John Dee. President of PlaceWise. Credit: PlaceWise

North American centers face COVID with grit and determination: A digital perspective

“No one believes this will last forever and most believe that the underlying economy will bounce back once an all clear is sounded.”

By John Dee

The speed with which the spread of the coronavirus has brought a near total shutdown to all aspects of life has been nothing short of breathtaking. Streets, arenas, stores and yes, shopping centers now stand quiet as their crowds hunker down, practicing social distancing, waiting for the virus to pass their communities over.

Rewind the clock just 23 days to what now seems like a long time ago. 

Week of March 9, 2020:It was clear that coronavirus was an issue. It had begun to find its way into local communities starting with Seattle. People were still wondering if too much was being made of it. On Wednesday the National Basketball Association (NBA) postponed the rest of its season. It was then that most people realized we were heading into something that would include significant changes to our lives. That Friday we got notice of our first client closure and we scrambled to help them communicate to their community.

Week of March 16, 2020:Our office in Denver, Colorado officially closed though everyone was already working from home. National retailers began closures with such velocity we struggled to keep up. Centers seemed to be holding their doors open to support tenants, or maybe to see how things were going to pan out. As the week progressed, it was clear that big changes were afoot. Events were canceled out into April and beyond. Hours changed and more properties closed. We saw a flood of landlord updates. Health & Safety updates gave way to reduced hours, store closures, and as the week progressed, center closures.

That Wednesday, March 18, 2020, a walk through an enclosed mall in central Denver revealed only 20 of nearly 160 stores open. This center had been full just days before. Now, in a span of three days, the vast majority of stores were closed. The center was empty. At one point on my walk I could hear sounds echoing due to lack of people.

On Thursday, March 19, 2020, many malls announced closures. They were, in fact, virtually closed at that point. Some open-air centers remained open, but the retailers were mostly closed. The industry as whole put closures into effect at the right time whether directed by local authorities or on their own accord. Grocery anchored community centers are very busy as many tenants are considered essential. The closures kicked off a flurry of digital activity. Website updates, shopper emails, many with a hopeful, “We will open again on Tuesday, March 31, 2020.” 

Week of March 23, 2020:Malls still open were closing. Some retailers and many restaurants implemented curbside and takeout service. With reduced staff and hours, restaurants prepared to weather the storm. And so started another wave of digital updates–“open for takeout, curbside and delivery.” For restaurants, the transition seems natural. For retailers who have adopted digital technologies like buy online, pick up in store, the transition comes easy, albeit a stop gap. The less prepared sit closed. Re-open dates are being moved from March 31, 2020 to the indefinite future.

Week of March 30, 2020: At the time of this writing, the malls are shut down. Grocery anchored centers are busy. And April brings with it lots of uncertainty. We’re seeing a trend emerge across more than a few clients. Shopping center developers and operators are a gritty bunch. Some might say a bit crazy. They don’t roll over easy and they are used to fighting headwinds. No one believes this will last forever and most believe that the underlying economy will bounce back once an all clear is sounded. Yes, there will be more fallout, especially for highly leveraged retailers and properties. But we have already seen landlords ready to pivot in this down time. Getting creative, using time to prepare for the next chapter in the evolution of the shopping center. And so should we all.

About PlaceWise

As a member of the Boostcom Group, PlaceWise works with over 800 North American shopping centers providing digital marketing services and technologies to promote the in-mall shopping experience with digital services for consumers. Clients are relying heavily on digital channels to communicate with their constituents during this crisis. PlaceWise work closely with them to deliver these messages. This is what the company has seen over the past few weeks.  

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