Is Kentucky mall's teen escort policy ruining retail?
By MAGGIE MENDERSKI | Louisville Courier Journal | Published: August 11, 2019
LOUISVILLE, Ky. (AP) — In a time when malls and other traditional brick-and-mortar retail stores are begging for shoppers, turning customers away may seem strange.
But for almost two months now, Jefferson Mall in Louisville's Outer Loop has been ushering unsupervised minors out at 4 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays and checking IDs at the door to keep them from coming in. It's a move that stems from customer and retailer complaints. Too many parents were dropping kids off at the mall, and too many of those kids were getting into trouble.
The situation "has become volatile from time to time," Sarah Robinson, the mall's spokeswoman, told the Courier Journal in May when the curfew was first announced.
So we spent a few Fridays seeing what Jefferson Mall feels like on weekend evenings since it launched "YEP," the Youth Escort Policy — and it's quite different, with fewer clusters of kids and typically one adult for every three minors.
Mall administration will tell you the switch is good for the family-focused environment.
The kids turned away at the door will tell you it's annoying.
And retail analysts? They say changes like this may be necessary but they need to be done carefully. You don't want to alienate the next generation of shoppers, but you also can't allow an unpleasant environment to continue.
This policy is new to the south Louisville mall, but it's not new to the area or the retail industry in general. That's part of the reason Robinson says the change has gone over well.
Oxmoor Center and Mall St. Matthews set the local precedent for this in 2016 after an incident at Mall St. Matthews brought 65 officers to break up a crowd of unruly teenagers. Malls throughout the country have been implementing similar policies since about 1994, when the Mall of America, the largest mall in the nation, rocked the retail world and pre-Amazon mall-rat culture with one of the first teen escort rules in the country.
In Jefferson Mall's case, there wasn't one specific incident or even necessarily a rise in incidents that led to the change, Robinson told me, but teenagers acting out has been a problem for a while and there was a need for a shift to make the mall more appealing for families.
"This is something that you're seeing at shopping centers across the nation," she told me. "We felt like this was the right thing for us now, and it's been great so far."
I met a few teens who, naturally, wouldn't agree with that.
There was one girl, who declined to give her name, standing just outside of the mall not too long after 4 p.m. on a Friday.
All she wanted to do was go inside, get a hot pretzel and wait for her friend to finish working at a store, and instead, she was going to wait in her car. She was frustrated. Two months from now, when she turns 18, she can have that pretzel at 4 p.m. on a Friday night.
Two months ago, she could have had it, too.
The next week I had a great chat with Ian Smoot, 17, and McKenzie Stone, 16, around 2 p.m., about an hour before the first of four warnings reminding shoppers of the policy came over the loudspeaker. They were eating Chick-fil-A in the food court and later were going to look around H&M. They'd actually forgotten the rule was in place but said they'd leave before the clock hit 4 p.m.
They didn't want to cause trouble but thought the policy itself was arbitrary.
"I think it's unfair for the teenagers who just come here to shop and hangout; I think it's unfair to them because we didn't do anything," Stone said.
It's too early to determine what a move like this may do to sales, and the mall won't have those figures for a few months.
But in general, sales at other malls that are owned by CBL & Associates, Jefferson Mall's parent company, have increased with similar policies, Robinson told me.
The average teen spends about $2,600 per year, according to Piper Jaffray's Spring 2019 Taking Stock with Teens Survey.
The investment bank and asset management firm has been tracking teen spending for roughly four decades.
About 37% of what's in a teen's wallet goes to what Piper Jaffray calls the "selfie budget" — clothing, accessories, personal care items and shoes — or in other words, items they might buy at a mall. Basic needs take up about 21% and social outings eat up the bulk, at 42%.
If you do the math based on the survey, that's only $962 they're willing to spend at a mall all year, and that doesn't factor in competition from online stores and other brick-and-mortar competitors such as Target and T.J. Maxx.
In other words, players with policies like Jefferson Mall aren't turning away a ton of cash by insisting teens have escorts after 4 p.m. two nights a week.
When you remove crowds of unruly kids without chaperones, it makes the mall more inviting for adults who want to shop. And when you insist that adults accompany tweens who haven't formally entered the workplace, in theory, there's a lot more disposable income floating around those clusters.
Still, it's a tricky balance between making the mall an inviting place for everyone and turning away the next generation of shoppers, according to Steve Kirn, a Florida-based retail consultant who grew up in Louisville.
How we spend our disposable income has shifted dramatically in the past decade. Suburban shopping malls gained popularity after World War II as more people moved out to the suburbs and away from urban downtowns. That model was popular into the early 2000s, but it's taken two major blows in recent history — the Great Recession and the rise of e-commerce, specifically, Amazon.
Traditional malls aren't a focal point of consumerism anymore, and the next generation has no real attachment or loyalty to them.
These aren't like the mall rats from the '80s and '90s who made the mall their outpost of socialization. They've been raised on smartphones and Snapchat, and many of them have watched Amazon Prime packages pile up on their doorsteps for years.
But when they're grown — and have more disposable income — they could very well remember being escorted out of the mall, and Kirn says that's a risky impression to give potential customers.
"This is gonna be your next-generation customer you don't want to do things which automatically alienate them," Kirn said.
And there's at least some of that going on.
You'll see them sulk off one by one as the security guards check IDs at the door each Friday and Saturday night.
If you stand by the food court at about 3:55 p.m. on a Friday, you can watch them trickle out to the parking lot just before the policy sets in.
A few will move slowly and leave by about 4:05 p.m. I saw one slip out at 4:17 p.m. and watched a guard glance down at his watch as if to check how long she made it through without getting stopped.
About 20 minutes later I saw another guard corral two high school-aged girls near the entrance to the new Round One arcade in the old Macy's anchor. He had them sit in the massage chair kiosk, and in theory, they called their parents to come get them.
When he stepped away for about three minutes, they saw their chance to get away and bolted down the mall hallway laughing.
"I'm guessing Mom and Dad didn't come to collect them, did they?" the guard said to me when he got back.
"Nope," I told him. "But they went that way."
It's not a perfect system by any means, but it's a system.
And while two giggling girls running away from a guard might be irritating, it's certainly not "volatile."
Information from: Courier Journal