Shoppers braving the mall this holiday season may notice more that’s new than the day’s discounts.

Many mall owners are spending billions to add upscale restaurants and bars, premium movie theaters with dine-in options, bowling alleys and other amenities. Some have turned swaths of space that previously housed department stores over to health clubs and grocery stores. Others are undergoing no less than a ground-up transformation to make room for office space, hotels and apartments.

The trend has been gaining traction as the companies that operate malls look for ways to keep people coming in at a time when Macy’s, Sears and other big department store chains have shuttered hundreds of stores and consumers increasingly opt to shop online.

“The mix of uses at our malls is changing,” said Stephen Lebovitz, CEO of mall owner CBL Properties. “It’s becoming less apparel and more dining, more entertainment, more service, more fitness, wellness — the types of categories that are more popular.”

CBL, which owns and manages 119 properties, including West Towne and East Towne malls in Madison and Janesville Mall, has been adding more non-retail tenants after a wave of retailer bankruptcies and store closures in 2015 and this year, including at Gymboree, Payless ShoeSource and The Limited.

Changes at

East and West Towne

At East Towne, for example, CBL this year invested millions of dollars in a renovation of mall corridors that included new flooring, lighting, soft seating areas, color schemes and new furniture in the food court. A 21,000-square-foot H&M clothing store opened in October, while four restaurant spaces in the food court have been replaced by a LuLu’s 13 Pub that offers breakfast, lunch and dinner, specialty hamburgers, mac and cheese, hand-carved sandwiches, fried chicken, ribs and even a Friday fish fry.

On the backside of the mall, which opened in 1971, a 39,000-square-foot Flix Brewhouse is under construction and will include nine movie theaters and a 134-seat restaurant. The facility, which is being built on the site of a former Steinhafel’s furniture store that relocated to a nearby vacant appliance store, is scheduled to open in April.

At West Towne Mall, its popular Apple store moved this fall to Hilldale Shopping Center and on Nov. 1, Granite City Food & Brewery closed. However, the south side of the mall is being redeveloped by Seritage Growth Properties, which bought the 18-acre Sears property from CBL in 2015.

The $17 million project has included a new parking lot and a reduction of the 111,000-square-foot Sears store to 56,000 square feet to make room for a 31,000-square-foot Dave & Buster’s and a 23,146-square-foot Total Wine store. Dave & Busters, a restaurant and arcade, is scheduled to open this spring. Total Wine, which is also set to open in 2018, will include a full liquor store but also tastings and classes. It carries 8,000 wines, 2,500 beers and 3,000 spirits.

Experiences vs. shopping

At its CoolSprings Galleria mall in a suburb of Nashville, CBL has put in a bowling alley and an indoor trampoline park, among other attractions. Lebovitz said dine-in movie theaters with reclining seats creates “a nicer, more experience-focused type of use.”

Carving out space for movie theaters, videogame arcades and food courts isn’t a new strategy. What’s noteworthy is the degree to which mall owners are now counting on tenants that sell experiences, rather than physical goods. The share of space occupied by non-retail tenants at regional shopping malls reached nearly 13 percent last year, according to commercial real estate tracker CoStar. It was 10.5 percent in 2012.

Since 2014, about 90 large U.S. malls have invested more than $8 billion in major renovations, according to a study by commercial real estate firm JLL. Some 41 percent of the malls in the study spruced up their food and beverage offerings with an emphasis on restaurants that serve more varied fare and, in some cases, alcohol.

“It was not that long ago that the food offerings in the traditional food court at shopping centers in the ’80s and ’90s were really more about just giving you something to eat while you shop,” said James Cook, director of retail research at JLL. “Now the food and beverage is part of the attraction.”

Expanded entertainment

Among the malls in the JLL study that improved their food and beverage options, more than half also added entertainment options.

The Kingston Collection in Kingston, Massachusetts, added a 36,000-square-foot bowling alley a year ago. Mall shoppers can also go there to play laser tag, try out somersault basketball dunks at an indoor trampoline park or race go-karts.

Shoppers who haven’t been inside a mall since the last round of holiday shopping may notice fewer department stores and clothing chains. Among the retail chains that announced store closures this year are RadioShack, Payless, Wet Seal, J.C. Penney, Kmart, Guess, Macy’s and Sears.

Retailers have been generally closing weaker locations, although some companies such as Macy’s are shuttering stores that are too close to their other locations, according to CoStar data.

And the majority of stores that Sears, Macy’s, J.C. Penney and Kmart closed were located in middle-range or lower-tier malls that typically generate less money per square foot than the most upscale malls.

The closures are one reason mall owners are increasingly making room for other types of tenants, including hotels, apartments and grocery stores, said Mizuho analyst Haendel St. Juste.

“It’s something that some have done for a while, some have been quietly doing for the past several years, but it’s just now that everyone is piling on clearly because of the wave of retail store closures and anti-retail sentiment,” he said. “It’s a trend you’ll see continue to evolve, but it’s not without risk and not everyone is going to be able to pull it off.”

State Journal reporter Barry Adams contributed to this report.

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