In the 20 years Chandler Fashion Center has stood in the city, mall officials said it had not seen a more difficult year than 2020—with the coronavirus pandemic further accelerating the growth of online shopping as brick-and-mortar retailers struggled to get customers through the doors.
David Moss, senior manager with property management at the mall, said despite all the hardships the last year brought, he believes Chandler Fashion Center will emerge stronger than ever. Chandler Fashion Center is adding two new retail stores in the next year—Urban Outfitters and f.y.e—and Cooper’s Hawk Winery & Restaurant will open just outside the mall this fall, Moss said. A new kiosk selling popcorn—called Doc Popcorn—opened this spring as well.
“The last 12 months have been everything from having stores close due to government mandates to full-on reopening, and we have been working nonstop,” Moss said. “We have been working to enhance our cleaning protocols, making sure we have hand sanitizing stations available and working alongside our retailers to support with store occupancy and implement social distancing markers throughout the center. We are doing whatever we can to make sure our shoppers feel safe.”
In addition to sanitation and public safety changes, the mall has also deployed curbside delivery in the parking lot of several retailers, a change Moss said was driven by COVID-19 but was likely inevitable. But even with changes, not all retailers have survived the last year.
In May, it was announced Nordstrom would permanently close at the mall, and a new tenant has yet to be announced.
“COVID-19 was an accelerator for stores that were already expiring,” Moss said.
Moss said he believes the key to success for Chandler Fashion Center will be ensuring customers have experience-based interactions at the mall.
“We are working on more ways for people to have socially distant experiences,” he said. “The idea is that we are trying to bring the community together, but allow them to socially distance.”
Chandler Fashion Center growth
Moss said Chandler Fashion Center, like other malls across the country, had been working to add more experiences prior to COVID-19. The mall served as the first site west of Texas to open a Crayola Experience when the concept opened in Chandler in 2019.
Prior to the pandemic, Harkins was planning on opening a two-story entertainment concept in the location that previously housed Sears. Progress on the entertainment concept is not known, but Moss said “nothing is off the table.” A representative from Harkins did not return requests for comment prior to publication.
Crayola Experience remained closed for the better part of the last year, Moss said, but it held a grand reopening in early March. Casey Santoro, a spokesperson for Crayola Experience, said the attraction has worked to make sure everything remains socially distanced and sanitized.
“Reopening has gone better than we expected,” Santoro said. “Recovery has been much better than we thought, and we feel good about it. Chandler is such a great demographic for us, and Chandler Fashion Center has great foot traffic historically.”
MaryLou Ruiz-Gray, senior manager of marketing for the mall, said even after the loss of foot traffic and sales in the last year, the mall has “exciting” openings and events on the horizon.
“[The pandemic] opened new opportunities to reimagine certain space,” Ruiz-Gray said. “There is really a lot of stuff happening here, and it’s an exciting time for retail, believe it or not, despite ... COVID-19.”
Moss said the mall is partnering with local East Valley or Arizona artists and creators to have a pop-up artisan market at the mall.
“They can get a good introduction to the community, and our hope is that it would help them in getting going,” Moss said.
Chandler Economic Development Director Micah Miranda said Chandler Fashion Center has served the community well over the last two decades, and he expects that will continue.
"The Chandler Fashion Center has provided the workforce within Chandler amenities to enhance the quality of life,” Miranda said. “When you enhance the quality of life, you make it more desirable for people to want to grow a business here and send kids to school here. It’s helped round out what it means to live in Chandler.”
Despite the changes in retail over the years with the growth of online giants like Amazon, Miranda said he believes Chandler Fashion Center has maintained its relevance.
“It’s a fortress property,” Miranda said. “It’s very resilient to economic changes because of the demographics in our community, and those demographics are supported by quality jobs. And [the owner of Chandler Fashion Center] Macerich works hard to maintain the attractiveness of the mall and keep a broad diversity of tenants there that continue to attract shoppers.”
Future of the American mall
Hitendra Chaturvedi, an Arizona State University professor and retail expert, said he believes malls need to adapt to a more experienced-based model or they will fail.
“The mall has to change,” he said. “If they don’t change, if they just keep looking for tenants to fill their existing structure and expecting the younger generation to come in—it will be like rearranging the chairs on the deck of the Titanic.”
Chaturvedi said the structure of malls “is very ’70s and ’80s” and caters to an aging generation, while the younger generation is not a “mall generation.”
Earlier this year, Metrocenter Mall in the West Valley announced it would close after operating in the area for decades. The mall management cited decreased foot traffic and fewer tenants—including the loss of several anchor tenants—as reasons for closure that were exacerbated by COVID-19, according to letter from the general manager announcing the closure.
The last year also shattered records for the number of retailers to permanently close. According to data from PNC RE Market Research, 13,400 retail stores closed nationwide in 2020—up from 11,100 reported in 2019.
“Our malls have to deliberately change from the current structure if they are going to be a place that people come more and more,” Chaturvedi said. “I look at these places with an open air theater structure where everyone is watching everyone and you can look from one end to the other with shops next to each other and that model, in my opinion, is dead.”
Chaturvedi said shops will need to evolve and become more experiential.
“There are retailers where you go into the store and they don’t carry inventory, and you experience the place and you order it there and it’s delivered to your house by the time you get home,” he said.
For malls to succeed after COVID-19, Chaturvedi said, they must become destinations.
“You need people to come in and experience a home away from home,” he said.•