Judith Eissner of Marblehead has been a loyal visitor to Northshore Mall for decades. Even though she adapted quickly to computers and the idea of e-commerce, she continued to patronize the Peabody shopping destination out of an ideological commitment to supporting brick-and-mortar businesses.
But it has started to be a lonely experience as of late. “The stores feel empty,” she remarked recently. “When we go there now, it’s usually to meet friends at the restaurants.”
People must be at home shopping online, Eissner surmises, and she understands why. “I tried to resist online shopping for a time, but it’s just so easy for items like clothes and gifts,” she said.
But by next spring, visitors to Northshore Mall will find a lot more than traditional retail. A multimillion-dollar project is underway to improve the mall’s food offerings and landscape. There will be new restaurants, a patio with open outdoor seating, and an outdoor stage for community events and performances. And the stores themselves? Many are upgrading or expanding.
Far from surrendering in the face of e-commerce, malls from Hanover to Natick to Watertown are rallying, not only with new retailers, but with new experiences ranging from outdoor dining to grocery shopping to total village living.
South of Boston, Hanover Mall will be transformed from an indoor, corridor-style mall to an outdoor-facing complex called Hanover Crossing, where shoppers can park close to the stores they want to visit and wander along landscaped walkways as they browse.
Though outdoor malls were once associated with climates more conducive to year-round shopping — such as the Stanford Shopping Center in Palo Alto, Calif. — Hanover Mall officials are confident the approach can succeed here, just as it has at Derby Street Shoppes in Hingham and the Wrentham Village Premium Outlets.
“For some people, the appeal is not having to walk a long distance across a mall, but rather to park close to the store they plan to visit,” said Lloyd Sova, vice president of development for Peco Real Estate Partners, which manages Hanover Mall. “But it is equally important these days to provide a complete experience for those who want to stay longer, ideally incorporating dining and entertainment, such as movies or bowling, along with shopping.”
And perhaps living and working there as well.
In Watertown, the aging Arsenal Mall is about to be remade into Arsenal Yards —
The Natick Mall made a similar leap a decade ago with the opening of Nouvelle at Natick, a condominium complex with its own private hallway leading directly to the atrium of the once-renamed Natick Collection (later reverting to the original name). But it, too, recently unveiled a surprise.
The space formerly occupied by J.C. Penney is being converted into a 134,000-square-foot Wegmans, the New York-based gourmet emporium that offers groceries, liquor, elegantly prepared take-home food, and a self-service buffet featuring everything from sushi to barbecue. The supermarket will occupy two floors, including in-store dining, and Wegmans is seeking a tenant for the third floor.
And if the popularity of malls is flagging, you wouldn’t know it from 34-year-old Kelly Mitchell, who frequented the Natick Mall as a teenager growing up in Southborough and now makes frequent lunch-hour stops there from her office just a few minutes away.
“I’ve always liked the Natick Mall, and I like it even more now,” she said. “I think it’s nicer than other malls, and nicer than it once was. With so many different stores, you can find everything.”
Bill Rennie, vice president of the Retailers Association of Massachusetts, said that what malls need in order to succeed isn’t just the stores where people want to shop; it’s a concept with overall appeal.
“With the increasing shift to online sales, some people have predicted mass closures of malls. One way [for retailers] to stem that is to create not just a shopping experience but an interactive experience,” Rennie said. “So you see mall developers trying to bring in more restaurants, movie theaters, interactive game space, to try to capture people different ways and give them an experience they can’t get at home shopping online.”
Giuia Grady visits Northshore Mall more as a social experience than a retail one. She appreciates it mostly for its location, which makes it easy for the Gorham, Maine, resident to meet up with friends from Massachusetts. But Grady, who travels frequently to California, has witnessed the trend of West Coast malls toward more upscale dining, and she welcomes the idea of Northshore Mall following suit.
According to mall manager Mark Whiting, plans include adding a Bancroft & Co. steakhouse and Tony C’s Sports Bar & Grill. Numerous longstanding stores, such as Pink and Victoria’s Secret, are expanding as well, with construction expected to be completed in spring 2018.
“The Northshore Mall has been here since 1958, and a lot of our customers have a history and memories here,” Whiting said. “Shoppers tell me they came here to buy their prom dress, their engagement or wedding ring, to see Santa Claus or the Easter Bunny, or for a celebrity appearance. None of those experiences can be replicated with online shopping.”