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Charlotte Malls Face Mixed Recovery Amid Pandemic And Rise Of Online Shopping

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Mike Kalasnik/Flickr
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Flickr
Charlotte's Northlake Mall is seen in 2012. Traffic has slowed down at it and other malls in the region in recent years.

Shopping malls in the Charlotte region weren't doing so well before the COVID-19 pandemic hit. And now more than a year later, with a shortage of workers in the rise of online shopping, their recovery is a mixed bag. Cristina Bolling of the Charlotte Ledger went shopping around the area to see for herself what kind of economic rebound is being made at the mall. As part of our series Rebuilding Charlotte, she joins us to share what she discovered.

Claire Donnelly: So, Cristina, not every mall is equal. Can you walk us through the difference between what's called a B-level mall and then the high-end luxury malls and any other type of mall in between?

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Happy Patel
Shopping malls, many of which were struggling before COVID-19, took a hit during the pandemic as many people stayed home and ordered things online.

Cristina Bolling: Sure. So, Claire, here in Charlotte, we basically have one A-level mall, and that would be SouthPark Mall. So, that is a mall where you'll have luxury retailers, one-of-a-kind retailers. It's really where people go to make purchases but also to kind of have that shopping experience — to hold that Louis Vuitton bag that you can't find anywhere else in a shopping center. Then we have our B-level malls, and those would be more like our Northlake Mall, our Carolina Place Mall, our Concord Mills mall.

Those malls have not fared as well. They have a lot of department stores that sort of resemble one another. These are, a lot of times, retailers where the goods are very available online and they're also very available between each of the different department stores. You'll find a lot of overlap. So those are your sort of B-level malls.

We also have C-level malls, and those would be out a little bit more in the outskirts if you think about the Charlotte region, like the Galleria mall in Rock Hill (South Carolina), Eastridge Mall in Gastonia — those would be sort of your C-level malls. And as you go down the alphabet, basically the scenario gets worse and worse.

Donnelly: And so you ventured out into the B-level malls. What did you find?

Bolling: The problem with malls has really existed since before the pandemic. Department stores have been struggling for years. I was curious about, since COVID, have people come back to the mall? Has traffic returned in any real way? I pulled a little bit of data, also, to see whether what I observed was actually happening in terms of mall traffic. And for sure, the number of visitors to the malls right now is far below what it was back in 2019, so even back quite a bit before the pandemic.

What I found is if you go to shopping malls right now, you'll find that there just aren't the crowds that we used to see back in the day. Malls are not the entertainment kind of destinations that they used to be for people killing time. Think about five, 10 years ago, you know, people with a Saturday afternoon free. A lot of times they'd head to the mall. Teenagers would head to the mall.

Donnelly: And you mentioned that data. Could you walk us through some of those numbers?

Bolling: Sure. So, let's take Northlake Mall. If you look at the Charlotte region and you look at mall traffic data, Northlake Mall has pretty much fared the worst in the region. Gosh, back in March, I think traffic was down like 40% of what it was in March 2019. It's recovered some since then. I think last month, traffic at Northlake was down 25% of what it was in 2019. When you think about it, a quarter of traffic missing, that's still quite a lot. SouthPark, which is again the A-level mall, much different scenario there. Last month they were down 4% of what they were in 2019. And in fact, in July, SouthPark was up 4% of what it was in 2019. So, you can just really see how this plays out so differently in these two different kinds of malls.

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(Data from Placer.ai)
Charlotte-area malls saw modest increases in visitor traffic in recent months, but the number of visitors still lags behind 2019 levels.

Donnelly: OK, so those B-level mall shoppers, where did they go? Is it all Amazon?

Bolling: Yeah, I think that you're seeing a combination of things. I think a lot of it is online retail. I think a lot of what those B-level malls offer, people can buy easily online. Also there is commerce now in the outdoor shopping centers. You know, you have your (Blakeney Shopping Center), your (Waverly Shopping Center), your (Birkdale Shopping Center). Some people have gravitated more toward those shopping centers that are closer to home.

Donnelly: OK, so there were fewer shoppers. But what about workers? What evidence did you see of the worker shortage?

Bolling: The worker shortage is definitely playing out extremely dramatically in these malls. When I was there — granted, I was there on a weekday — at Carolina Place Mall, J.C. Penney, the upper-level entrance to the mall was just closed. The glass doors were closed, and there was a sign saying, "Please enter and exit through the first floor of the mall." So, I went in and I actually talked to some employees in that J.C. Penney and they said, "Well, frankly, we don't have enough workers to kind of guard that entrance ... We need to make sure that merchandise isn't walking out, and the only way to do that is to close that door and lock it up."

So that's a pretty dramatic scene when you see something like that — an entire department store that just can't have people moving in and out of one of the floors of its store. At Carolina Place, also, Starbucks is closed during the week. At Northlake, Chick-fil-A is closed. You really do walk around and they're shells of their former selves, especially during the week.

Donnelly: And so what's going to become of these B-level malls? As you said, retailers are leaving. Do you expect that those will stay empty shells or will things come in to take their place?

Bolling: Sure. When you talk to retail analysts, they say we should look for other uses that are going to be coming into those big boxes, that they won't — hopefully — stay vacant, that one big trend nationally is to get entertainment businesses to come in. So, for instance, one that is not in our market currently, but could be is the Andretti go-kart business where they would retrofit a giant old, let's say Macy's, and make it into a bunch of go-karts — you know, an arcade venue. So, that would be kind of fun.

There's also a movement for these what are called "junior box" retailers. Those are your Marshalls, your Hobby Lobby, your T.J. Maxx and things like that that could use big spaces to fill some of those. In the C-level malls — those would, again, be out a little bit further out from the city center — other cities are filling those with things like community colleges, churches, call centers, so just very alternative uses to what the mall was really built to do.

Donnelly: All right, Cristina. Thank you so much for joining us.

Bolling: Thank you.

Donnelly: Cristina Bolling is with the Charlotte Ledger.

This conversation was produced as part of our series Rebuilding Charlotte, WFAE's look at how life has changed and the challenges ahead because of the pandemic. Support for rebuilding Charlotte is provided by Lowe's Home Improvement.

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