BILLINGS — Black Friday kicks off the busiest shopping weekend of the year, but with online shopping at an all-time high, malls are adjusting their strategy to remain competitive. But once Thanksgiving ends, Christmas shopping gives stores around Billings an uptick in business.
"This is the day that all the merchants work all year for to get all the traffic and sales and the goodwill. It’s a fun day in retail, busy and hectic but fun," said Devin Hartley, senior general manager of Rimrock Mall, on Friday.
Hundreds packed in the mall as expected but is this weekend an outlier for malls like Rimrock in Billings? Earlier this month, Josh Rath of Town Square Media wrote this article highlighting what he called a "depressing trip" to Rimrock Mall.
"I’m a big fan of the mall. Always have been, I’ve lived in Montana my entire life. As a kid we came to this mall to shop. I still do. That's why I wrote this article. We came to the mall to shop, and it was this wasteland of empty storefronts. No one in the mall, and it was sad. Sad to see that these people are just not shopping at the mall," said Rath.
But with the trend of online shopping, business at malls has declined as the storefront vacancies have ticked up by 10% around the country, according to modernretail.
"Any other day of the week, it seems like people just forget about the mall. You don’t hear the advertisements about the mall anymore, you don’t really see it on TV like in years past, so I don’t really know what’s going," added Rath.
Hartley says that destination stores still drive traffic but realizes times have changed.
"GameStop is a destination. Victoria Secret, Bath and Body are destination shops. That’s what makes malls work is the collection of merchants that the customers want to shop," added Hartley.
However, those merchants alone may not be what steers malls into the ever-evolving future of retail.
"The small storefronts, you walk in, and they don’t have something, you can order it online now. That is the big deal. You want to drive people in, so you need, for lack of a better word, gimmicks. You almost need that gimmick to get people in the door," Rath added.
Some of those, according to Rath, are more dining options and interactive stores to create a new connection with shoppers. It’s a direction Hartley says the mall is attempting to steer towards.
"At Rimrock we’re trying to pivot to not be just solely retail but have more of a mix use. Integrated use, lineup of tenants. We have to make the malls fun again. You know back in the '70s when the malls came out, they were just a fun collection of merchants. It was great. And we just need to be fun again. Have fun things to do," Hartley said.
Currently the mall is in negotiations to add various new storefronts. Rath says, while that’s a start, there’s "still work to be done."
"I know a lot of malls have died. In the past 10 years, they’ve just shuttered their doors and they’re empty shells and a waste of space. But a lot of malls are re-inventing themselves. You see malls with theme parks, you see malls with the apartment housing in them. If malls innovate instead of just thinking 'we’re the mall, we’re the best thing the town has.' They’ll succeed, they will, but just plainly sticking with what has worked over the years is not going to work for the mall," added Rath.