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.
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:
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:
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.
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.