Mall of America, at age 10, ready to expand

BLOOMINGTON, Minn. – Ten years after the opening of Mall of America, spokeswoman Monica Davis certainly knows her competition.

It’s not your favorite neighborhood shopping center, and it’s not simply the only mall in the world that’s bigger (5.3 million square feet at West Edmonton Mall, Alberta, Canada).

When execs think about competitors, they’re watching the next moves of Disneyland, Six Flags and other tourist destinations. Mall of America attracts more people annually than Disney World, Graceland and the Grand Canyon combined.

“When we opened, we saw ourselves as a shopping mall,” explains Davis, public relations manager. “Now we market ourselves as an attraction.”

How that word is defined probably depends upon what is attractive to you. The mall’s 7-acre Camp Snoopy, the nation’s biggest indoor amusement park, is one of several drawing cards.
Underwater Adventures, a 1.2 million gallon aquarium, is another.

But who would have thought that a place with a Bloomingdale’s and a Macy’s also would have a place to hype General Mills – with a cereal bar to mix Lucky Charms with Cheerios, and a way to get your picture on a box of Wheaties?

More than 3,500 couples have been married at the Chapel of Love at Mall of America. Wedding costs begin at $259.

For a less expensive and life-changing kick, get pelted by water, with your clothes on. A seven-minute Aquamassage costs $10; passersby watch for free.

Davis gives her employer credit for turning a couple of gimmicks into major U.S. trends. The mixing of retail and entertainment options is one example.

“They used to be looked at as two separate experiences,” she says. Although the idea first was tested in West Edmonton, Davis calls Mall of America’s debut an industry-setting standard for the United States.

Similarly, “grab-and-go food — food courts — were all there were in shopping malls 10 years ago,” she says. “We added sit-down restaurants – and eating has since become an experience” while shopping.

To rustle up repeat business, particularly from states outside of Minnesota, “we have to keep it fresh.” That means changing rides at Camp Snoopy: A car racing ride for little kids and a “Mystery Mine” ride with a James Bond theme (“like an Omni theater and virtual reality experience”) both opened this year.

Being aware of what children and teens want – no, demand – is a part of keeping the retail mix fresh. An estimated 30 of the 520 stores cater exclusively to the disposable income of teens, Davis says.

She also notes that tenants Club Libby Lu and Dry Ice are among those recently recruited to fill a sales niche that’s emerging: girls who are ages 6-12.

Libby Lu “is about parties and princesses, glitter make-up and sparkling shoes,” Davis says. Dry Ice merchandise is heavy on “things for the bedroom or the school locker – places where these girls can express themselves.”

Expect teen boys and young men to also be treated with more care, particularly with regard to clothing styles.

“They’re becoming savvy shoppers and don’t want to just wear what Mom buys them,” Davis says.

But those are smaller components in this arena of retail monstrosity. What happens next for Mall of America isn’t likely to duplicate efforts of the past decade.

“It’s taken longer than we expected, but Phase II plans have grown in the meantime,” Davis says.

There was talk of relocating Twin Cities International Airport, for example, a transportation outlet that is “a vital link for driving traffic into our building.” It is less than two miles from the mall.

When it was decided to expand the airport instead of relocate it, “we had to wait to see how they’d expand, where the runways would go and how high our buildings could be.”

A couple of thousand hotel rooms will be lost in Bloomington because of the airport expansion, Davis says. So Phase II includes hotels, most likely a luxury hotel and another designed for families.

The introduction of light rail to the Twin Cities was another factor in the mall’s expansion plans; the first leg is to open in 2004. A connection between the airport and mall is to be in place in 2005, Davis says.

Mall of America, presently 4.2 million square feet, will add up to 5.7 million more during Phase II. There is 42 acres to develop; a bridge will link the two complexes.

“There won’t be traditional department stores, movie screens or an entertainment park,” Davis says. “The new square footage will complement, not compete” with the present Mall of America.

Expect home furnishing stores in the addition (“the market, regionally, is a little weak in that area”), high-end restaurants, a fitness/recreation/destination spa component and perhaps office space for some of the nation’s major retailers – so they have a Midwest office, or headquarters, that’s close to some of their more significant sales outlets.

Davis says the addition will open in phases. “We’ll announce some tenants in 2003, and perhaps break ground then.

After terrorist incidents on Sept. 11, 2001, Davis says heightened security measures went into effect at Mall of America “and we haven’t come down from that level.”

What’s different? There is a security checkpoint for all trucks, no overnight parking and more security guards. Among the newer hires is B.J. the bomb dog, a Belgian Malinois (a breed of sheepdog). She joined the staff in February.

For more about Mall of America, call (952) 883-8800 or go to www.mallofamerica.com.