Teen pop idols offering an autograph and a smile: It's one of the latest pitches Long Island malls are making to get consumers to come in and shop.
The malls are tapping into everything from celebrity appearances to luxurious 24-hour gyms, new stores and clusters of "destination" restaurants to fend off online shopping.
Last month, the Westfield Sunrise mall in Massapequa brought One Direction, the British-Irish "it" boy band of the moment, for a CD signing. The event drew more than a thousand teens and tweens, plus their parents, on a Sunday. The arrival of the carefully coifed quintet unleashed a wave of screams and sobs from UGG-clad girls lined up.
It's an experience "they are not going to get by shopping on their computer," mall marketing director Maria DiLeo said.
Online threat persists
Malls have survived threats in the past -- such as big-box retailers and shopping centers featuring large chains -- with refurbished facilities and new tenants. But online shopping, the most recent challenge, has grown rapidly, making malls' efforts to reinvent themselves all the more critical.
"It's all about making the experience to get the consumer to say, 'I am going to go into a store and not shop online,' " said Marshal Cohen, chief retail industry analyst for The NPD Group, a Port Washington market research company.
National mall sales increased 6.2 percent in 2011, the highest annual growth rate since 2006, according to the International Council of Shopping Centers.
That increase was eclipsed by the 14 percent growth in online spending last year, according to Forrester, a research and advisory firm.
Now malls, fresh from nine consecutive month-to-month increases in retail sales, are broadening their mix of tenants, catering to a broader clientele, including the upscale shopper, and seeking to offer an experience that will keep attracting consumers.
"Creating a sense of place, that's always been on the agenda, but I think it's a much more highly concentrated effort now coming out of the recession," said Jesse Tron, spokesman for the International Council of Shopping Centers.
Indianapolis-based Simon Property Group is renovating two of its Long Island malls, Walt Whitman Shops in Huntington Station and Roosevelt Field in Garden City. The Walt Whitman mall, the smaller of the two with about 1 million square feet of retail space, will add about 40,000 square feet to the first floor and 30,000 square feet to its second floor to house 10 to 12 new stores, including restaurants.
Henri Bendel, the high-end retailer of accessories, cosmetics and gifts, announced plans to open a 2,000-square-foot store this year at Walt Whitman.
At Roosevelt Field, Simon will begin a $200-million renovation in 2013, which will include the Long Island debut of Neiman Marcus. The luxury retailer will open in 2015 in a new two-story, 100,000-square-foot building. Simon is in talks with the AMC Loews theater at the mall to upgrade the cinema as well, said Richard Sokolov, Simon's president and chief operating officer.
Roosevelt Field's face-lift also will transform the center food court into retail space for shops and then create a "Food Pavilion" with upgraded decor and outdoor patio seating.
New restaurants move in
At the end of March, Seasons 52, a grill and wine bar boasting no menu item more than 475 calories, opened at the mall's growing "restaurant row." Later this year, the Capital Grille, a steak and seafood restaurant, will move into a space vacated by Legal Seafoods, and Havana Central, a Cuban restaurant evoking 1950s Havana, will open its first location outside of Manhattan.
"We are obviously working on a whole range of food uses," Sokolov said, "because we want to extend the stay" of shoppers.
Neiman Marcus will be a draw for Stacy Comiskey, 49, a Garden City mother with three teens active in sports. She calls it her "favorite store in the world." While she jokingly describes her busy life as a "race to nowhere," the mall has become a regular destination. She's a regular at XSport Fitness -- the 24-hour gym at the mall that offers a pool, spa, salon, Internet cafe and child care -- and she finds it convenient to shop at the mall for gifts or sports gear.
Comiskey finds online shopping convenient, but at Roosevelt Field "you can go to one place, park in one spot and accomplish everything in your day."
In May, XSport Fitness will open a $10-million gym at the Westfield Sunrise mall. The Massapequa mall, owned by Sydney, Australia-based Westfield Group, is hoping to benefit from the more regular traffic the fitness facility can bring.
Hosting more events, especially those featuring celebrities popular with teens and children, is another way both Westfield Sunrise and its sister mall, Westfield South Shore in Bay Shore, promote themselves as family destinations.
But Westfield's malls have been holding an increasing number of celebrity appearances, with beefed-up security and elaborate planning. Last year, for example, Westfield Sunrise held a CD signing with Miranda Cosgrove from the TV show "iCarly," as well as two autograph signing events with Big Time Rush and one with Victoria Justice -- artists featured in popular Nickelodeon TV shows.
Westfield South Shore also has sponsored more events, such as the March 26 CD signing for Nick Jr.'s Fresh Beat Band, which attracted more than 2,000 chanting 4- and 5-year-olds and their parents.
Coming to the mall for recreation is difficult for people with a full schedule of work and children's activities, said several of the parents who took part in the One Direction event. Yet, there were some who said attending the signing and seeing the secure way it was managed had made them think of returning to shop.
"It got me in the mall, and it almost made me realize what I missed because I don't go shopping," MaryAnn Dolan said. She brought her 15-year-old daughter and a friend to see One Direction. "You look at the mall," she said, "and there are so many choices in front of you."