Fun and Smart

Malls Make a Play at Edutainment.

As e-commerce continues to cut deep into mall traffic, iconic department store anchors are darkening at shopping centers throughout the country. But the narrative that retail is dying is a bit of a fib. As Andrew Nelson, chief economist for Colliers recently told Forbes Magazine: “It masks the fact that many shopping districts are doing very well, [mall] occupancy rates are at record levels and rents are in the stratosphere.” Owners have been quick to embrace change, reshaping their tenancy to include a diverse mix of shops and activities that provide an experiental outting. Service, medical, fitness, and entertainment tenants are becoming the norm. It’s not uncommon to see bowling alleys, rock climbing gyms, cinemas with dining, and new and expanding grocery chains filling vacant anchor spaces in suburban malls across the U. S.

In today’s fast-paced knowledge economy its no surprise “edutainment” is a rising trend in general and for kids in particular. Philadelphia, home to the beloved Please Touch Museum, is certainly no stranger to this concept, but the difference is the leap from cultural space to retail space.

Philadelphia recently became the 9th location in the U.S. for Legoland Discovery Center, which opened at the Plymouth Meeting Mall in April. The center features a one-of-a-kind Miniland exhibit of Philadelphia landmarks and an interactive Lego ride. Opportunities abound for free play alongside structured demonstration areas that teach concepts like aerodynamics and seismic force. A 4D cinema, shop, and café round out the experience.

Another concept set to make its debut stateside is KidZania— already in 24 cities overseas. (The first U.S. stores are coming to Dallas in 2018 and Chicago in 2019.*) Basically, these are little cities with paved streets built to scale and more than 60 mini establishments providing real-life role-playing activities for kids to pretend they’re grown ups, complete with “kidZos” currency. “Zupervisors” help guide and support the adventure. Bonus: parents can drop their kids off or watch the activities from a viewing platform.

For mall owners there’s a lot to praise about these educational playgrounds. Occupying roughly 60,000 square feet with 30 foot ceiling heights, concepts like KidZania can sop up a lot of vacancy. More importantly, they are internet proof. These operators tend to draw in a wider regional audience and a trip to the mall to play will almost always result in a cross shopping opportunity, rounding out a visit with a bite to eat or an errand to complete.

Our region may soon feel the impact of large department store closures including Macy’s, Sears, JCPenney and Kmart. This may raise nostalgia for some of trips with Mom or friends to the malls of our youth. But with these highly interactive, educational concepts taking hold, it seems promising that this stage in the evolution of retail can provide a bounty of bright memories for today’s little ones.

*According to National Real Estate Investor Magazine.