Westfield Garden State Plaza has been ranked one of the 10 best performing malls in the United States. The New York Times has called it “perhaps the single most influential mall in the country” because it is a favorite of Wall Street analysts, who grade retailers based on what they see there.
So why is it embarking on an ambitious plan to transform itself from a suburban mall into a live, work, play community with apartments, offices, and public parks?
First, it sees an existential threat to all malls in the digital age if they don’t evolve. Second, it sees a more immediate threat – the American Dream mega-mall under construction ten miles away, in the New Jersey Meadowlands.
A report by Silicon Valley-based mobile analytics firm Placer.ai shows the Plaza, in Paramus, N.J., has more to lose if the American Dream is a hit than other area malls. Placer.ai’s data indicate the Plaza – much more than its current New Jersey competitors – is a destination mall, a place people travel farther to get to, and where traffic is heaviest on nights, weekends, and holidays. It draws the kind of shoppers most likely to journey to a new destination competitor, American Dream.
Location analytics, the business of tracking the movements of mobile phones – and drawing conclusions about the shopping habits of the owners of those phones – is providing new information about shopping patterns and crowds beyond the proprietary data collected, and closely guarded, by the malls and retailers.
Placer.ai analysts decided to look at location data for the Plaza after becoming curious about why a highly successful mall was embarking on such a dramatic change. The Plaza and it’s parent company, Unibail-Rodamco-Westfield, are not clients of Placer.ai and the Plaza declined to comment on the report.
“We read about the renovation, and then we dug in to ask why is a company of this size renovating,” said Ethan Chernofsky, vice president of marketing for Placer.ai.
The Plaza data, he said, convinced him the mall is making a “genius” move.
The Plaza, with its renovation plan, is acknowledging that while it currently leads the market as a destination, it needs to become more of an every day experience, Chernofsky said. Adding apartments, fitness centers, offices, and public spaces will do that.
“This is a company that’s saying how do we take our weakness and turn it into a strength and essentially have a dominant profile for every day of the year,” he said.
Placer.ai researchers compared location data from the Plaza with that of another Paramus mall, the Outlets at Bergen Town Center, for the period between January, 2017 and April, 2019.
They concluded that the Plaza’s strength is “its ability to draw visitors during high shopping times and vacation periods.” According to the report, traffic at the Plaza jumped nearly 79% above the baseline average during the last two weeks of December, 2017, and over 70% during the same period in 2018.
“This indicates that the center has established itself as a destination worth visiting when individuals have time to spare,” the report states.
While overall traffic counts are higher at the Plaza, the mall showed more of a drop off on weekdays than the Outlets at Bergen Town Center, which has fewer traffic peaks and valleys. Placer.ai, on request, ran analytics on The Mall at Short Hills, which also showed steadier mid-day and mid-week traffic patterns than the Plaza.
To hold its own against the American Dream – a 3 million square foot behemoth with indoor amusement and water parks, indoor skiing and snowboarding, and plans for an aquarium, a London Eye-style observation wheel, and other over-the-top attractions, the Plaza has to bulk up its mid-week and mid-day traffic.
The redevelopment plan calls for the creation of a town square next to the mall, ringed by apartments and office buildings, and the types of retail that are every day destinations – gyms, yoga studios, food stores, and restaurants.
Westfield, which owned the Plaza for 31 years before its merger in 2018 with European mall developer Unibail-Rodamco, has an excellent track record of predicting mall trends. It figured out long before its New Jersey competition – back in the 1990s – that it needed to add a movie multiplex and sit-down restaurants to draw crowds, along with retailers not found in every other mall.
Unibail-Rodamco-Westfield U.S. President Jean-Marie Tritant, in announcing the redevelopment plan, said U.S. malls in the past were built like enclosed “bunkers” but now have to be connected to their communities to stay vibrant.
The American Dream project in the Meadowlands, which is set to open – at least partially – on October 25, is still embracing the bunker model. It will be an enclosed space intended to be a destination for tourists and special occasion visitors. The Plaza is envisioning an alternate future as a community center designed for every day shopping, entertainment, and socializing.
The Westfield Garden State Plaza residential, office, and public space additions aren’t scheduled be completed until 2022 at the earliest.
So it will be awhile before location analytics can tell us who the winner is – destination retail or every day – or if there is room for both to be winners.