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The modern mallrat – Tweens and teens keep mall culture alive

Living in the shadows of big-box retailers and online shopping, malls have been written off by the majority of consumer products execs as a dying product distribution and brand marketing channel. But while they may not be attracting the suburban moms and dads that once flocked to their sheltered halls, there is one important demo that still appears to be loving mall life.
October 1, 2007

Living in the shadows of big-box retailers and online shopping, malls have been written off by the majority of consumer products execs as a dying product distribution and brand marketing channel. But while they may not be attracting the suburban moms and dads that once flocked to their sheltered halls, there is one important demo that still appears to be loving mall life.

More than two-thirds of tweens surveyed by EPM Communications this year as part of a marketing study described themselves as ‘mall regulars,’ shopping and socializing at the centers on a weekly basis. And a report from Teenage Research Unlimited released this past spring backs these numbers up; by its count, 61% of 12- to 14-year-olds spend one or more hours a week in malls.

On the supply side of the economic equation, 2006 stats from the International Council of Shopping Centers show that the number of malls popping up in the US is rising steadily at roughly 0.2% a year since 2002. Mall sales have also increased over the last few years, moving up from US$1.81 trillion in 2002 to US$2.12 trillion in 2005.

Fully equipped with everything a tween/teen needs – food, entertainment and, of course, stuff to buy – it’s no wonder that malls have become as much a social hub as a retail operation. Being perceptually enclosed from the world outside, malls have benefited greatly over the last few years from two key points of difference: parental endorsement as a safe hangout option, and a sense of community that jibes with the insatiable appetite that tweens/teens seem to have for networking with peers.

And companies such as Simon Brand Ventures, which owns or holds interest in 380 properties and is one of the largest mall operators in North America, are managing to bring in new promotional business by marketing both of these advantages loudly. One extremely satisfied customer is Universal Music Group Distribution, which has partnered with Simon for the last five years on the highly successful music tour, Simon DTour Live! The show connects pop stars with the mall’s retail brands; many of the event sponsors are either Simon retailers or linked to merchandise sold in Simon’s malls. Talent autograph signings, for example, were sponsored by mall music chain FYE, and attendees who bought the artist’s latest album release were given a line bypass. DTour 2007 was the largest event yet, making stops at 20 Simon malls and playing to crowds of between 1,500 and 5,000 people (with a sweet spot of girls ages 11 to 15) at each show.

This was also the most technologically robust year in terms of online promotion activity. Simon’s website promoted all the artists in the show, providing song downloads and links to their official fan sites, blogs and MySpace pages, and the company also ran in-mall texting contests.

Describing the partnership as ‘a dream,’ UMGD director of retail partnership marketing Stephanie Timberlake says the shows are attracting three to four more times kids than on similar tours do, along with triggering increased artist website hits, MySpace hits and music downloads. But the more important end-result to come out of the venture has been CD sales that are three to five times higher, making the ‘the difference in chart position between number 10 and number eight,’ says Timberlake. DTour lets UMGD reach kids who otherwise wouldn’t see their favorite bands and singers live because they’re too young for the nightclub circuit. And even better, building band loyalty with younger fans now ensures increased concert attendance down the road when the bands come back to town.

Describing what it’s like to work with the mall operator, Timberlake says, ‘Simon really strives to understand the music industry and they also explain their own business really clearly. And then they put together a plan that meets everybody’s needs, so we all see return on the investment. It’s very easy for me to want to put in 100-hour work weeks with someone who is shoulder-to-shoulder with me, and the results have exceeded my expectations by about 100%.’

For kids ages two to eight and their parents, Simon’s malls are also home to the national Kidgits Club, which hosts a handful of on-site events annually, ranging from cooking tours to licensed product promos. Past events have included a promotion for a Baby Bratz DVD, as well as Radio Disney-hosted events that brought in the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Cabbage Patch Kids.

The model is very cost-effective for brand partners, says Jayne Stilton, senior director of business development for SBV. ‘Running your own tour, you may spend US$200,000 to visit five to 10 cities. But working through the Kidgits program, you can spend that and have access to 82 malls.’ Thanks to its existing template with built-in marketing support, Simon acts as a promo agency that handles the production and implementation, so brands can tie into existing events or create their own for a reasonable fee.

In terms of headcount, Cathi Weiner, Simon’s SVP of business development, says Kidgits’ membership has increased from 125,000 in 92 malls at launch five years ago to 700,000 today. And members are now coming out to 2.9 events a year on average, compared to 1.9 in the early days. As a result, Weiner says mall traffic has increased, and more retailers have stepped up to get involved.

KB Toys has 565 stores across the US, 425 of which are in malls, which makes in-mall promotions vitally important to the retailer. Geoff Webb, KB’s director of advertising and sales promotion, has partnered with Simon on events centering around the Power Rangers’ 15th anniversary and Dora and Diego on tour. For its part, KB’s involvement in Simon promos typically involves moving related merch to the front of the store, holding a sale for featured products or handing out coupons that tie into an event, such as the Kidgits annual Santa shindig. Weiner wouldn’t divulge details, but she says the KB coupons were redeemed at a much higher rate than average.

Mall of America goes one step further than kid event programming to actually involve its most important customer segment in its corporate planning. When MOA and Nickelodeon started working in July on rebranding a seven-acre theme-park mall as Nickelodeon Universe, the partners also announced their first Kids’ Panel, comprised of 32 eight- to 12-year-olds who were hand-selected based on written essays. These mall culture experts will meet monthly and give feedback on concepts and designs for the new park, which will open in March 2008.

Maureen Bausch, EVP of Mall of America, says that teens and tweens are an imporant market and, of the roughly 300 events that the mall hosts annually, at least half of them are geared specifically for the younger demographic.

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