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Retail Traffic

Teens on a Leash

It's a relaxed Saturday night at the Metrocenter mall in Jackson, Miss. Shoppers move in and out of stores, arms heavy with bags. They might grab a bite at the food court, and then stroll out to their cars. All in all, a peaceful evening.

But a year ago, the atmosphere was not so calm. Rowdy teens had overtaken the mall, turning it into a weekend hot spot for wayward youth. The thuggish crowds did more loitering and carousing than spending. “They would intimidate our other customers to the point where they didn't even want to come in the door,” says Kymberley Woodard, Coyote Management's director of marketing. Many didn't. They went shopping elsewhere, and before long the mall's vacancy rate and sales began to suffer.

Now, the only teens you'll see in the Metrocenter on a Friday or Saturday between 3 p.m. and closing are those accompanied by adults. The curfew applies to anyone under 17. Coyote has banned unaccompanied teens from Metrocenter on weekend evenings so adults can visit the mall in peace.

As controversial as the policy may be, it has worked, says Woodard: “From day one it's been paying off.” While sales for some retailers slowed right after the curfew started in October, sales began rising again in November as more adults returned and more parents shopped with their kids.

Metrocenter is not alone. Other city malls are enforcing similar policies. Buffalo-based Pyramid Cos., for example, enforces curfews at two malls it operates in upstate New York: Walden Galleria in Buffalo and Carousel Center in Syracuse. And in Durham, N.C., Northgate Associates' Northgate Mall prohibits teens under 16 to shop without a chaperone weekend evenings.

Curfews are usually a last resort. Some malls, for example, blast classical music over the speakers to chase out disruptive teens who favor more discordant sounds. Coyote tried other measures first, including beefed-up private security and closer ties with the local police. “We even tried a policy of breaking up groups of four or more teens,” Woodard says. Still, the problem grew. “We were getting complaints from tenants about the kids loitering,” she recalls.

When the company decided to take the extreme step of a curfew, it used focus groups, polled local schools and even conducted a telephone survey of some 350 local residents to help determine whether a curfew was the best way to go. “We wanted to do this thing right,” Woodard says.

Because doing the wrong thing can cost developers and their tenants dearly.

“The risk is that for a few bad apples, they (mall owners) are cutting their own throats,” says Paco Underhill, a consumer theorist and managing director of Envirosell, a marketing consulting firm. Some teens may represent a security headache, but as a group they are the lifeblood of the retail industry. Numbering more than 32 million nationwide, shoppers between 12 and 19 years of age spent more than $170 billion last year, which includes their own money and their parents', according to Teenage Research Unlimited, a research firm in Northbrook, Ill.

Teens spend more time in malls than any other age group — an average of about 84 hours every three months compared with 73 hours for 35- to 44-year-olds. Teens are more frequent visitors to the mall, visiting about 50 percent more often than their parents, according to the International Council of Shopping Centers. ICSC defines a teen as someone between 14 years old and 17.

Telling teens they can't shop alone could backfire. “The curfew should be one of the tools in a playbook, but misapplied it will merely push the traffic somewhere else,” says Underhill.

Retailers who depend on teen spending are understandably not thrilled with the curfews. “The fact that teenagers can't come in on their own definitely impacts sales,” says Kevin Kim, marketing director for Against All Odds, a hip-hop-style retailer and tenant at the Walden Galleria. “A lot of the people the mall was having problems with were our customers,” he says. Still, the Moonachie, N.J.-based company, which has 25 stores in New York, New Jersey and Massachusetts, plans to open its biggest store yet in the Galleria's sister mall in Syracuse, the Carousel Center, which also enforces a curfew. “We're working on ideas like sales and other promotions to get customers in earlier in the day or with adult escorts,” Kim says.

Despite the downside and controversy of displacing teens on weekend nights, an increasing number of mall owners are finding it worth it to achieve the more shopper-friendly environment that curfews promise. “When you have large groups of teens using abusive language or just being loud, it's intimidating to the other shoppers,” says Russ Fulton, Walden Galleria marketing director. Kids under 18 there must be accompanied by someone 21 or older after 4 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays.

While traffic and sales may suffer immediately after a curfew is imposed, retailers say, both pick up quickly as teens return to the mall with adults later on. Some Metrocenter retailers experienced a dip in business after the October start of the curfew, but “by November and December traffic and sales were up again,” according to Coyote's Woodard.

Traffic was 6 percent higher in November and December after the “Family First” policy was instituted, than in the year earlier period, says Woodard. November sales were 5 percent higher than a year earlier, when there was no curfew, she says. The ICSC benchmark, meanwhile, was flat in November.

In a survey of 120 tenants at the mall, all but about a dozen said they noticed a positive impact on business from Metrocenter's “Family First” program. Shoe and family apparel retail sales were 17 percent higher in November than a year earlier, according to a report the company prepared to assess the program.

Pyramid has seen positive results as well. “For us the effect has been very good,” says Fulton. “The teens we're keeping out probably weren't spending money anyway,” he adds. “The ones we have coming with their parents now are truly interested in shopping.”

Obliging teens to visit the mall with an adult on weekends can have benefits beyond limiting disturbances. Teens shopping alone spend the least among all age groups per visit, averaging $46.80. But shoppers between 35 and 44 years of age spend about $80 each time they hit the mall, and adults 45 to 54 years old spend $84, the most of all age groups. And they are more likely to whip out the credit card and spend more than their unaccompanied kids would.

What do teens think of curfews? It depends on who you ask. Some are actually relieved: “It's a good thing for our safety because the kids it keeps out might be the sort who pick on other kids,” says Kathryn Hupp, a 14-year-old regular at the Mall of America in Bloomington, Minn.

The mall of all malls was the pioneer, introducing a curfew in 1996 when management determined it couldn't handle the estimated influx of 5,000 teens roaming the halls weekend evenings. Thanks to a highly publicized program and dozens of volunteer parents, the program at Mall of America was considered a success. Other malls try to copy it. Meanwhile, teens who “just want to hang out,” at the mall, Hupp says, have a choice of several other area shopping centers that don't have curfews.

Not all teens have that option, though. Some experts are concerned that keeping unaccompanied kids out of the mall is choking off an important social venue and may lead them to seek other, less safe options. “Gathering is what teens do,” says Roger Blackwell, professor of marketing at the Ohio State University. “They are going to meet up with each other and socialize, and the mall is a much safer and attractive place to be for them than the street corner or a vacant lot.”

But for now, in Jackson, Miss., at least, they will have to find places other than the Metrocenter Mall to congregate on weekends. It's “Adults Only” after 3 p.m Fridays and Saturdays.

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