PLAINS TWP. — It used to be that Bobby Marhon just had to go around the corner to buy what he wanted for Halloween.
Nowadays, Marhon needs to travel 50 miles from his home in Frackville, Schuylkill County, to buy “horror shirts” for his favorite holiday. He does his shopping at the FYE store in the Wyoming Valley Mall because the Schuylkill Mall, which housed an FYE, shut down last month.
“Since it closed, it’s either come here or go to Reading,” Marhon said of shopping options for former Schuylkill County Mall patrons.
From 1970 to 2015, the number of malls grew twice as fast as the U.S. population, according to a Cowen and Company analysis cited in a recent article in the Atlantic. But experts predict 300 to 400 malls will close or be radically re-purposed within a decade.
On Friday, the occupancy rate for the Wyoming Valley Mall was 91 percent, according to Marketing Director Amanda Hoprich. While she would not specify the number of tenants, a Times Leader walk through the mall counted about 70.
Hoprich said new retailers would be coming for the holiday season, but she declined to be specific.
The nationwide occupancy rate at malls in the third quarter of 2017 was 91.7 percent, according to REIS, which tracks commercial real estate.
Hoprich noted that occupancy rates change weekly.
So just how has the Wyoming Valley Mall, which opened in 1971, remained viable?
It helps that the mall is located in an area with a higher population density than the Schuylkill Mall, which sat at the favorable intersection of Interstate 81 and state Route 61 but had only one immediate municipal neighbor, Frackville, population 3,672.
The Wyoming Valley Mall sits in Plains Township, population 9,961, next to the city of Wilkes-Barre, population 40,569.
On its website, the mall boasts of other lures: 1,800 hotel rooms within five miles, 24,000 high school and colleges students within 10 miles, and several “outboxes” — or free-standing vendors — surrounding the mall.
All of these pluses make it “a relatively good single shopping destination,” according to Larry Newman, executive director of the Diamond City Partnership, Wilkes-Barre’s downtown management organization.
The mall also has shifted to a broader retail mix, working “to keep up with fashion trends” in apparel, Hoprich said. That’s one reason the mall was glad to have the Swedish H&M chain open in late September.
“The grand opening was crazy,” Hoprich said, smiling.
Mall management also has used social media wisely, helping to connect with younger shoppers via Facebook and Instagram to “highlight our retailers, and to stay relevant,” she said.
The Wyoming Valley Mall’s owner, Pennsylvania Real Estate Investment Trust, or PREIT, also is aggressive in replacing or re-purposing anchor stores that pull out, Hoprich said. This can help avoid an alternative solution to mall demise: shifting to mixed-purpose use beyond retail.
The Steamtown Mall in Scranton — now the Marketplace at Steamtown — is becoming a textbook example. When the Bon-Ton department store left, part of the space became a branch of Luzerne County Community College, and another part was taken over for medical services provider Delta Medix.
Newman echoed a prediction widely held in research and reports on shopping malls: Big malls with broad offerings will not only survive but grow. He pointed to the recently expanded King of Prussia Mall west of Philadelphia, sometimes referred to as a “fortress mall” because of the massive footprint that houses more than 2.9 million square feet of indoor shopping.
It is, Newman said, the place retailers want to set up brick-and-mortar stores in the Philadelphia area.
In the Wyoming Valley Mall on a recent fall day, Helen Peechatka set a large bun in front of her husband, Bill, who sat alone at the counter at Cinnabon. She beamed and insisted the snack is fine because “they took all of the calories out of them!”
The couple were doing what many people come to malls to do these days: Eat. Hoprich said PREIT has largely abandoned the old “food court” idea of a common seating area ringed by fast-food outlets, and now integrates eateries among the other stores.
The company also has increased the space dedicated to dining — something most malls are doing in a survival move — to the point that dining now eats up almost 20 percent of leasable space, more than double what it was years ago.
The move accommodates two related trends: People look more for experiences than for hard merchandise, and the digital generation increasingly wants to go somewhere that offers a photo-op worthy of posting online. Dining fills both demands.
It also is, thus far, internet-proof.
“You can’t eat online,” Newman quipped.
It’s the same reason a nascent rebirth of Wilkes-Barre’s downtown is being led by a growth in eateries.
“That’s an inherently social experience, and it’s a sector that continues to see growth even as retail struggles with these different competitive channels,” Newman said.
Not that such issues mattered to Helen and Bill. While they liked the mall and loved the pastry, they said they travel from Laceyville, Wyoming County, once or twice a month to meet with their daughter, who journeys from near Stroudsburg.
“It’s convenient,” Helen said. And as a bonus, the big cream-schmeared buns are “very good.”
The Cinnabon is a recent addition, and a prized one, Hoprich said, but the quest for trendy outlets is non-stop.
And the evolution of mall survival goes on.
Reach Mark Guydish at 570-991-6112 or on Twitter @TLMarkGuydish