Malls up focus on teens

Before Gen Yers are old enough to gain their independence through the use of Daddy's car, they tend to claim the local mall as the place to escape their parents. While some U.S. shopping centres have capitalized on this social instinct by carving out a special space for youth - where brands can market to them in a more creative and appealing manner - Canadian players are less willing to make that investment.

Before Gen Yers are old enough to gain their independence through the use of Daddy’s car, they tend to claim the local mall as the place to escape their parents. While some U.S. shopping centres have capitalized on this social instinct by carving out a special space for youth – where brands can market to them in a more creative and appealing manner – Canadian players are less willing to make that investment.

‘[American centres] seem to have a lot of programming – summer concert series, teen boards and clubs,’ says Myriam Beaugé, editor of Tactics, a Vancouver-based trade magazine for the mall industry. ‘In Canada, I find that’s not quite [the case.]‘ Beaugé points to the reason that malls are viewed differently depending on which side of the border you live: in the U.S., they are seen as entertainment complexes, while in Canada, they are simply venues to buy clothes.

When it comes to fun-seeking youth, Canadian malls should accelerate their efforts to attract and entertain them, maintains Pascale LeBlanc, founder of Toronto-based marketing strategy firm Youthopia Communications. ‘The benefit is that you become a top-of-mind place for kids to be,’ she says. ‘[But Canadian companies] are not always willing to stick their necks out … They need to be certain that it’s a sure thing, because when you target this age group, there’s a level of high risk involved. Business plans are often written in a conservative way.’

This, despite the fact that there seems to be a boost in retail space devoted to Gen Y stores in Canada. At Square One in Mississauga, Ont., for instance, last year’s ‘Cityside’ expansion saw the arrival of 20 new retailers, most of which are skewed to the youth market, according to Linda Keen-Lausberg, director of marketing. Among them: the first Tommy Hilfiger in Canada, the first Parasuco in Ontario, and the largest Old Navy in the province.

Similarly at Richmond Centre, a Cadillac Fairview-owned shopping centre in Richmond, B.C., Leslie Matheson, marketing director, estimates that of 75 fashion retailers, at least 50 are geared to teens. ‘We’re finding that across the board, people who are spending money are younger right now, and those are the retailers that are surviving.’

Certainly, Canadian teens have a load of cash to spend. They carry around $19.1 billion a year in disposable income, according to Trendscan: Report on Teen Lifestyles, a national, semi-annual quantitative research study produced by Toronto-based firm Youth Culture Research, which interviewed more than 1,200 kids, aged 12 to 19, last fall. According to Teenage Research Unlimited (TRU) in Northbrook Ill., American youth spent 50% of their money on apparel and 21% on entertainment last year. Meanwhile, the American Express Retail Index for 2001, which surveyed 700 parents and teens aged 12 to 17 by telephone this summer, found that 47% of kids who shop at malls like to do so because they can socialize with friends, while 30% appreciate their entertainment value.

In the United States, malls have clued in to both the purchasing power and social habits of youth in a major way. Three malls in particular have won accolades from the industry, according to the International Council of Shopping Centers: The Mall of Georgia, in Buford, Ga., Glendale Galleria in Los Angeles, and The Block at Orange in southern California, which is owned by the Mills Corporation of Arlington, Va. All have established teen hangouts, consisting generally of a mix of games, restaurants and retail outlets.

A veteran at three years old, The Block includes a skateboard park and is in line with Mills’ overall strategy to combine retail and entertainment. ‘The mall attracts a lot of teens who, with their disposable income, are a significant part of the population,’ says Anne Lipscomb, SVP marketing for the corporation, which plans to open its first Mills Canadian location in Vaughan, Ont. in 2003. Lipscomb, who says the lack of entertainment shopping centres in Canada left a void, points out that The Block is one of its top-performing properties, and that its AMC Theatre is one of the cinema chain’s two most profitable locations in the United States.

Meanwhile, The Zone in Glendale Galleria, where kids congregate in a lounge under large overhead video screens, has seen sales surge by 25% since its debut a year ago. ‘The value is twofold,’ says Annette Bethers, senior marketing director. ‘It has generated more income out of this specific area of the mall, and it’s also served as a gathering point for Gen Y where we can message to them.’

Indeed, The Zone has been utilized by brands hoping to drive kids to cash registers through sampling and games. Nestle, for example, organizes ‘Pop a Shot’ where kids win prizes for sinking baskets. Billboards in the lounge are also available for advertising, at $8,000 US a week. But Bethers says there is a catch – brands must be innovative and bring some sort of entertainment value to any sponsorship program. ‘We’re careful about the nature of advertising, because we don’t want them to be seen as overtly commercial… We cannot afford to turn off this consumer.’

Critical to the success of The Zone has been its partnership with a local radio station, Kiss FM, as well as various record labels, because it enables the mall to both arrange and cross-promote different functions. A recent concert featuring Latina R&B crooner Joy Enriquez and other artists, for example, attracted close to 1,000 kids. Meanwhile on Aug. 26, an end-of-summer bash featured the finals of a karaoke contest, another performance by Joy Enriquez and an appearance by skateboarder Henry Sanchez, according to Bethers. ‘We’ve learned that this consumer is fickle. So it’s really a challenge to keep The Zone fresh and new, and have something happening all the time.’

Sonya Schroeder, senior strategic planner at The Geppetto Group, a youth marketing consultancy based in New York, says The Glendale Galleria was smart to leverage youth’s tendency to hang in malls (they make 54 visits a year, according to TRU), as are brands that have taken advantage of the opportunity to communicate to them one-on-one in a set-up space. ‘What brands do with games offers a different way for teens to interact with a product,’ she says. ‘They intrigue the teen and, therefore, there’s a higher possibility of a sale.’

So how do Canadian malls stack up? In most cases, they don’t. Aside from the well-recognized West Edmonton Mall, which has an amusement park for all ages, teens would be hard-pressed to find a mall that has created an environment for them. ‘We don’t really have any formalized teen programs,’ says Leanne Campbell, a spokesperson for Ivanhoe Cambridge Shopping Centres, which has about 25 malls across Canada, including Toronto’s Eaton Centre, in its portfolio. Most teen programs are small-scale, although they appear to be on the rise. For example, for the first time, both The Richmond Centre and Square One are holding back-to-school fashion shows directed specifically at youth.

But Canadians can be much more innovative, says Le Blanc, especially since we’re cursed with long, cold winters that are preferential to indoor activities. ‘If malls are open to new opportunities and these areas are well-managed, they will add value.’

According to industry observers, one shining example of innovation for youth is the Halifax Shopping Centre, which established a teen advisory board a little over a year ago to organize monthly events for teens. ‘These events bring youth into the shopping centre,’ explains Linda Townsend, marketing director. ‘There’s definitely been some loyalty development, because we’re more conscientious of their needs.’

The goings-on include Sunday-night dances (when the mall is closed), basketball tournaments in the parking lot, and charity drives, reports Townsend, who adds that once dances reach their 300-person maximum, which they always do, kids are turned away at the door. ‘The centre has been experiencing double-digit increases over the last year, and I’d say [the teen program] contributes,’ she says.

The mall also recently launched a teen Web site providing details about upcoming functions, discounts and contests, as well as, in the near future, movie and concert reviews. Due to the success of its efforts, Halifax Shopping Centre will crank things up this October, when it will unveil its own teen-specific lounge filled with computers, video and pinball games, as well as a graffiti wall.

Allowing teens to run the show is a plus, because it enables the centre to stay plugged in and ultimately give kids what they really want, comments Le Blanc, who suggests hooking up with a TV or radio station, like The Zone has. ‘[It's important] to have diversity in the type of activities available, to excite kids’ senses, so that they don’t get bored easily.’

But most Canadian centres are far from getting kids excited about their venues in the first place.