A half-dozen malls across the country are planning to install a huge contraption called the Flowrider in vacant retail space. Where once people shopped for three-packs of underwear or sheet sets, they are now turning up in flip-flops and shorts to surf an artificial patch of ocean.
However good a business that turns out to be for the company controlling the Flowrider, it is also a sign of the times. With major retail chains like Linens 'n Things and Circuit City closing stores or disappearing altogether, mall and shopping center vacancies are soaring, forcing landlords to find new ways to lure traffic and stave off decline.
Downscale chains that landlords once kept out of shopping centers are suddenly being shown the welcome mat. Temporary stores are popping up. Once-small retailers are being invited to take over big spaces, while the strongest national chains are seizing the moment to move into new cities at low rents. And vast mall spaces formerly occupied by department stores may soon be carved up or turned into community colleges and dance studios.