On the outskirts of Athens, Georgia, in the middle of the Atlanta Highway corridor sits Georgia Square Mall. It’s the only mall that exists in Athens, housing more than 50 shops, eight eateries and 17 diverse services, ranging from American Vision Center to U.S. military recruitment stations.
The two-story retail mecca opened its doors in 1981 and is the only regional mall within a 35-mile radius. Yet despite the presence of more popular stores, such as Victoria’s Secret, American Eagle Outfitters and Foot Locker, 16 retail spaces in the mall are pitch-dark, gated and for lease. Stores open for business have 10 or fewer customers inside during our visits, and so few customers on a weekend is not a sign of hope.Why It’s Newsworthy: National economic trends show that malls are struggling to stay in business, and this is how the only mall in Athens-Clarke County is holding up.
Belk, Sears and J.C. Penney are the three department stores left standing after Macy’s closed its doors in March of last year. What the remaining anchors do have going for them, however, is the inclusion of popular makeup brands’ stores and counters. Belk features several makeup and beauty counters, including MAC, Clinique and Bobbi Brown. J.C. Penney began partnering with beauty retailer Sephora, launching the Athens store on April 29, 2016.
The mall’s assistant manager John Liu said Sephora’s presence increased traffic and sales immensely.
“It brought a different kind of customer base to J.C. Penney,” Liu said. He also noted that the mall’s anchor stores bring in some of their best business.
J.C. Penney also teams up with the University of Georgia for Dawgs Suit Up, an event that offers UGA students discounted professional attire for potential employment opportunities as well as need-based scholarships.
Macy’s decision to shut down its Athens store took a toll on the Georgia Square Mall’s business, but mall management claims their business didn’t decline as much as people may have thought.
“The brutal truth is there’s no way to combat [an anchor closing],” the mall’s marketing director Monica Hawkins said. “As much as you want to try to prepare, it’s an impact you can’t really mask over. You just have to unfortunately let it happen and do what we can to lessen the blow a little bit because it was a staple here for people. It was a brand that people had grown attached to.”
Liu continued, saying that Hendon Properties did everything in its power to keep the Athens Macy’s open.
“When that wasn’t possible, they were looking for replacements. But unfortunately with empty anchors the average time it takes from closing to opening can take anywhere from two to five years to get a deal in place,” he said. While many suitors have expressed interest in leasing Macy’s former space, Liu and Hawkins want to make sure the new tenant is the right fit for the space and the mall.
“We don’t do every deal because every deal is not a fit for the mall,” Hawkins said.
For shoppers, however, Macy’s closing was a huge blow to their motivation to shop at the mall.
“I miss it,” said Athens resident and retired UGA employee Betty Hudson. “It was one of the higher end stores still here in Athens.”
Betty and her friend Gwen Hanks, a former UGA marketing professor, used to frequent the Athens Macy’s and have rarely returned to the mall since its closing.
The pair used to enjoy spending their days walking through the mall to escape Athens’ blistering summer heat, speaking with shopkeepers of the non-anchor stores, many of whom no longer have a presence in the mall.
As they were strolling through the Georgia Square Mall this past week, the pair shared disappointment in the mall’s current state.
“We were looking at all the closed stores and making commentary about that,” Hanks said, “and my comment was ‘It’s slowly dying like a lot of malls are doing.’”
Athens West is a local organization whose mission is “to maintain the success, viability, and growth of the Atlanta Highway corridor.” The organization held its first annual West Fest, an event geared toward promoting local Athens West businesses and non-profits, on June 2 at Georgia Square Mall. Despite their efforts to bring more attention and awareness to the mall, Georgia Square Mall is privately owned, leaving its fate completely up to Hendon Properties.
Liu pointed out that in Hawkins’ time as the mall’s leasing agent (she’s been the marketing director for almost three years and leasing agent for only six months), she has managed to lease eight new tenants, including Sweet Tees Design, Hughes Candle Company and Five Star Feet in the last month-and-a-half.
“We definitely push ‘shop local,’ that’s really the bread and butter when you can have the shoppers see their neighbors’ own stores and they’re supporting those businesses,” Hawkins said.
Liu concurred, stressing that the Georgia Square Mall is focused on being as community-driven as possible.
Shopping centers outside of the Atlanta Highway corridor provide unique shopping experiences. The downtown Athens and Beechwood Promenade outdoor shopping centers each have unique advantages on their sides. Downtown exudes its historical charm and caters to the college crowd with several UGA-themed boutiques. Beechwood Promenade caters to chain retailers such as TJ Maxx, HomeGoods and Michaels. It’s also home to eateries such as Your Pie and Jason’s Deli, as well as the city’s only The Fresh Market.
Both offer Athenians a variety of restaurants and entertainment, including movie theaters in walking distance (Georgia Theater Company leases a space at Beechwood and Ciné is conveniently located on West Hancock Street). Georgia Square Mall’s value movie theater closed its doors in December of 2015, according to Online Athens. It remains an island of faded brick, empty poster frames and blacked-out windows tucked in the far back corner of the mall property. According to Liu, there are no current plans in place to fill the empty theater.
What has had the most drastic effect on the decline of brick-and-mortar retail business, though, is e-commerce. Amazon offers a unique shopping experience, allowing shoppers to skip the hassle of traveling to a store, beating crowds and spending hours on end out shopping. In the convenience of their homes, people can browse and buy online with ease.
Consumer Intelligence Research Partners (CIRP) released an analysis in July of last year of Amazon customers’ shopping patterns. It showed that Amazon Prime has 85 million members and counting, a significant spike from the estimated 63 million members in 2016. Prime members receive special deals and have access to fast and free shipping, eliminating one of the most significant pitfalls to online shopping.
Despite national economic trends that point toward the reduction in the number of shoppers visiting stores and the death of malls, Georgia Square Mall management is comfortable and confident with its current business and progress.
“[Our] biggest struggle is the perception that the mall is closing,” Liu said. “I can tell you that is not true, that’s not going to happen… For the longest time, including the 2008 economic downturn, Georgia Square continued to have all four anchors open and filled. It wasn’t until last year that one of the anchors went dark.”
There’s a definite disconnect between mall management’s and shoppers’ views on the future of Georgia Square Mall, though.
“It’s partially the energy of the mall,” Hanks said. “The actual facility doesn’t seem to have very much going on.”
Hanks expressed hopes that the mall would host more engaging activities including some that would bring a fresh and exciting experience for shoppers of all ages. Hudson would like to see better food options rather than those offered in the mall’s current food court. Even with improvements, though, they don’t see much hope that any change will come.
“It’d be great if there was a theater here, but I don’t see that happening,” Hudson said.
There are no current plans in place to bring any drastic changes to the mall like those suggested by Hanks and Hudson, but shoppers can expect to see exterior landscaping improvements, repaved parking lots and a complete overhaul in the mall’s heating, ventilation and air conditioning system, according to Liu. He also said outdoor renovations are expected to begin in 2019 and continue through 2022.
Through 37 years of business, Georgia Square Mall has stayed afloat in the age of dying malls. Despite current economic trends and local perception, the mall’s demise has yet to be determined.
Rachel Kelso is a senior majoring in journalism in the Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Georgia.