grab a free gift certificate.
“It’s like hitting the lottery without buying a ticket,” said Joan Jolley, marketing director at Legacy Place.
Jolley said the strategy behind the campaign isn’t to drum up foot traffic, but to create buzz about Legacy Place.
“I’m not sure we’re doing it to say, ‘Come on down and you might get $10 or $100.’ But if everyone is having a better time here, and someone says, ‘I went to Legacy Place and guess what happened to me,’ that will give us a little edge that will make the experience that much better,” she said. “And it’s an experience you won’t get sitting in front of the computer, ordering something, and hoping it gets here on time.”
Cara Bayles can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.