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What's Next For Providence Place?

As national retail sales decline, we examine how the the mall can redefine itself as a luxury – and locally friendly – destination

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In the 18 years it has been in operation, the Providence Place Mall has grown to become one of the largest shopping centers in New England. But amid shifting national trends that are threatening the health of malls across the U.S., the mall has encountered its fair share of hurdles – namely the closure of numerous big-name stores, including anchor store JCPenney. With the caché of Cranston’s Garden City Shopping Center on the rise, Providence Place Mall continues to look for ways to bolster visitation and navigate an increasingly precarious retail landscape.

One of the mall’s more significant changes came this summer when they announced that shoppers would get two free hours of parking in their newly expanded parking garage. This initiative was introduced in response to guest satisfaction surveys indicating that traffic and parking difficulty was a major pain point in the customer experience.

But are the improvements in parking enough to withstand what has been called “the retail apocalypse?”

With mall visits declining nearly 50 percent between 2010 and 2013, malls around the country have had to be strategic in their decision-making so as to incentivize customers to visit. But the opportunity cost of the parking garage expansion can’t be ignored. The space could have welcomed an attractive assortment of retail, dining or entertainment spaces, curated specifically to address shifting national trends emphasizing sharable experiences and social connectivity, and less focused on the physical retail mix.

The past several months saw the closure of thousands of well-known mall-based retail stores across the country, and more are expected to come. The Limited, Bebe, Guess, JCPenney and Joe’s American Bar and Grill are just a few of the stores that have closed their doors at Providence Place, while others like Pottery Barn and Crate & Barrel have departed for Garden City.

Many of these closures come as a result (at least in part) of the national retail landscape shifting heavily towards online commerce, with retail giants like Amazon at the frontier. Mall owner General Growth Properties (GPP), responding to questions through a spokesperson, cites statistics that suggest the outlook for malls isn’t so bleak after all: “There will always be multiple channels of distribution, and it is important to note that over 90 percent of all retail sales occur through brick-and-mortar.” But a deeper look into this statistic reveals that – although technically true – it doesn’t necessarily accurately depict the outlook of retail.

The “90 percent” of retail sales rolled into this data include sales from items that are unlikely to be purchased online, like fuel, automobiles and restaurant sales. It also doesn’t reflect evidence that definitively demonstrates that online sales growth significantly outpaces brick-and-mortar growth. In addition, American spending habits have shifted to prioritize travel, dining and experience-spending while growth diminishes in categories like apparel and accessories. For traditional malls whose retail mix is made up largely of the latter, this presents a serious problem.

Americans are still getting the bulk of their shopping done in actual brick-and-mortar stores, which makes it reasonable to believe that the Providence Place Mall will find ways to weather the challenges that they and so many other shopping malls face. Despite large-scale closures of brick-and-mortar retailers, GPP points out that “change is a constant in the shopping center industry,” and that “occupancy at Providence Place is consistently very strong and we are nearly 100 percent leased. We’ve had store closures, but have repurposed the space by bringing in new tenants.” This includes a newly expanded H&M and the forthcoming debut of a MAC store and a Tilly’s.

Along with the rise in e-commerce, data also suggests that consumers are increasingly interested in supporting local and regional businesses. In an effort to provide shoppers with an opportunity to shop local, Providence Place Mall has introduced the “PVD Mall Market,” that “gives local businesses a platform to grow and reach new customers.” According to GPP, the community’s overall response to the Mall Market has been favorable, and plans are in place to expand the program in 2018.

Attitudes toward the mall from local business owners seem mixed. Lisa Newman Paratore, owner of Homestyle on Westminster Street, holds that the mall and the downtown shopping scene serve different needs and populations and provide different shopping experiences; this means, she says, that they are not direct competitors.

But, she points out, “the health and vibrancy of downtown can only net a positive effect.”

GPP is confident that the Providence Place Mall will continue to evolve to suit the changing demands of the retail landscape. Through efforts like the PVD Mall Market, and by purposefully and strategically curating a mix of retailers, dining and entertainment options, it is their hope to reposition Providence Place Mall as a “community hub, where shoppers can experience everything under one roof.” Doing so will continue to allow them to move beyond the limitations of traditional shopping malls of decades past. Their future success just may depend on how well they’re able to realize this vision.