SanTan Village bucking national mall trends

SanTan Village streetscape and map
SanTan Village has done better than most malls in America during the "Retail Apocalypse." (Photo by Tom Blodgett/Community Impact Newspaper) (Graphic source: Macerich Co./Community Impact Newspaper)

SanTan Village has done better than most malls in America during the "Retail Apocalypse." (Photo by Tom Blodgett/Community Impact Newspaper) (Graphic source: Macerich Co./Community Impact Newspaper)

Image description
(Source: Macerich Co./Community Impact Newspaper)
Image description
(Source: Macerich Co./Community Impact Newspaper)
Gilbert’s outdoor shopping mall, SanTan Village, is surviving, even thriving, mall officials said, during what experts have termed the “Retail Apocalypse” of the past decade.

That apocalypse refers to the closure of numerous brick-and-mortar stores in the past decade with the rise of Amazon and other online retailers, and accelerated by a pandemic. A record 12,200 stores closed nationally in 2020 as the pandemic raged, according to commercial real estate firm CoStar Group, one year after 8,300 closed.

Malls, once the crown jewels of American retail commerce, have suffered steady decline in that time, experts said.

SanTan Village, owned and operated by Macerich Co., has been an exception because of its location and the surrounding market area’s strong demographics, mall officials said.

“It’s a time like this that I am thankful to be at an outdoor mall in Gilbert,” General Manager Rachel Ricksecker said. “[Macerich has] properties across the entire country, and not everyone has fared as well as we have Arizona.”

While it has experienced churn, the mall’s vacancy rate is 2.74% with four unleased spaces and 142 tenants as of mid-March, according to the mall. Moody Analytics, an economic research arm of the financial services company, reported vacancy rates at regional and superregional malls nationally at 10.3% in Quarter 4 of 2021, the most recent data available.

Ricksecker said the mall has worked to be relevant to people in the area, a place where they can shop and eat, but also conduct business, have an appointment for services or be entertained.

Gilbert officials also attest to SanTan Village’s importance to the local economy and tout it as a tourist destination in town marketing materials.

“Everybody talks about the Heritage District,” Ricksecker said. “It’s not just the Heritage District. We’re here, too.”

Surviving the pandemic

Valley residents have seen up close how high-profile malls have had a tough ride in recent times.

Locally, the last retailer left Fiesta Mall in Mesa in September 2019, and it has sat vacant since then. Phoenix’s Metrocenter, once one of America’s largest malls, closed in June 2020, and developers said they plan to demolish it and build a mixed-use “village.” Paradise Valley Mall in Phoenix closed in March 2021 and was demolished three months later to make way for mixed use development with luxury apartments.

The pandemic hit at SanTan Village, too, Ricksecker said, but the center never completely closed due to the diversity of business types on the property. At the pandemic’s peak, Ricksecker said about 40 businesses were still open in the mall.

A few businesses closed permanently, such as The Children’s Place, an apparel shop. Accessories retailer Charming Charlie’s is wrapping up business and expects to close by the end of March.

“The couple that have closed are because they’re national brands that decided to close, not because of our center specifically,” Ricksecker said.

She called Gilbert a “phenomenal” place to be at the moment with young, affluent families, a median age of 34.1 years—according to the U.S. Census Bureau—and not a lot of dense retail with walkable spaces such as SanTan Village offers.

Gilbert Economic Development Director Dan Henderson noted the importance of the mall being an outdoor space.

“The SanTan Village open-air approach is shaping the future of retail real estate, adding value to Gilbert’s Class A assets with a smart mix of brands, experiences and uses,” he said in an email.

Ricksecker said she saw that open-air approach as an important part of the mall’s pandemic recovery.

“Especially once restrictions started to be lifted, people wanted to be out of their homes,” Ricksecker said. “There was so much pent-up demand. People wanted a place to go, but people were also more comfortable being outside. We are the perfect mix there.”

The best sign for the mall, Ricksecker said, is that sales were up each month in 2021 from the pre-pandemic numbers of 2019, though exact numbers are kept as proprietary information.

Mall trends

Many malls trying to stay relevant have taken on more professional offices as tenants, such as doctors, dentists and veterinarians, a trend Ricksecker said is a natural evolution for malls. In recent months, Modern Law Express, a legal services office, and PNC Bank have opened at SanTan Village.

“We’re more of a neighborhood,” she said. “We’re here for the community. We want to be a one-stop location for everything we need. ... It’s nice to have all of those amenities right here.”

Ricksecker said the mall has been able to land a number of new-to-market brands, especially from Utah, including 39 & Main Shoes, Janela Bay swimwear and women’s clothing boutique Roolee, with those retailers seeing a market in Gilbert.

Roolee, for example, had a pop-up last April at SanTan Village, store manager Riley Martin said.

“We were so impressed that people know us and we have a brand following here that we said, ‘Hey, let’s just open a store,’” Martin said.

It did so in November, and the business has fared well so far, she said.

Roolee is on the north end of the mall near Harkins Theatres, a part of the mall that traditionally has been more challenged, according to Ricksecker, but is undergoing a rebirth. Nearby, Atomic Comics, once a popular brand in Phoenix that went bankrupt in 2011, chose to relaunch in November at SanTan Village.

“This to us was like the perfect place,” co-owner Joe Furman said. “We like being by movie theaters. Literally, we’re right next to one. The fact that this strip [of the mall] right here, where our store is, was being revitalized, was kind of fun to jump on board and be a part of that.”

Importance to Gilbert

Discover Gilbert, the town’s tourism marketing program, features SanTan Village as one of the town’s hotspots for visitors, along with the Heritage District, Riparian Preserve and the Agritopia community. That fits in with the goals Ricksecker said she has outlined for the mall.

One thing mall officials said they look at is “dwell time,” the amount of time patrons spend at the mall, even just walking around. While Macerich also keeps this information proprietary, Ricksecker said SanTan, as an outdoor mall, fares better than what is typically seen.

Ricksecker said mall officials want reasons for people to come back time after time, making it important to elevate the mall’s restaurant brands and offer entertainment options—such as the free splash pad, child amusement center Kids Empire or escape room Escapology that appeal to the area’s youth and young families.

The mall has also implemented a number of events, such as a kids club on Fridays and Workout Wednesdays, as well as street fairs, including a November taste event for the mall’s restaurants or vendor markets from Paisley Pumpkin or Made with Love.

“We want to be a part of the community,” Ricksecker said. “We want to be the place that people think of and they want to go do things.”
By Tom Blodgett

Editor, Gilbert

Raised in Arizona, Tom Blodgett has spent more than 30 years in journalism in Arizona and joined Community Impact Newspaper in July 2018 to launch the Gilbert edition. He is a graduate of Arizona State University, where he served as an instructional professional in the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication from 2005-19 and remains editorial adviser to The State Press, the university's independent student media outlet.