At least eight malls across the country experienced disruptive fights last weekend, forcing the shopping centers to close early on one of the busiest shopping days of the year. Most of the fights involved teenagers, and none appear to be part of any organized demonstrations. But with so many similar stories popping up in the same time period, the question arises whether such incidents negatively impact revenue and what measures malls need to take to prevent them from becoming a bigger problem.
In Pittsburgh; Independence, Mo.; Chicago; Sacramento; Memphis; Nashville; Buffalo, N.Y.; and Beachwood, Ohio, fights broke out on Friday and Saturday. In all cases, police reported that the incidents began as small skirmishes between teens or young adults, and they appear to have been exacerbated by the large crowds that formed around the disturbances (in the case of Pittsburgh’s Monroeville Mall, an estimated 1,000 teens gathered, some arriving on the scene after reading about it on social media). No serious injuries were reported.
“Malls are crazy places on weekends in general; there are always fights,” Bud Bradley, VP of national accounts at Allied Barton Security Services told Footwear News. “Obviously, it being the holidays, these drew a lot more attention. There was a lot of media surrounding the malls and shopping centers because of [the anti-police-violence] protests that were going on [following grand jury decisions on the deaths of Eric Garner and Michael Brown]. It was a slow day in the media.”
Bradley said that before last weekend, violence during holiday shopping season was down this year because there was less emphasis placed on Black Friday and Super Saturday in stores in favor of earlier sales, so crowds were less concentrated. Apparently, the days following Christmas, when customers are returning items, taking advantage of bigger sales and spending gift cards, are the next problem to tackle.
“With the advent of mobile technology and social media, people are recording the incidents, and it becomes part of the public consciousness more quickly than it ever did before,” said Jesse Tron, director of communications and media relations at the International Council of Shopping Centers. “It seems like it’s happening more, but it’s probably not.”
A single “mall brawl” is not known to hurt sales at any particular mall, Tron said. “It’s not like something you’d be able to noticeably see in any kind of metrics. What you would see is if you had a prolonged issue with this kind of thing, you may lose some shoppers. And you may not fully notice what’s going on. It may not be a huge hit, but slowly losing some patrons over time.”
Problems tend to occur most often when large groups of teens gather at the mall, usually after school, on weekends, and in the beginning of the summer. Early on, Bradley advises malls to beef up the presence of uniformed guards in areas where teens tend to congregate. Some malls supplement their security with police officers and even K-9 units on weekends.
Malls have also become smarter about how they plan special events, coordinating with police when extra help might be needed. Allied Barton even employs sneaker heads to keep up with when big shoe releases are about to happen, so their clients will be ready.
“There’s no silver bullet or special sauce,” he said.
When all else fails, there is one measure several enclosed malls have turned to: teen escort policies. After a certain hour, usually 4 or 5 p.m., anyone under a certain age is allowed in the mall only if accompanied by someone over 21, or if they’re going to work in the center.
“There’s no tracking on it, but we’ve heard anecdotally that you see an increase in sales after something like that is implemented,” said Tron, who estimates that about 70 malls currently have escort policies in place; a small number given the more than 1,200 malls in the country. “The reason is simply because older patrons feel safer once something like that is implemented if there has been an issue at that particular property. It’s not something that a mall would go to quickly or lightly, obviously, because teens are customers as well.”
The idea of restricting teens from their quintessential hangout seems almost counterintuitive, and indeed, it is a measure of last resort. But though teens are a large presence in malls, they aren’t the biggest spenders.
“They’re not the highest-dollar shopper,” Tron noted. “They certainly don’t spend as much, but they’re an important demographic nonetheless. They certainly don’t spend as much as those in the sweet spot, the 25-45 age range. By and large, anecdotally, what we hear is that sales rebound after [restrictions are implemented]. It may be flat for a little bit. Inevitably, after that policy has started taking hold, then you see sales start to come back up, because shoppers come back that maybe had been turned off by unruly behavior.”
Despite the success of malls with escort policies (the Mall of America, Delaware’s Christiana Mall and Chicago’s North Riverside, to name a few), Bradley cautions that it’s a delicate process. Local municipalities, police, media and schools have to be notified in just the right way.
“You’ve got to do a good job of publicizing what you’re going to do, because if not, it could have an adverse affect on the center,” he said. “Generally speaking, you want it to be a positive thing. You want the mall to be a destination, you want it to be family-friendly, you want it to be a place where you come to shop. If you use it as a means of denial, keeping the kids away and don’t publicize it correctly, it could have an adverse effect.”
In the end, no mall owner wants any particular group of people to feel they are banned from the premises.
“Most malls and most property owners are looking to create dynamic environments that attract people and that people want to be a part of,” Tron said. “They want that teen demographic to be in the mall, and they want them to hang out there, but they want them to do it in a manner that doesn’t prohibit other shoppers from being able to shop there, from feeling comfortable.”