Nation’s return to in-store shopping is clear at largest Twin Cities malls

Music bumped as a steady procession of young women strutted down the runway in colorful abaya dresses and elegant hijab head-coverings. The audience snapped pictures, and onlookers peered down from the upper level.

The recent fashion show for the Eid holiday at Rosedale Center was the Roseville mall’s first major inside event since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Several Twin Cities malls have experienced strong months of foot traffic, and some are busier than before the pandemic. Malls are hosting events again, leasing space and seeing store sales climb as consumers return after two years of on-and-off work because of COVID-19.

“It feels like we are getting back,” said Jill Renslow, executive vice president of business development and marketing at the Mall of America. “People are excited to be able to celebrate and to be able to come together.”

Mall traffic across the country has risen as consumers continue to spend despite big jumps in prices. U.S. retail sales increased 0.5% in March.

The shift in shopping patterns showed up as a factor in lower-than-expected quarterly results for Amazon.com Inc., the nation’s leading e-commerce company. Amazon shares fell 14% on Friday, the day after the news, and are down 25% for 2022. Other e-commerce stocks have tumbled more: Wayfair and Etsy are down around 60% this year.

According to Placer.ai, which tracks anonymized mobile location data, foot traffic at Bloomington’s Mall of America rose 10% in February compared with the same time in 2019, a year before the pandemic. Numbers were recently bolstered during spring break. In early April, the NCAA Women’s Final Four basketball tournament in Minneapolis brought more than 500,000 fans to the mall over a week.

The Mall of America, which celebrates its 30th birthday this year, has started to host more in-person public and private events. This past weekend, the mall was the location of a charitable walk and an e-sports tournament.

Leasing has also been strong with the mall recently welcoming new tenants, including Nectar Bath Treats and Franki by Francesca’s. Food vendors have been the most active leasing sector for the mall this year with openings of such places as Duck Donuts and Juicebox.

“We are seeing more retailers in growth mode than anytime in the last seven years,” Renslow said. “It has been fantastic. We are seeing a lot of digital native brands emerge as a major growth driver in that effort. … A lot of new stores. A lot of activity across all categories.”

Southdale Center in Edina saw foot traffic jump 26% in February and more than 16% in March compared with 2019. Last year around this time, traffic was down almost by a third compared with two years earlier.

For the first time since the start of the pandemic, the Easter Bunny returned to Southdale Center for photos with children. The shopping center this month will host a Vehicle Day, an opportunity for families to see and sit inside city vehicles and large trucks.

“I think that brick-and-mortar retail is alive and thriving according to what we’re seeing and what Simon [Property Group] is seeing in centers across the country,” said Southdale general manager Judy Tullius.

Besides shoppers, Southdale’s foot traffic numbers have been helped by more people going out to entertainment attractions, such as the attached AMC movie theater, Dave & Buster’s and restaurants, Tullius said.

Deb Carlson, a director of brokerage services at the local office of Cushman & Wakefield who has worked with numerous retailers, said retail leasing has been more active locally and nationwide.

“People are out and about in just about all the different types of retail that we see around town. … They have been shopping online, and now they want to see what it is like in person. I think it has really helped the mall traffic and the mall sales,” she said.

According to a report Placer.ai released in April, year-over-year visits increased nearly 17% at indoor malls across the country in March. Mall traffic was still down nationally compared with 2019, though there were some weeks in March that malls reached or were close to pre-pandemic levels.

Malls have been on a roller coaster during the past two years of the pandemic. Last summer, mall visits began to recover only to fall again in the emergence of the delta variant. In the fall, early holiday shopping gave some malls a boost, but the omicron variant became a smaller constraint late in the season.

All five of the local malls the Star Tribune compared experienced a dip in visitors this March compared with the same month 2019. Placer.ai researchers blamed the decrease on inflation and rising gas prices. It remains to be seen how inflation will continue to affect traffic and if a rise in COVID-19 cases could temporarily cause another setback.

The Eid fashion show at Rosedale Center near the end of April added to the bustle of an already busy Saturday afternoon. The sold-out event helped promote Rosedale’s temporary shops for local designers Ilhan Dahir of Aert Fashion and Hilal Ibrahim of Henna and Hijabs.

Rosedale Center, which was last renovated in 2018, is also in the midst of a massive transformation into a “lifestyle center” with an expansion that includes apartments, hotels and more commercial space.

“I think you are seeing the retail starting to rebound especially here at Rosedale,” said Lisa Crain, the mall’s general manager. “More so, we are starting to see that because we have made the investment into the property.”

Katheleen Knopf

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