Article in publication in Shopping Center Business magazine

How Entertainment Can Make Shopping Centers Profit Centers

by Randy White

Shopping centers succeed or fail based on their ability to attract women shoppers. Even today, with the majority of families having two breadwinners, approximately 70% of purchase decisions are still made by women. In a quiet revolution, many developers are now acting on the realization that, to attract and satisfy many women shoppers, you must attract and meet the needs of the family, meaning children. To do this, they are harnessing the power of enter-tainment to boost sales and generate return visits.

Why are family and children such an important consideration to shopping centers? There are three main reasons.

First, with the majority of women now in the work force, women can no longer shop during the weekday when children are in school. Increasingly, children accompany their parents when they shop.

Second, while the majority of parents now work, there is still a significant number of families with children in which one parent does not work. These homemakers are most numerous in families with children younger than six years old. In many areas throughout the U.S. where our company has done market studies, we have found as many as 45% of children under 6 had a homemaker parent (not all homemakers are women). These home-makers are very important target markets for shopping centers, as they are concentrated in the higher socio-economic groups with significant spending potential, and can be attracted during the weekday.

The third reason why families and children are such important considerations is that families today are seeking quality destinations they can visit for their out-of-home leisure experiences. Shopping centers are traditional destinations for families. However, retail by itself appears to no longer suffice as a draw for leisure experiences. Yes, families still come to traditional shopping centers to buy what they need, but new entertainment destinations such as urban entertainment centers and location-based entertainment centers are appearing, many with retail as a significant part of their mix. These new retail/restaurant/entertainment hybrids are capturing an increasing share of families' limited disposable out-of-home leisure time and their retail spending.

Add to these the trend, now just peeking over the horizon, of shopping on the Internet. Some experts predict that in 10 years electronic commerce will capture 20% or more of the gargantuan, $2 million-plus retail-industrial complex. This has serious implications for retail stores and shopping centers; the recent bankruptcies and closings of retailers such as Montgomery Ward, Woolworth's, Caldor and Bradlees foreshadow a drop or increased vulnerability of much location-based retail. In addition, cyberspace shopping is becoming the place where more and more people comparison shop. Instead of a retail economy in which value is added on a physical level, we're shifting to a wholesale economy in which value is added on a digital level. To survive, shopping centers will need to add increasing value in the form of entertainment and food to compete with the comfort and wholesale economy of shopping at home.

The expectations of today's families are rising. They want far more than just retail when they invest their out-of-home leisure time; they now want entertainment. The more educated consumers in our increasingly knowledge-based society want more than just mindless entertainment; they want to learn and be enriched by their leisure experiences. (For evidence, note that more than 120 million people visited North American zoos and aquariums in 1996, more than attended professional football, basketball and baseball combined.) Less leisure time and a trend away from long vacations means that community-based facilities that offer entertaining and enriching leisure experiences for families and their children are even more appealing.

Combining leisure and learning is now considered a for-profit business. Ripley's Believe It Or Not is now building multi-million-dollar, for-profit aquariums. Eco-tourism is becoming increasingly popular. The rapid expansion and popularity of themed restaurants like the Rainforest Cafe and the American Wilderness Experience show that Americans want leisure destinations where entertainment has an education.

Shopping centers have a number of options to create added value by adding entertainment and education to their mix. For example, cinemas and game rooms are the traditional entertainment options, and newer attractions such as carousels, family entertainment centers, and free children's play are making inroads.

Cinemas are solid entertainment anchors. Although originally relegated to only a few screens or out parcels, today's large multi-plexes with 20 or more screens, state-of the-art sound and stadium seating are anchoring more and more shopping centers. Both Ward Parkway Mall in Kansas City, Missouri, and the newly renovated upscale Foothills Mall in Tucson, Arizona, have modern multi-screen cinemas as anchor tenants.

Another traditional entertainment tenant - game rooms or arcades - have traditionally appealed to preteens and teens as their target market. Many game rooms have expanded their mix to include redemption games (games such as Skeeball or Whack-a-Mole where you win tickets that are redeemed for prizes) to broaden their appeal to younger children. Most women, however, are intimidated by the groups of teenagers who frequent game rooms and do not consider them a desirable place to take their younger children.

Carousels have also become entertainment components in many malls and are often located in the food court area. Not only is the ride fun for shoppers, especially children, but they offer visual entertainment as well.

Family entertainment centers (FECs) are now appearing in many shopping centers. These FECs come in a wide variety of types and sizes. There are traditional FECs with soft-contained-play (the system of tubes, ball pits and slides) and rides as well as video and redemption games. Examples include River Falls Mall in Clarksville, Indiana, which has a 100,000-square-foot FEC as an anchor, and The Great Mall in Milpitas, California, which has a 40,000-square-foot Wonderpark FEC as one of its tenants.

There are many niche-type FECs that target narrower markets. For example, some FECs target children about nine years old and younger accompanied by their parents. Called children's entertainment or pay-for-play centers, they include Jeepers and Discovery Zone. Others are children's edutainment centers, based on hands-on learning through developmentally-appropriate play. One such is Bamboola, which recently opened in a shopping center in San Jose, California. Children's entertainment and edutainment centers typically vary between 15,000 and 30,000 square feet in size.

Adult entertainment centers, another form of FECs, are increasing being located in shopping centers. The most successful of adult entertainment centers, Dave & Busters, now has locations in White Flint Mall in Silver Springs, Maryland, and Ontario Mills, California. Gameworks, an adult-oriented game and dining entertainment center, has also opened in Ontario Mills.

FECs make excellent shopping center enter-tainment anchors for families with children. In fact, Dave & Busters is so popular with families, the company established a policy of not allowing children after 10 p.m. to assure the facility maintains an adult atmosphere at night.

Another entertainment trend that evolved first in the fast food or quick service restaurant industry is starting to appear in shopping centers - free children's play areas. Burger King was the first restaurant chain to add children's soft-contained-play equipment (SCP) outside their restaurants in the 1980s. SCP encapsulates children so they cannot fall and hurt themselves, in contrast to swings or jungle gyms, where the largest numbers of serious injuries are attributable to children falling to the ground. SCP is very compact, can have multiple levels and be used by large numbers of children simultaneously, making it ideally suited for limited space locations. Burger King learned that locating SCP outdoors in front of their restaurants dramatically increased sales, and SCP play systems quickly spread to McDonald's and other fast food chains.

In the mid 1990s, based on their experience with their Leaps & Bounds chain of children's pay-for-play centers, McDonald's started adding SCP to the inside of their restaurants by building 'glass box' Playspace additions at the front of existing restaurants. The SCP then had year-round appeal and dramatically increased restaurant sales. McDonald's, Burger King and other quick service chains are now incorporating 'glass box' play areas in the design of many of their new restaurants.

Sometimes, free children's play stretches past the old boundaries of SCP. Our company has been fortunate to be involved with a shopping center industry pioneer, Bourn Properties, Inc., which has incorporated a free children's play area in its fully renovated Foothills Mall in Tucson, Arizona. The free play area is integrated into the central food court and covers 4,000 square feet of space. Rather than rely strictly on SCP, which basically offers only physical play to children, Bourn Properties hired our company to incorporate edutainment play, which is developmentally appropriate play where children 7 months through about 9 years learn by hands-on discovery and spontaneous play. The play area offers a variety of social, pretend, construction and physical play that appeals to the four different development stages of children 9 and younger. In addition to SCP, the area includes a pretend village with a supermarket, video rental store and restaurant; a construction area; interactive water play and a toddler play area.

The play is contained within an area defined by railings with only one entrance, which offers parents a secured space for their children, although it also includes ample seating for parents who want to sit and eat near their children while they play. (In designing play areas for younger children, it is just as important to the children that their parents be close by as it is for the parents to be near their children.) A second-phase expansion is planned which will add a heavily landscaped outdoor seating and play area, including a children's dinosaur dig.

Bourn Properties decided to add the edutainment-oriented play area for the strategic purpose of increasing the mall's appeal to the dominant college-educated, knowledge- worker family segment of their market area. Our studies showed that more than one-third of households in the market area were families with children, with the majority being both college-educated with white-collar employment and also having younger children. Although Foothills Mall's multi-screen cinema is an important entertainment anchor, and the Sega game room added another entertainment component, neither had high leisure appeal to parents who visited the mall with children nine years old and younger - the true family market. (Children 10 and older tend to not be part of the family unit on most out-of-home shopping and leisure trips, but instead prefer to hang out with their peers away from adults and younger children.)

Foothills Mall's food court play area was designed to appeal to not only the family market, but also the homemaker market, one that can generate substantial non-peak-time weekday business. Homemakers are always in search of locations they can visit regularly, where they can meet their friends and socialize while their children play nearby. Food courts make a great location, with an ambiance and food selection better than that of fast food restaurants with indoor play spaces. Each time the homemaker comes, there is a high probability she will make some other purchases.

Our client in Caracas, Venezuela, also added children's entertainment and edutainment to their open mall shopping center, Unicentro el MarquZs, for strategic repositioning purposes. The shopping center was about twenty years old and, despite its continued success as the second highest trafficked shopping center in the city of 7 million residents, new competition had resulted in the center's customer base slipping down the socio-economic ladder to predominately Class C customers (middle class). The goal was to increase the center's market share of Class B (upper-middle class) and Class A-minus (lower upper class) residents. As part of the shopping center's remodeling, the owners also wanted to add a new anchor tenant.

The solution was to take a third-level exhibit space and renovate it as Dinotropolis, a 50,000-square-foot children's leisure center that includes rides, a SCP unit, games, edutainment and play areas, and six birthday party suites that could accommodate parties with as many as 100 children each. A storyline and design theme was developed about a civilization of intelligent dinosaurs called Momosauros and their king, Max, and the center was opened in July 1996. Dinotropolis has been a success. As a new entertainment anchor, it has not only attracted the higher socio- economic families and increased the shopping center's traffic, but it is a highly profitable business and generates rent for a former marginal space. Over two-thirds of the parents who bring their children to Dinotropolis are women, who control an even higher share of spending decisions in the Latin American culture than in the States.

The formula is rather simple. Add entertain-ment to a shopping center's mix to attract the family and children and you also attract the woman shopper. This transforms the visit from pure shopping to an entertainment experience and results in extended stays, increased spending per visit and more frequent visits. That's just plain good business in an increasingly competitive marketplace.