Springfield Town Center: a successful mall innovation still shows sutures in the skinsuit.

By this point in the Tweaking Twenties, it’s hard think of any time during the week that a shopping mall would ever be jam-packed, so Thursday at 7:30 pm is just as good of a time as any.  For the Springfield Town Center, the image below is probably typical for a summer weekday evening.

Springfield Town Center

Not exactly teeming with life.  But still better than many malls of similar scale and in terms of the market it serves.

In fact, Springfield Town Center is a particularly interesting case: it’s one of the few malls that was genuinely dying then successfully reinvented itself through a rebranding and an extensive renovation.  Founded as Springfield Mall in 1973 just south the junction of Intestates 95, 395, and 495 (the latter being the Washington Beltway), the surrounding Springfield area—not a town so much as a Census Designated Place (CDP), though people certainly know it as “Springfield”—offers a very standard 60s/70s middle-class suburban housing stock that belies the area’s formidable wealth.  This is Fairfax County, Virginia we’re talking about: a suburban area of Washington DC and one of the five richest counties in the country.  The vaguely defined district known as Springfield offers a comparatively mature settlement pattern, having surged in population in the 1960s, prompting the development of the Springfield Mall.  Median incomes in the zip codes that align with Springfield are still fairly high, probably having broken past $100,000 for the typical household by the mid 2010s.  But Fairfax County as a whole is much wealthier, and the combination of a relatively large number of apartment complexes and somewhat older single-family housing has made the comparatively low-cost Springfield a hotbed for first-generation immigrants: Asians and Latinos comprise half the population according the 2010 Census stats for the CDP.  Immigrant enclaves tend to have median incomes slightly below the norm, and Springfield is no exception.

The immigrant influx to Springfield accelerated in the 1990s, and a middlebrow mall like Springfield was likely to find it harder to align with the tastes of the surrounding demographic.  So it declined.  It achieved great notoriety after two of the 9/11 hijackers successfully obtained false Virginia IDs through the DMV in the mall, after an employee there sold the fraudulent identification for cash.  The mall’s fortunes continued to crater through a series of violent crimes (at least two of which were fatal) that took place on the mall property in the late 2000s.

The nationally recognized REIT Vornado Realty Trust purchased the ailing mall in the mid 2000s, then, in 2012 announced the unthinkable: it would mothball the entire mall for a radical rebranding, the three anchor tenants excepted.  Over the course of two and a half years, Vornado transformed the mall from the blank-wall prototype—the typical appearance of a mall constructed in the 1970s—giving it a much more extroverted façade.  These days, the western side in particular (fronting Loisdale Road) offers a panoply of restaurants with outdoor seating, as well as a few large second-tier anchors: LA Fitness gym and Dave and Buster’s.  Several other restaurants on the eastern side also feature direct access from the large parking  lot.  The interior remains a conventional mall, but with the white-marble veneer typical of renovated malls.  The reinvented Springfield Town Center appears to have been a success: though hardly upscale, it at least secured a vibrant array of inline tenants, reversing its fortunes to a large degree.  That in itself makes Springfield Town Center a rarity: while many malls have rebranded and introduced an outdoor “lifestyle center” element, few have succeeded for long if they were already dying.  Springfield is a marked contrast from the closest nearby mall: Landmark, which I covered back when it was completely dead except for the Sears, a holdout that finally closed mid-year 2020.

Springfield Town Center is undoubtedly a pale imitation of its jam-packed salad days in the 1980s.  But by 2021 standards, it’s not doing badly: I’d estimate it has a vacancy of about 20%, but all three anchor tenants (Target, Macy’s, JCPenney) are still occupied—a rare feat given that most malls have at least one vacant anchor.  The outdoor restaurants on the west side appear to be doing particularly well, boasting high-end chains like Maggiano’s Little Italy and Yard House.  So images like the one below should be no great surprise:

Springfield Town Center

As mentioned, this is probably the standard level of activity one can expect on a long summer evening.  The future of malls is murky at best.

But Springfield Town Center features another anomaly (or at least what would have been unusual until recently): a store that is shuttered but not out of business.  Take this example:

Closed (but not vacant) Vans at Springfield Town Center

Youth-oriented retailer Vans (best known for its shoes and skater-friendly image) has its lights off and doors closed.  This is at 7:30pm—a good two hours before the Springfield Town Center closes altogether.  Is this location shuttered?  It sure doesn’t look like it; lots of merchandise in a perfectly orderly display on the interior.  Let’s close on on the paper sign taped to the front door.

This Vans closed a half hour prior to this photo.  It stands as a microcosm for a situation confronting many industries: the inability to attract sufficient staff when competing with benefits conferred through the pandemic-related stimulus plans, with benefits approved in March slated to continue until Labor Day.  Significant numbers of Americans laid off during the lockdowns have determined that the unemployment benefits they collect offer superior remuneration to working a job, and, for many retail workers, whose wages are often moderate at best, a $300-per-week benefit is superior to returning to the labor force.

Vans is not alone, both in general and within Springfield Town Center.  

Closed (but not vacant) Sunglass Hut at Springfield Town Center

The Sunglass Hut lacked a sign tacked to the entrance, but it’s reasonable to deduce that it suffers the same labor shortages.  As one of the most prevalent inline tenants in malls today, it’s portfolio extends across a much greater geography than Vans.  Yet it appears to be facing the same shortages.  Most telling, though, are the jewelers in the mall.

I’m not familiar with either of these names; they certainly lack the national recognition of mall mainstays like Kay or Zales.  This appears to be the only bricks-and-mortar location for Reeds.  I’m not particularly knowledgeable about the finer points of the jewelry industry, but I can safely claim that retailers selling fine or luxury products do tend to demand a higher standard for their staff than one might expect from Vans or Sunglass Hut—not just more attention to personal appearance (they still routinely wear business attire), but a reasonable fluency in precious stones and metals.  The pool of qualified workers for a jewelry store is undoubtedly smaller and wages are probably higher—though these shuttered but not defunct stores at Springfield suggest they too are struggling to find staff to work the full breadth of the mall’s long operating hours.

Champions of an increased federal minimum wage have undoubtedly seized upon the coronavirus-related stimulus packages as an opportunity to pursue what they’ve envisioned for quite some time: to ensure that employers must pay their low-wage workers more by forcing their hand.  Such employers must either beat the employment benefits or must continue to struggle to find the labor they need.  I understand that motivation.  But the evidence at Springfield Town Center is that it isn’t really yielding the desired results.  After all, do the inline tenants at malls—or retailers in general—really have the wiggle room to offer better wages and remain profitable?  And are jewelry store workers fundamentally low-wage?  The struggles of mall-based tenants is hardly obscure knowledge: essentially everyone knows a childhood mall that is now half-vacant or completely dead.  The interplay between reduced mall foot traffic and signature inline tenants like Victoria’s Secret, Forever 21, or GNC closing huge numbers of their stores has spawned a vicious circle within the broader retail economy.

Bearing these conditions in mind, it’s reasonable to assert that even lower-profile tenants like Vans and Sunglass Hut can’t necessarily weather the storm through this sociocultural ultimatum.  Forced to choose between hiring new staff at a wage superior to the unemployment payouts under the stimulus or simply not hiring enough workers to cover the full mall hours, the managers at these locations have opted for the latter, no doubt from the direction of corporate leadership.  I haven’t read evidence that either chain is struggling to the same degree that many of their counterparts are, but “not struggling” evidently does not equate to “capable of introducing new staff at a significantly higher price point”, especially when they’ll almost certainly have to lock in these new wages even after the unemployment benefits end.  And there’s no way these inline tenants can predict the long-term viability of remaining open an extra two hours each day, if offset by higher-than-average labor costs.

In fact, earlier studies have suggested that malls have been plagued with understaffed retailers well in advance of the pandemic-related lockdowns.  Customers at mall-based apparel chains have reported problems with customer service due to understaffing for many years, suggesting that the shoppers’ experience has deteriorated through an inability to find sales help when they need it, or an inability to get staff at a specific location to answer phone calls.  Reduced staffing may be hurting sales, so that the average location is only reaching 85-95% of its earning potential.  Yet the Vans and Sunglass Huts (or even the jewelers of the world) have to weigh that reduced capitalization against the added cost for stretching expensive labor across those additional few hours.  And, with mall traffic continuing to languish at a fraction of what it was as recently as the late 2000s, many store managers have decided it isn’t worth it.  This race to the bottom does not bode well for malls like Springfield Town Center, even with its genuinely successful reinvention.  The Saks Off 5th and Francesca’s Collections locations in this large regional mall are already completely shuttered; if they cannot find the right balance between labor costs and revenue generated across operating hours, we can expect to see the same for Vans and Sunglass Hut.  And many others.

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12 thoughts on “Springfield Town Center: a successful mall innovation still shows sutures in the skinsuit.

  1. Jeffrey Jakucyk

    I guess drawing any conclusions prior to September would be premature. My guess would be that the corporate higher-ups are just biding their time, waiting for a flood of new applications at their “old” wages after the benefits dry up.

    I spent a couple months in Denmark back in 2001 and we were told coming in that “service and convenience don’t exist here.” That was a bit glib for sure, but it’s illustrative of the retail landscape in a high-wage country. I can’t say I noticed any positions being completely absent, there were just fewer of them. It helps that Scandinavians tend to be more reserved and shy, so store clerks don’t want to bother customers any more than customers want to be bothered. Win-win if you ask me.

    Still, banker’s hours were near ubiquitous. 9-5 or 10-6 for just about everything during the week, and maybe 9-1 on Saturday at most. Restaurants were open later, same for larger supermarkets that could be open every day until about 9pm. Some stores would stay open a few more hours Friday evening, but the place shuts down hard otherwise.

    I think what this shows is that the sort of jobs that are difficult and stressful, while still getting crap pay (retail and restaurant mostly), simply won’t be tolerated anymore without a paradigm change. While it is somewhat inconvenient for customers that some restaurants still have closed dining rooms, or stores have shorter hours, those are the positions/times that have traditionally been all stress and little reward. People won’t stand for that if they don’t have to.

    Reply
    1. AmericanDirt Post author

      I definitely wasn’t in Denmark as long as you were, Jeffrey, but I also noticed the lack of concession to basic convenience, as well as the significantly higher price tags while I was there. If people don’t expect it, they’re not going to miss anything that’s absent. And if no place can significantly undersell (they do pay their retail workers well there, resulting in the “cheap” places still commanding high prices), there’s less competitive cost-cutting overall.

      It’s quite possible that retail jobs aren’t worth the low wages and the people “who won’t stand for that if they don’t have to” are in fact the retail workers. There can be no question that jobs in warehousing, despite the negative reputation Amazon has as an employer, are still higher paying and require less potentially abrasive consumer interaction…and these are becoming the new standard for low-skill jobs that supplant the retail of yesteryear.

      Also critical to consider is the mall’s diminished ability to get people in the door. They aren’t the great densifying agoras of the 80s and 90s. If the typical mall thins out after 7pm, why should a retailer pay an additional worker (and maybe two or three) those extra 10 hours each week when no more than a half-dozen people walk through the door? I suspect that, in previous years, the property managers–the malls themselves–had leasing agreements that forced inline tenants not to close before the end of the mall hours. But I don’t imagine they can apply that same level of pressure to their tenants in 2021, given that they can’t promise a decent minimum sales-per-square-foot. So the retractions we’re witnessing are coming both from the workers (the labor supply) and the managers (filling up the operating schedule with staff).

      Reply
      1. Chris B

        Amazon vs. retai is a nice juxtaposition but I think you’re ignoring the gender division that exists: warehouse workers tend to be male while retail workers tend to be female.

        And…low wage female workers are more likely to be single moms, or partnered with another low wage worker.

        And…daycare workers are overwhelmingly female and low wage.

        Someone has to watch the kids when at home and/or in virtual school. I’ve been asserting for some time now that it’s the lack of daycare combined with the unemployment benefit that is keeping low wage workers home.

        Reply
        1. AmericanDirt Post author

          I think that’s true about the retail/warehouse divide and always has been, but not as disproportionate as other vocations (like daycare workers) and is getting less so. The gender gap at athletic apparel retailers (which are extremely common even in middling malls) is about 50/50, and I know the modern warehouse explosion, largely driven by Amazon, strives to bring in more female staff.

          Lack of daycare is probably another factor indeed. And while I attribute the unemployment benefit, that in itself is not enough, since $300 a week remains a wage below some retail workers. But that combined with the eviction moratorium has made it a considerably easier to live off.

          I’m not sure gender is ultimately a major factor in the continued siphoning of workers away from retail and into warehousing–it will happen regardless of gender. But I can concede that, based on the gender division you mentioned, this continued siphoning is going to exposing women as more potentially stuck in a stagnant moderate-wage industry while more men join its more dynamic counterpart. Then again, robotics may keep human warehouse workers from becoming too dominant.

          Reply
  2. Astara

    I find it interesting that everyone seems to attribute this labor shortage to the $300 pandemic bonus unemployment pay. To me, it’s so much more. The public watched as retail workers were either furloughed for an indefinite amount of time or deemed “essential” and abused/repeatedly exposed to COVID-19 in order to survive. Families found themselves with less to do outside their homes and embraced togetherness. To their surprise, they appreciated this time together.

    Ultimately, I don’t believe people want to rob themselves of family time. I don’t believe they’d mind working in the industry, but they know that means doing just that. So if the expectation is that workers fill gaps from 10am-9pm and beyond, they look for the pay to be commensurate with that sacrifice. It has never been in the past, and people assumed retail/food workers took those jobs because it was all they could get. They didn’t have the privilege of being picky. But now they do. If we want to maintain these insane hours of commerce in this industry post-pandemic, people will expect to be paid better for it.

    Reply
    1. Jeffrey Jakucyk

      Indeed, so many people say “well if you pay people not to work, they won’t work.” My response to that is, no shit Sherlock. To quote Office Space, “most people hate their jobs.” Even those who don’t may not want to be doing it for 40+ hours a week. This is a primary argument for a Universal Basic Income. If people don’t have to take crap jobs just to scrape by and not starve to death in the cold on the street, then those jobs either need to pay better or they just go away. There’s absolutely people in the world who enjoy being a restaurant server, ditch digger, lawn mower, or shelf re-stocker, but not as many as are doing those jobs right now. The pandemic unemployment benefits may be the straw that broke the camel’s back, but it’s not some unforeseen revelation.

      Reply
    2. AmericanDirt Post author

      Hey Astara, there’s probably quite a bit of truth to your narrative. We certainly hear a lot about protests against the lockdowns (both domestically and abroad), but media does tend to focus on sensationalism and emotions, rather than the quietly submissive who find great comfort and solace in not working. They most certainly exist too.

      The question I have–and you would probably know better than I would–is whether or not the decisions to close shop rather than hire more people at better pay comes from store managers or corporate. I don’t know much about Vans outside from it makes me think of baggy-pants skater culture from school days in the 90s (long hair parted down the middle, flannel in July, etc etc). I’m kind of surprised it’s still around and I haven’t heard of it imploding the way preppie J Crew has. But I don’t imagine the stores are franchises, so it would probably happen from the higher-ups at HQ. Sunglass Hut is much larger and is likely to have franchises, so perhaps the managers themselves can make those decisions. And perhaps the other stores that are fully operative at Springfield Town Center already HAVE made the decision to hire additional staff at better wages.

      The one remaining factor is that even a fairly successful mall like Springfield Town Center ain’t exactly the draw it used to be. Store management can only justify hiring more people (better wages or not) if there are enough potential shoppers milling about the mall. If someone from 1995 saw the level of activity on a July weeknight seen in my photos, he or she would probably ask, “What’s wrong with the place?” If the malls themselves can’t bring people in (and a store like Vans or Sunglass Hut don’t have the magnetism to do it themselves), then it’s easy to see why store managers aren’t spending as much effort on staffing. My fear is they’ll continue to find it hard to justify keeping physical locations altogether.

      Reply
      1. Astara

        Eric, from my perspective, the decisions are being made in partnership between corporate and individual management teams. I’ve also seen that most malls here in FL have not returned to pre-pandemic operating hours. Mine has, and my boss let me know we are the only ones so far (in a swath of 27-30 stores.) Within my mall, a relatively small percentage are operating from 10-9. The hours seem to vary based upon store, but I’ve seen a fair number of 10-7, 10-8, even 11-8. I believe that workers have liked having somewhat “normal” hours. For the longest time, we operated from 11-7. The changes back have been painful. What’s funny is that malls have NEVER really had much traffic from 10-11 or 8-9. When retailers trimmed, it was really the fat in a very long day. Because people order online, they aren’t needing to be out early or late to buy. Those extended hours began to offer convenience for folks who were trying to balance routine shopping with their professional and family commitments. Now they can order after the kids go to bed or on their lunch break at work. My take? Malls need 11-7 or 11-8 hours. We no longer require anything else except perhaps for the holidays.

        Reply
      2. AmericanDirt Post author

        I can pretty easily get behind that. Many stores around here have been under reduced hours since the lockdowns ended, whether a national chain health club or a mom-and-pop coffee shop. If they’re getting marginal business at 9:30pm, it’s pointless putting people on a prolonged work schedule for an additional 10 hours each week.

        Reply
  3. Allison Bouley

    My first job was in a hallmark store at Springfield mall 🙂

    (It was a mall before it became a “town center.”)

    (Which, upon reading your article, I now know that you know.)

    Reply
    1. AmericanDirt Post author

      Yeah, I thought about you when I wrote this, as someone I knew who grew up in the area! You’ve probably witnessed the mall’s old heyday, its decline, its rebranding, and now its current kinda blah state. Still a WHOLE lot better shape than Landmark Mall. (Why did they locate two malls so close together?!) Hope you’re doing well and enjoying this new matrimonial chapter!

      Reply

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