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How Malls Are Trying To Recover After The Coronavirus Shutdowns

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

To a large degree, the American economy depends on shopping. When retail sales plummeted a record 16% in April, it was another blow to the economic picture and to the American shopping mall. As shopping centers begin to reopen, NPR's Alina Selyukh looks at how they survive.

ALINA SELYUKH, BYLINE: Lou Conforti has not been sleeping well.

LOU CONFORTI: I think I've gotten about three hours of sleep a night, how many weeks now? Six weeks.

SELYUKH: He runs a company called Washington Prime Group. It owns shopping centers around the country, almost a hundred of them. The pandemic has left many American malls shut for weeks, some of them forgoing rent from cash-strapped tenants. Conforti calls it...

CONFORTI: A kick in the you-know-what.

SELYUKH: But now some mayors and governors are lifting restrictions allowing malls to reopen. Conforti says these reopenings are not celebratory. They're careful - one wing or entrance at a time, hand sanitizer everywhere, lots of safety signs with attempts at levity.

CONFORTI: Keep your distance. And then in smaller print it said, wash your hands, something else, and call your mother.

SELYUKH: Shopping center owners are facing the same question as all retailers. How do you get people feeling safe enough to hang out, mingle, browse - maybe some low-key live music, free gift cards, plumes of sanitizing vapors. So far, survey after survey suggests most shoppers are leery. Here's Sarah Willersdorf with the Boston Consulting Group.

SARAH WILLERSDORF: At the end of April, our survey suggested only 26% of U.S. consumers said they would feel comfortable returning to stores within less than a month of lockdown or shelter-in-place.

SELYUKH: The majority said they need at least a month. Some said half a year. And for the old-school suburban mall, this is only the latest bad news. Visits to malls have already been falling. They used to be the epicenter of teen culture in the '80s and '90s.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LET'S GO TO THE MALL")

COBIE SMULDERS: (As Robin Sparkles, singing) Let's go to the mall today.

SELYUKH: Not so much in the era of Instagram and TikTok. Malls have been trying to diversify, but clothing still tends to make up half of a typical mall. And in the pandemic, Americans pretty much stopped buying new clothes altogether. Department stores lost almost half their sales. This devastated some of the chains already drowning in years of debt.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED JOURNALIST #1: We are getting Neiman Marcus joining J.Crew...

UNIDENTIFIED JOURNALIST #2: JCPenney is on the verge of bankruptcy...

SELYUKH: By one forecast from real estate research firm Green Street Advisors, more than half of department stores based in American malls will close by the end of next year.

SUCHARITA KODALI: We're still overdue for a shakeout. We still have more stores per capita than anywhere else in the world.

SELYUKH: Sucharita Kodali is a retail analyst at Forrester.

KODALI: Regardless of this pandemic, more stores would have closed in 2020. We'll just probably see a lot more than ever before.

SELYUKH: That means for malls, it's survival of the fittest. This week, the country's largest mall operator, Simon Property Group, is reopening half of its locations with no playgrounds or drinking fountains. Conforti's shopping centers are also adjusting, in some places promoting curbside pickup, brainstorming ways to bring people back maybe for socially distant business meetings in food courts or blood drives and farmer's markets and parking lots or even for a drive-in movie projected onto a building wall. Conforti brings up Maslow's pyramid of human needs, a psychology theory for what might get people shopping again.

CONFORTI: Once you get safety and substance or whatever, the next thing is social and social interaction. And people want to hang out. We just got to regulate the distancing and the practices.

SELYUKH: Conforti's travelled to some of the shopping center reopenings. He doesn't know whether folks who turn up are actually buying much but says, for him, it's cool just to see people coming in again.

Alina Selyukh, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.