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Some Toronto malls are booming, but not necessarily because of the shopping | CBC News

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To anyone who visits Toronto’s Yorkdale Shopping Centre in the weeks leading up to Christmas, it would appear the death of the mall has been greatly exaggerated.

The parking lot is packed and so too is the mall, as people explore its unique mix of high-end retail and array of non-retail “experiences” that most busy malls now include, such movie- and product-related pop ups and installations geared to photo-happy consumers.

The two-million-square-foot property is the most successful mall in Canada, with annual sales of more than $2 billion.

“In the mall business, you always have to be fresh. You always have to think about what your customers are after and remain relevant for the customer,” said Robert Horst, vice-president of retail at Oxford Properties, which operates Yorkdale.

“You want to bring them out of their chairs, off their sofa, into a space where they can shop. But it’s important to create experiences that the customers will find unique, different and something that they can’t do anywhere else.”

Are malls dying?

For nearly 30 years, people have been predicting the death of malls, and their obituaries have been written over and over. Some thought the COVID-19 pandemic and the spike in online sales would be the final nail in malls’ coffins.

But while many tired suburban malls are full of empty stores or have lost their “anchor tenant,” others are thriving like never before. Malls such as Yorkdale and The Well, which recently opened in downtown Toronto, are offering fresh takes on retail and expanding the mall experience beyond simply shopping. Yorkdale estimates it has 18 million visitors a year.

“Smaller malls, malls with some of the department stores that have gone into bankruptcy, those are the malls that are struggling, and many of those have died and many of those will probably continue to die,” said Alexandra Lange, author of Meet Me By The Fountain: An Inside History of the Mall.

“I think there’s always going to be a set of super-successful traditional malls. But I do think that it is a time for creativity about all the other malls.”

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The operators of many regional malls, however, have been slow to embrace the idea that consumer expectations of malls are quickly evolving, said Canadian author Doug Stephens, who recently wrote Resurrecting Retail: The Future of Business in a Post-Pandemic World.

“They really need to revisit the whole notion of place-making and the entertainment factor of going to the mall,” he said.

“It has shifted to either experiencing something, buying something, tasting something or seeing something that you simply can’t find anywhere else, particularly online. And frankly, most malls, not just in Canada, but in North America, really have not yet embraced that new mindset.”

A mix of luxury and experiences

Yorkdale is a mix of 270 mostly high-end stores and many other things — particularly attractions designed for shoppers to interact with and post on social media.

It currently features a massive pop-up candy store linked to the new movie Wonka and Christmas tree designed by the fashion house Dior that’s always surrounded by shoppers snapping pictures and videos.

Abhinav and Garima Sharma, a fashionable couple with an admitted penchant for luxury, were hand-picked by Dior to attend a special product showing. (Greg Bruce/CBC)

Abhinav and Garima Sharma, a couple with an admitted penchant for luxury, were hand-picked by Dior to attend a special product showing.

“If there’s an event, it’s more exciting and you’re more enticed to buy because you’re here and you know someone’s really gone out to reach out to you,” Garima said.

“Yorkdale has been really good with that. They’ve been doing a lot of pop-up experiences, which brings a lot of visitors. Every few months you see a new pop up, and I think people who are interested in that particular brand want to come check it out.”

A decorated tree with the Dior logo
(Greg Bruce/CBC)

The Well, which recently opened after a decade in the works, is offering a shopping experience never before seen in Canada.

Its common spaces of the mall are predominantly outdoors, covered by a cavernous, mostly clear roof. The dazzling multi-level retail space is surrounded by newly built office and residential units. Each level is dotted with artistic performances and displays, culinary experiences and unique seating areas, such as a yurt and multiple wood seats surrounding fireplaces.

Jonathan Gitlin, CEO of RioCan Real Estate Investment Trust, one of The Well’s owners, describes it as “organized chaos.”

“There’s no doors. It’s very porous. It is supposed to be a place that draws people from within the community. It’s supposed to be an open area,” he said.

A shopping mall protected by a roof
The Well’s open-air retail area is sheltered by a 35,000-square-foot glazed canopy roof. (The Well)

Lange, the mall history author, recently travelled to Toronto from New York just to visit the unique space.

“The first thing that caught my eye was really the idea that someone was opening a new mall in 2023,” she said.

She was also interested in the concept of a downtown mall that’s surrounded by housing in a busy neighbourhood, and how the protected outdoor environment offered visitors a different environment.

She predicts The Well’s mix of practical stores — such as pharmacies and grocery stores — alongside unique retail will make it indispensable for young, urban residents.

“These are the things that everyone wants to live around. And so they’ve kind of made like a giant version of that in this indoor semi-indoor setting,” Lange said.

“It is a really interesting kind of tweak to the mall formula to take it away from retail and talk back towards more of these services.”

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New malls offer shopping, entertainment

Six new residential buildings are also part of The Well. But it’s the residents of the booming condo market that surrounds it who will be key visitors, according to RioCan’s Gitlin. And they will mostly walk or come by transit — there are no sprawling parking lots on site.

“This is certainly more of the archetype that will I think garner success in today’s environment, particularly in these downtown urban settings,” he said.

“I think this is more in keeping with the community. The way that we’ve designed it with all the different materials and all the different looks and feels that we have, it is as though you’re walking through the downtown core.”

The space, which is not completely finished, has already been a major draw. On a frosty December day in the middle of the week, The Well was bustling, people milling around the outdoor space, most without shopping bags, many gazing upwards.

“I just think it’s a beautiful building and stunning architecture. I love walking around. It feels like you’re still outside shopping at the same time,” said Marina Santarossa, who walked over from her nearby condo.

Ali Tarhini, who was pushing his son around the space in a stroller, said The Well is appealing because it has “both kinds of experiences.”

“The shopping, yes, but also entertainment for families. So you can walk around, enjoy seeing people, looking at new experiences, new shops,” he said.

It is these kinds of experiences that experts say successful malls will need to embrace in order to thrive.

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And retail analyst Stephens says malls can still be relevant, especially for younger shoppers.

“Gen Z are now looking at physical experiences as almost a detox from the constant barrage of online activity, so there is an opportunity for malls to really reinvent themselves for a new generation of consumers,” he said.

“But simply having a Gap store and a food court isn’t going to cut it anymore. There has to be something more.”

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