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Business & Economy

Expert predicts different futures for Columbus malls as online shopping expands

A mostly empty mall corridor has several closed storefronts and a Forever 21 advertising a sale. In the distance, one shopper carries a bag.
Allie Vugrincic
The upstairs corridor of Tuttle Crossing Mall is quiet on a weekday afternoon in December.

On a weekday evening in mid-December, a few dozen shoppers strolled through sunlit corridors inside the Tuttle Crossing Mall in Dublin.

On the upper level, half of the storefronts were empty. Some storefronts with merchandise had their gates down and signs listing limited hours.

Amy and Isabel George clutched a few bags of holiday gifts – including fluffy pink cat fingerless gloves for Isabel’s younger sister – after picking up an online order.

Sipping Bubble Tea drinks, they admitted that Tuttle Crossing, which is their closest mall, isn’t what it used to be. About 50 storefronts, including one anchor space, are vacant. Many of the occupied spaces are filled by local or discount stores.

“I mean, I feel like we were really productive in what we got,” Amy George said. “I just wish it was a little bit –"

“Cheerier?” Isabel suggested.

“Cheerier,” Amy George agreed. “And just there were more options. But I mean, a lot of the stores that I used to go to here aren't here anymore.”

"Malls are still relevant, but they have to be really good.”
Lee Peterson, executive vice president of WD Partners

Changing consumer trends

With less than two weeks until Christmas, shoppers are scurrying to buy gifts. In the past that usually meant crowded malls, but not so much anymore.

As online retail grows, traditional malls suffer – and that may lead to varied outcomes for Columbus’ biggest shopping hubs.

Columbus was once home to more than half a dozen malls, but now just three remain: Tuttle Crossing, Polaris Fashion Place and Easton Town Center. All were built within a few years at the turn of the millennium.

Related: The history of Columbus' first shopping malls

As consumer trends shift, retail strategist Lee Peterson, Executive Vice President of WD Partners in Dublin, predicts three different outcomes for the malls.

For declining Tuttle: “It's just a slow, slow death spiral,” he said.

Experts expect the U.S. to have as few as 150 malls by 2030, Peterson said.

Their downfall is multi-faceted: The pandemic caused malls to close for about a year. Meanwhile, surveys show consumers preference for online shopping has grown from around 28% before the pandemic and currently stands at 64%.

If malls aren’t exceptional, they won’t survive the shift.

“Malls are still relevant, but they have to be really good,” Peterson said.

The sun sets over retail buildings on either side of a brick street.
Allie Vugrincic
Shoppers cross the road in an outdoor section of Easton Town Center on a cool evening in December.

Easton Town Center

In Columbus, Peterson expects Easton Town Center to stick around. It boasts premiere restaurants, a desirable outdoor shopping experience, and this time of year, an expansive holiday display. Easton is also home to specialty stores like Kate Spade, Nike and the Lego store.

“For consumers, these are interesting things. Like, what does a Gucci store look like? You know, I'll go take a look at a Gucci store,” Peterson said. “You can look at Gucci online, you know, the same way you can look at Abercrombie. But Gucci is more important to go see.”

Easton Town Center recently added another 140,000 square-feet for retail, entertainment and dining, plus some 125,000 for offices, with living spaces to come.

The shopping center, co-developed by L Brands, The Georgetown Company and Steiner + Associates in 1999, has earned several industry accolades, including being named the number one retail experience in 2019, 2021 and 2022. Inside Retail designated it one of the top five most innovative malls in the world.

Two levels of an indoor shopping mall.
Allie Vugrincic
A few shoppers look into storefronts in Polaris Fashion Place on a weekday afternoon in December.

Polaris Fashion Place

Head east on I-270 and you’ll reach the mostly indoor Polaris Fashion Place.

Tamara Bower, General Manager for Polaris Fashion Place, said the mall sees a strong demand for space and several new stores have opened there in recent years, including Offline by Aerie, Jamba Juice and the indoor sports facility, Fieldhouse USA.

She said the number of shoppers coming to the mall has been “steady and healthy.”

“We expect a very busy and exciting holiday shopping season,” Bower said.

Polaris Fashion Place’s Columbus-based parent company WPG, formerly known as Washington Prime Group, emerged from several months of bankruptcy in Oct. 2021.

In a statement, WPG Chief Executive Officer Chris Colon said new financing will provide the company with greater financial and operating flexibility.

“As we look ahead to 2024 and beyond, we are now in the strongest financial position in the history of our company and are well positioned to deliver high growth,” Colon said.

But Peterson sees Polaris Fashion Place’s future as uncertain.

“I go in there and I look, and I just see a big mall. Just another mall. And customers, especially the young ones, don't necessarily like that anymore,” Peterson said.

In a mall storefront, mannequins stand on either side of a sign reading "Thanks Tuttle Crossing for many great years. Store closing on January 6th, but you can still visit us at Easton Town Center or Polaris Fashion Place."
Allie Vugrincic
A sign at H&M on Tuttle Crossing's second floor announces the store's closing after the holiday shopping season.

Tuttle Crossing

Then there’s Tuttle Crossing, where the H&M in the depleted upper level displays a sign announcing it’s closing on Jan. 6th. It encourages customers to visit the stores in Polaris and Easton Town Center.

In October, a trio of New York state investment firms bought most of the Tuttle property for $19.5 million – significantly less than the Franklin County Auditor’s estimated value of $50 million.

The same investment firms, Namdar Realty Group, CH Capital Group and Mason Asset Management, purchased Lancaster’s River Valley Mall in liquidation for $12 million last year.

“It's a business model I don't fully understand,” Peterson said. “Buying a devalued property for a devalued price and just sitting there and letting it be, not improving it, not doing anything.”

The firms are known for holding retail assets with low maintenance cost and letting them run their course.

“I just hope it continues to stay open for a while, because I know that's kind of, sadly, the way of the mall.”
Heidi Chow of Dublin

The way of the mall

Down on Tuttle’s lower level, Santa waited for visitors and eventually got a few. Heidi Chow, her pajama-clad family and their yellow lab-mix, Lola, were there for photos.

The family has come to the mall for pet photos with Santa for the last nine years, but Chow said now that her kids are teenagers, she does most of their Christmas shopping online.

“But the girls do like to go to either Easton or Polaris – usually, Easton is their favorite – but that’s okay, I still come here when I can,” Chow said.

Chow was at Tuttle on the day it opened in 1997. It was packed full of people, but over the years it’s gotten less and less packed, she said.

“I just hope it continues to stay open for a while, because I know that's kind of, sadly, the way of the mall,” she said.

Allie Vugrincic is a reporter for 89.7 NPR News. She comes to Columbus from her hometown of Warren, Ohio, where she was a reporter, features writer and photographer for four years at the Tribune Chronicle and The Vindicator newspapers.