Hard days at the Mall: Can Staunton Mall endure another near-death experience?

Story by Chris Graham

You want to say the Staunton Mall is dying, and it’s not like you’re seeing something that isn’t there. Steve & Barry’s was a coup for the Staunton Mall when it set up shop there a few years ago, so it has to be considered a huge loss now that it closed up its Mall location as part of its bankruptcy. And then there’s the space across from the old Steve & Barry’s space. Books-A-Million has left the building to focus on its new Waynesboro Town Center store.

Ouch, babe.

KB Toys is another one like Steve & Barry’s. It’s hard to blame the Mall for KB’s bankruptcy, but just the same, it’s gone.

Those are three pretty big smacks upside the head for the Staunton Mall, and the Mall folks are definitely feeling it. It took me two weeks to get somebody from the Staunton Mall to return my messages seeking an interview for our story on how the Mall is coping, and when I did get somebody, it was marketing manager Amy Giles telling me that she was sorry, but there wasn’t much she could tell us.

“We’ve had a couple of negative articles written about us in the last couple of months. They’ve said that we’re losing our stores because they weren’t doing well here. But the stores we’ve lost, Glassner’s, Kaybee Toys, Steve & Barry’s, we lost because of bankruptcies,” Giles said, adding one more store to the list that I had overlooked, Glassner Jewelers, a Mall fixture from as far back as I can remember.

Giles went on to explain that the bad press had pushed Mall management into holding off on talking to the media for the time being, which I perfectly understand, given the circumstances. Plain and simple, this isn’t a good time to be in the retail business, even with the economy seeming to get some life in the past couple of months. I talked with economic analyst Mish Shedlock to get a better sense of where retail is headed, and he wasn’t what you’d call bullish on the short-term prospects for retail-sector growth.

The big picture, Shedlock said, has the recovery that is to come after the current recession comes to an end being another jobless recovery akin to what we saw earlier this decade and in the early 1990s. A jobless recovery, Shedlock explained, is going to put more pressure on retailers because consumers are feeling the pressure. “It’s now cool to be frugal,” Shedlock said, particularly for younger consumers, and frugal is not good for the kinds of retailers who do business in shopping malls, which tend not to be focused on the cost-conscious consumers as much as the more high-end consumers.

Shedlock has been saying this for over a year now. He wrote a post on his GlobalEconomicAnalysis.blogspot.com blog last spring saying the shopping-center economic model is “history.” The future of retailing, Shedlock said, “is we’re going to see more superstores where everything is contained in one store,” which makes sense from a cost perspective because that single management entity can keep a better handle on overhead than a mall full of stores that each have their own management and staffs and acquisition and delivery and marketing and utilities and rent costs to add to the unit cost passed on to consumers.

To further my understanding of the issues being faced by malls, I consulted Virginia Commonwealth University marketing department chair David Urban. His first question of me was to get me to describe the Staunton Mall – is it an older mall or a newer, more modern facility?

The reason for the question is that there has been a noticeable shift, Urban said, in recent years from the traditional all-enclosed mall to newer designs that emphasize sort of a town-center or lifestyle-center type concept. The anchor stores and specialty stores are still important facets, “but these new malls have walking space and open-air space, cobblestone, almost brick streets, and things to do other than just shop. They tend to put a lot of emphasis on the selection of restaurants that are destinations in and of themselves. And you often see concerts during the summer and other types of things taking place throughout the year designed to get people to come to the mall, but not necessarily just to shop,” Urban said.

We don’t have any of that at the Staunton Mall. But we do have in the local retail market what Urban referred to as “power centers” – strip shopping centers with an anchor store like a Wal-Mart or Target and several smaller stores on the periphery around it that can offer selection akin to malls with the price factor of the cost-conscious anchor as the foundation to the whole enterprise.

The bottom line for Urban: “I don’t think the shopping mall itself is a dead concept. The mall itself, though, is changing.”

Getting back to the Staunton Mall, then, yeah, things are changing, big time. Not only have several prominent stores vacated the premises, but you have another key anchor, the Regal 6 Cinemas, under threat from two proposed movie-cineplex projects in Waynesboro and Augusta County. I’m not sure the Mall survives the body blow that losing the movie theater would deliver to its fortunes.

Giles promises developments on the Mall news front in the coming months.

“We have some things going on. It eats me up that I can’t release it, but it’s all behind the scenes right now,” Giles said.

 

Sidebar: What You Had to Say About the Mall

The New Dominion polled local readers via Facebook to get your thoughts on the future of the Staunton Mall.

And the survey said …

– Anita Rose
“At first it didn’t seem that bad. I mean, there were some empty storefronts and mom-and-pop stores. The Steve & Barry’s was closing, and then when the Books-A-Million closed down, that’s when I really started to notice that it was heading for something pretty bad.”
“My thought when the Steve & Barry’s and Books-A-Million left was, Who is going to move into those spaces in this day and age? It’s not like there are a lot of new anchor stores just looking for a new place to set up. Particularly in a small market like Staunton.”

– Deena Warner
“I generally only shop at JCPenney and Peebles. And we go to the movies there often. And I’ve been to the massage place and the game/calendar store, maybe Boston Beanery once. But that’s it; I don’t even think I’ve walked into the other stores. If it went away, I think I’d only miss the movie theater.”

– Jim Belcher
“Last shopped there when Steve & Barry’s was selling the store fixtures. Only went for S&B’s and Books-A-Million, both gone. I think this mall can have better days ahead, but someone has to be working on it now. It has happened before … those of us who remember when it was a shopping center, unenclosed.”

– Patrick Smith
“The last time I was at the Staunton Mall, I bought shoes for our 6-year-old because of a sale at a shoe store whose name I forget. We used to go there pretty regularly to look at the sad and dying KB Toys store, but tended to support Pufferbellies (for toys) and locally owned bookstores for ‘readable things’ (a great name for a bookstore btw).”
“I remember playing on the abstract animals in the original open Plaza and looking forward to going to Woolworth’s to look at toys. Whether or not the Mall will rise from the ashes again depends upon the the community and willingness of the property owners to invest given the megadevelopment proposals boiling in both Waynesboro and Staunton.
“Example: Can this community support two super movie megaplexes and the old one at the existing Staunton Mall? I doubt it.”
“Much like the successful downtown development seen in Staunton it is reinvention time for the Mall.”

– Michelle O’Baugh Carter
“Roots in Music is a unique diverse store with quality products. I shop there for body products. The Christian bookstore is nice and the staff is nice.”
“The real draw there these days is the kiddie playground for those rainy days, except the Mall kinda ticked me off when they put the giant candy vending machine right beside it. I think they’ve moved it now, which is hopefully good for the ice-cream shop that is also right there; the owner or manager there is really nice.”
“I’m glad KB Toys is gone because Pufferbellies is a better store. Gold’s Gym beside the food court is pretty funny, but I guess they needed to rent the space.”
“If the Mall will be reasonable on the rental prices, it may be a place for locally owned vendors (like Roots in Music) to keep it alive and worthwhile.”

– Misty Leitch Grenz
“I shop at JCPenney, Bath and Body or the Christian bookstore, but it is kinda pitiful. You may want to ask some of the retailers about rent and such. I have heard, though not sure how true it is, that the rent is ridiculous and that when you renew they want you to sign for long periods of time. Again, I don’t believe much of what I hear, but that could be some of the problem. I also think the gym idea wasn’t smart, but I guess they are desperate to rent out the vacant stores.”

– Brian Mininger
“We don’t go much… JC Penney and Family Christian Store are the only ones left that we shop at. Your A Star is cool for parties and the kids. ”

– Amanda Fitzgerald Sullivan
“We used to go very occasionally to KB toys or Books-A-Million. Haven’t been since they closed. ”

– Jennifer Harner
“That place is pitiful! If I go there, I hit Bath and Body or JCPenney, that’s it! Wish they would move those stores to Waynesboro. I prefer to shop in C’ville!”
“Also think putting a gym in a shopping mall was NOT a smart move!”


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