The place where old-fashioned malls are beating Amazon: Small-town America
By Jill Rothenberg
May 20 2017
Hair freshly done from the beauty parlor on a recent Friday morning, Ada Clark, 93, and her daughter Carol, 63, met in front of the J.C. Penney in the Pueblo Mall, about 100 miles south of Denver. Their afternoon plan: a walk around the mall, followed by lunch at Red Lobster.
When the mall was built in 1976, Pueblo was a booming steel town. The Colorado Fuel and Iron Co. was the city’s largest employer, and a now-empty meatpacking plant also offered good wages. The mall — with its 1,100 retail jobs — has outlasted them both. It’s also the social hub for the city — and for the many small towns east to Kansas and south to New Mexico.
“Any time I get out of town to go to the mall and maybe to Sam’s Club, I guarantee that within an hour or so, I’m going to run into someone I know,” said Steve Francis, 60, of Lamar, a town of nearly 8,000 people 120 miles east of Pueblo near the Kansas border. “You take your family, your neighbors, and you make a day of it. The Pueblo Mall isn’t just the only game in town two hours away, it’s the only game in town for three counties.”
The Pueblo Mall is an outlier in the age of Amazon.com, when socks and laundry detergent and televisions — nearly anything you can think of — can be delivered to your front stoop within hours. The rise of online shopping has summoned a death knell for some of the old standard-bearers of retail. (Jeffrey P. Bezos, the chief executive of Amazon, owns The Washington Post.)
Macy’s and J.C. Penney, for instance, have in recent years reported crippling losses and widespread store closures. When those big anchor stores close, suburban malls find it hard to replace them. Many ’60s- and ’70s-era enclosed malls have been abandoned, razed or reimagined.
“With department store closings, many malls will have to get creative with how they utilize space,” said Amy Raskin, who follows urbanization trends as chief investment officer at Chevy Chase Trust. She said many malls nationwide have converted space into multifamily residential units, whereas more rural malls may take on nonstandard anchor tenants, such as a Walmart.
Despite Pueblo’s three Walmarts and the arrival of a Dick’s Sporting Goods and an Ulta Beauty store, the Pueblo Mall is bustling. On weekends, its nearly 3,000 outdoor parking spaces fill up. Inside are a few relics of the golden age of American malls: Amy’s Hallmark, Claire’s, Kay Jewelers. And in the food court is an Orange Julius, with its old-school classics and a modern update: smoothies.
The mall does not track visitors, according to manager Timothy Schweitzer, but based on sales trends, he says traffic has increased 3 percent to 5 percent in the past year. He said the mall’s average sales per square foot are healthy, holding at around $400 over the past six months. He attributed this to the bigger-name tenants that have opened in recent years, including Bath and Body Works, Victoria’s Secret, Charlotte Russe, Hot Topic and Zumi.
It draws kids from all over on the weekends. “It’s still not unusual to see out-of-town teams from La Junta [65 miles], Rocky Ford [54 miles] or Walsenburg [53 miles] walk around the mall after soccer or basketball games,” said Carol Clark, who works for the CW Railway and lives 25 miles south in Colorado City.
Clark says that when the mall was built, downtown Pueblo suffered and many of its stores closed. The mall became Pueblo’s new town square.