Retail Goes Experiential With VR, Influencers, and More

Experiential events have helped retail centers like Jefferson Valley Mall (above) attract shoppers to their locations.
Photo courtesy of Jefferson Valley Mall

When Jefferson Valley Mall invited three influencers from social media site TikTok — teen soccer players Mark Anastasio, Luca Lombardo, and Maximo Rivano — to its “SweeTok” event in February, thousands of people turned out.

“They were a huge hit, especially with the female population,” chuckles Alexa O’Rourke, general manager of the property in Yorktown Heights. “We had girls acting as if the Beatles were here.”

That hysteria was music to the ears of retailers in the mall. Many have been finding that, despite the retail apocalypse, “experience economy” events like this have a lot of power to attract shoppers to malls — or at least they did in the pre-coronavirus environment.

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“It’s all about the experience,” says Giuseppe Colosimo, a vice president of global architecture design firm CallisonRTKL in New York City who has expertise in shopping and entertainment districts and has done work in Westchester. “Social media is a big factor. You go to some of the big shopping centers, and they have been reinvented. You are always going to find the element of surprise, the Instagram moment. Every time the customer goes there, they want to experience something a little different, something new.”

The team at Jefferson Valley Mall is paying close attention to the trend. “While we are facing a challenging time due to a worldwide pandemic, we will get through this as a community, and when we do, Jefferson Valley Mall will continue to focus on providing a dynamic experience for our guests, with a mix of retail, dining, and entertainment options,” O’Rourke says.

“We’ve seen a shift from when Ridge Hill was conceptualized and opened in 2011. The major theme of that shift has been to experiential.”

—Meghann Hongach, Marketing Director, Ridge Hill

There are new abstract murals in the food court, for instance, designed to give Instagrammers a striking backdrop. “Taking pictures of yourself in front of them with new apparel bought from the center has become a big thing,” says O’Rourke.

Meanwhile, Imagine VR Studios, a virtual-reality attraction offering activities like virtual laser tag, had its grand opening at the mall on March 8. A 24-Hour Fitness opened recently in the former Sears building. And the mall’s outdoor food-truck park remains a popular draw, with four food trucks purveying varied fare.

Nationally, retailers that sell practical necessities are faring well. The top retailer in the world, based on sales, is Walmart, followed by Amazon. Meanwhile, e-commerce companies and brick-and-mortar chains with the right vibe, such as Apple and Lululemon, were going strong pre-virus.

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Despite many high-profile retail closures in 2019 and early 2020 (See “Going, Going, Gone” sidebar, right), along with bone-deep layoffs and furloughs — in March, Macy’s and Kohl’s, each with multiple locations in Westchester, announced nationwide workforce reductions in excess of 200,000 between them — the National Retail Federation had predicted that retail sales would ultimately grow between 3.5% and 4.1%, exceeding $3.9 trillion this year. But that was before the COVID-19 outbreak.

“The coronavirus is going to completely reverse that,” says Patrick Tormey, an adjunct professor of marketing and international business at Iona College. “We may even go into a noticeable recession. It’s an amazing change in a matter of weeks.”

Going, Going, Gone

As shop owners well know, the retail apocalypse is far from over. The list of companies that have announced store closures recently represent a who’s who of national retailers, including:

Bed, Bath & Beyond is expected to close 41 stores in 2020, including the Palisades Center location, according to a January announcement.

Modell’s announced in March that it is closing all stores, including 12 in the Lower Hudson Valley.

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Papyrus is closing all 254 of its stores, including five in Westchester.

Sears planned to close 96 stores as of February, including 45 Kmart stores. The Sears in Cross Country Shopping Center and the JV Mall were already closed.

Pier 1 Imports announced in January that it plans to close 450 stores — about half, including six in Westchester.

Retailers in Westchester’s market have an edge, because the county is home to many affluent consumers who have the disposable income to support high-end malls, such as The Westchester. That affluence kept the retail scene relatively stable until COVID-19. Retail rents remained around $27.50 per square foot in the county in Q4 2019, about a dollar less than in the first quarter of 2018, according to a report by brokerage firm Houlihan Lawrence.

The report noted that retailers who are prevailing in the county are those with high-visibility spaces that offer parking. However, retailers face demand to reformat anchor stores and large spaces as homes for smaller, niche, or service-related businesses.

At Ridge Hill in Yonkers, all five of the newest tenants offer dining, entertainment, or other services. Public Pizza and My Salon Suite — a franchised coworking space for independent beauty professionals — opened in February. Monster Mini Golf, Storming Crab restaurant, and West Dental were in the construction phase at press time.

“We’ve seen a shift from when Ridge Hill was conceptualized and opened in 2011,” says Meghann Hongach, marketing director for Ridge Hill, which closed temporarily, on March 19, due to the virus and remained closed at press time (though Whole Foods Market and other essential services remained open). “The major theme of that shift has been to experiential.”

Among the most popular pre-virus entertainment destinations at the mall were LEGOLAND Discovery Center; Rockin’ Jump Trampoline Park;  and iFly, an indoor skydiving attraction.

Some Ridge Hill legacy retailers offered an experiential element that has, until recently, helped them thrive. Guitar Center, for instance, added lessons; Sur La Table, which sells fine cookware, was holding cooking classes in its kitchen in the back. “They’re doing something more than selling goods,” Hongach says.

Monster Mini Golf at Ridge Hill. Photo courtesy of Ridge Hill

When it comes to clothing — arguably the hardest-hit sector of retail — some brands are restructuring and getting into clothing rental, a popular part of the sharing economy pioneered by brands such as Rent the Runway. Lord & Taylor, acquired by the clothing rental company Le Tote in 2019, is now offering signups for Le Tote’s clothing rental service in its stores, including the one in Ridge Hill. Women’s-clothing retailer LOFT, also at Ridge Hill, offers a similar clothing-rental service, Infinitely Loft.

“Retailing is evolving,” says Tormey. “It has to keep up with the trends of young people and what they want.” However, he anticipates some of the rental businesses could also take a hit if the virus crisis lingers.

Independent retailers who keep their fingers on the pulse, even if they are located far from malls, are also finding success. Sal D’Errico and his brother Richard own D’Errico Jewelry, which has locations in Scarsdale and Mount Kisco. It offers both custom jewelry, such as engagement rings, and jewelry repairs. D’Errico had a strong year in 2019, which continued into the early part of 2020.

Reached the Friday before Governor Cuomo required all nonessential businesses to shut their doors, on March 22, D’Errico said, “As of today, there were people in the store. I got 10 to 12 calls from people who wanted to come in.”

D’Errico adds he and his brother, who’ve been in business for 31 years, would be working from home and still conducting business by e-commerce until they were allowed to reopen. He anticipated customers would soon be back after the crisis. “We’re New Yorkers,” he says. “How long do you think we’re going to stay in the house?”

Elaine Pofeldt is an independent journalist who specializes in small business. She is also author of The Million-Dollar, One-Person Business, a look at how entrepreneurs are hitting seven-figure revenue in businesses where they are the only employee (Random House, Jan 2018). She is now at work on her next book, Tiny Business, Big Money (Norton).

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