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Managers of SouthPark Mall in Moline are searching for a new kind of tenant to fill vacant space — stores that fall under the category of "experiential retail," or what industry leaders call "retail-tainment." 

Along with malls across the country grappling with the loss of Younkers and other big box retailers, Specialty Leasing Manager Deanna Printy, with Macerich Co., said SouthPark is exploring more options to get customers in the door. Now the mall is filled with signs asking small business owners and entrepreneurs to approach Printy with new concepts. 

"The retail mix has really changed with less focus on big box stores and clothing options to a more well-rounded experience," Printy said. "You might not need to buy a new shirt every week, but there is an opportunity to get a mani/pedi from Lee's Nails or make Habaneros your go-to Friday night dinner spot."

Printy, who works to recruit businesses to the mall, said the mall is currently looking for entertainment-type businesses, such as escape rooms, bounce play areas, bowling lanes, yoga studios, barber shops, chiropractic offices and other new ideas for the mall. 

While some SouthPark tenants already offer experiences — examples include a martial arts studio and Trade Mart, which hosts gaming tournaments —SouthPark's new push for more experiential retail is not uncommon. That's according to Ana Serafin Smith, a spokeswoman with the National Retail Federation.

"We are seeing this trend of what we call 'retail-tainment' pop up over the last couple of years since technology has evolved and naturally evolved the consumer shopping experience," she said. "A lot more retailers are looking to bring this entertainment aspect into their stores for customers looking to be more interactive with the brand, rather than transactional." 

She said the loss of malls' anchor tenants, such as Sears and J.C. Penney, has led to brick-and-mortar centers reinventing themselves across the country, adding amusement parks and movie theaters in place of department stores. And some studies show that is increasingly what shoppers want.

A National Retail Federation survey of around 7,000 consumers found almost two-fifths of customers would like to receive a gift of experience, such as tickets to an event or a gym membership. Around 57 percent of respondents between the ages of 18 and 24 favored experience-based gifts.  

"The convenience of technology has changed the consumer experience," Serafin Smith said. "We're all probably guilty of this, but when I have insomnia, I jump on my phone and automatically go to the Sephora website and buy things I shouldn't at 1 a.m. New technology has caused a shift in how retailers are interacting. Consumers what to shop when and how they want to shop. They're controlling the experience more than in the past."

In the past several years, Macerich has invested millions into renovating SouthPark Mall, including a major remodeling in 2014, which demolished its Sears store and food court, and created space for Dick's Sporting Goods. Printy said the remodel, which focused on offering more seating spaces and amenities, has encouraged shoppers to spend more time in the mall.

While some small stores have closed, and Younkers is slated to close this summer, SouthPark has attracted soon-to-open Ashley Homestore. Other retailers have also changed their approach in recent years, such as Dillard's, which became a clearance center. And development outside of the mall, such as the opening of Olive Garden, has also boosted sales, Printy said. 

A lease plan for SouthPark, updated last month, shows more than a dozen available spaces at the mall. Printy expects many of the vacancies to be filled around the holiday season. But, adding more experience-based stores could be key to keeping the mall afloat in the changing retail environment, she said. 

"The goal is to make SouthPark Mall a destination spot for families and the community, so thinking outside of the box is key with bringing in new unique stores to attract customers," she said. "We are always looking for ways to reach interested parties, so if you know someone who has an entrepreneurial spirit, send them our way." 

She also hopes seeking out a new kind of retail will better support local small business owners and start-ups. 

"Shoppers want local flare that reflects the spirit of the towns they live in, so I turn to our community and let them know that SouthPark offers small business owners and start-up companies a chance to achieve their dreams," Printy said. "I work directly with our community members to help them find a home for their business. Based on a company's needs, SouthPark can find the right size space for almost any business and budget." 

The leasing team for SouthPark Mall, she said, will soon share details on a few stores that could potentially open in the mall. She encouraged customers to watch out for announcements on the mall's Facebook page

Business owners interested in opening up shop in SouthPark Mall may contact Printy at 563-391-6773. 

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