I have this new thing where I go to the mall and walk around and count people. Not so much the total sum, but the local totals in each store.
Some background: my spouse manages a retail shop for a specialty chain. They typically locate in mid- to high-end malls and sell moderately expensive, highly functional product. They tend to be a destination shop for their clientele and do high repeat business.
This means that on Saturday evenings when he’s closing up, I often walk over there to check things out, maybe shop a little, and count people.
A while back, I noticed that the Apple Store tended to attract a large number of people. This is kind of a given, but I also noticed that the Microsoft store was dead. No one in there at all. Even Build-A-Bear had a family making bears at that hour. But Microsoft? Bupkis. Granted, this is at 20:30 on a Saturday night, but I did not expect completely devoid of customers. Other stores, like Macy*s, the Gap, and so on usually had a few guests. Eventually I worked it out to about one shopper per 1000sf of retail floor for the general mall. That is terrible. Except in the Apple store, where it was closer to one shopper per 50sf. If there was a line outside of the store waiting to get in, it technically could get even denser. At holiday time, the Pandora shop was so crowded that they had to pay for extra security to manage their line.
Few stores in any mall seem to attract this level of shopping destination intensity. Apple, Pandora, Starbucks, but everything else is hopes and dreams. Unless you are selling something truly unique, you are hosed for clientele in a mall. Everyone is there to get something, and you have to hope that you are interesting enough to draw them in. The conundrum is that if no one is in your store, how interesting is it to anyone who isn’t already interested in it? No shoppers means no one else is interested, either. It is critical to have people in the store, even if they are just browsing, so that people outside of the store see the interest.
I experimented with arriving earlier, at 20:00 on the dot. Total numbers were higher, and the spread was lower. It turns out that you can only jam so many humans into an Apple Store before the fire department start to look at you sideways. The more total people in the mall, the more people that I found in the non-destination shops like Vera Bradley and Buckle. Hot brands like Michael Kors also rely on the total shopper density, a smallish point.
There are some notable exceptions to the Apple phenomenon, but they are just that – notable. Stores like Hot Topic, Lush, lululemon, and (I kid you not) Paradise Pen attract smaller but continuous customer streams. Their markets and merchandise are more specialized, sufficiently so to draw people out of their homes to try, to sniff, to take in the atmosphere. I admit, I am a regular at Paradise Pen. I write with a fountain pen and love to try different cartridges and nibs. It’s my little thing.
This is, to be clear, a high-end mall. It has a Nieman-Markus – a store that closes at 19:00, ostensibly to avoid the after-hours riff-raff. The Saks 5th Avenue is forever under renovation. The Gucci, Tory Burch, and watch shops all cluster around those two anchors in a submall that was built out of the Saks in the 1980s. Those South Side shops are linked to the North side (Macy*s and Nordstrom) by a flying glass bridge, which may as well cross an ocean rather than a busy thoroughfare. Frankly, I’d shop at Niemans if they were actually ever open. They carry a very few precious things that I like (and can afford). I generally only make the trek across the bridge when I am so desperate for a kitchen gadget that I have to go to Sur la Table.
My conclusion from all of this counting and rambling is that the anchor phenomenon has changed shape and become a specialty retail thing. Where once you had big department stores as anchors to draw in traffic, now you have smaller specialty stores like Apple bringing the cars full of people. If the Apple count starts to swing to 100% of the traffic, you might have an issue with your customer base or store mix.