Saving Southdale

Let's hope America's first mall gets its groove back.

Southdale Center
Stephanie Colgan

What Women Want

Every suburban area in the country has its own Southdale—one virtually indistinguishable from the next. Two levels of stores. Three or four anchors. A food court. A couple of sit-down restaurants.

Most American malls are more than 25 years old. The last time a new enclosed mall opened was 2009, according to the International Council of Shopping Centers. There is just one mall under construction today.

“In other parts of the world, they have the luxury of looking, processing, updating. We have gotten to the stage where we’re renovating rather than inventing,” says Paco Underhill, founder of New York retail consulting firm Envirosell and author of several books that explore the psychology of selling, including his most recent, What Women Want: The Science of Female Shopping.
Birdcages at Southdale CenterGrocery store at Southdale CenterDayton's at Southdale CenterDayton's at Southdale CenterFrom Top: When Southdale opened in 1956, it had a grocery store, center court birdcages, and two anchors, Dayton’s and Donaldson’s.

Women have always been the primary targets of shopping malls. But while women’s roles in society have changed dramatically since the 1950s, malls have not.

“Think of the shopping trip of the ’50s,” Underhill says. “It was a woman escaping her home, her kids, her husband. She was given permission to go into the marketplace and be who she was as an individual.”

Southdale’s architect, Victor Gruen, designed the mall to encourage browsing. There was no direct access to the department stores, so that shoppers would have to pass dozens of smaller shops in order to reach the main attraction.

Department stores are no longer magnets, and women don’t have time to wander. But they do earn their own money—and, increasingly, they spend it online.

“In every job we do, we ask the question: What makes this female-friendly?” Underhill says. His list of essentials includes convenient and well-marked entrances, so that customers can park near the stores most relevant to them. Malls need clean, modern, desirable amenities, Underhill says, “so a woman can feel good about feeding her kids there.”

It’s no coincidence that Southdale’s top priorities include a play area and a new food court in the JCPenney wing. New skylights are being installed; outdoor seating will be added. The food court is intended to extend a shopper’s visit by making meals easy and appealing. The old food court was relegated to the third floor. It’s usually empty. Just two dining options remain: Subway and Great Steak and Potato Co.

“We’ve been missing the lunch rush,” Southdale’s VanDalen says.

Done right, fast casual food could be a new reason to go to the mall. Edina’s daytime population is second only to downtown Minneapolis, according to Stefanie Meyer, a senior vice president and principal with Mid-America Real Estate Group.

The mall is considering new pathways from the surrounding streets to the food court entrance. Easy access and fast service could leave diners with time to shop, too.

From Upscale to Empty

As it stands now, Southdale is a study in contradictions. The center court features upscale traffic drivers such as Apple, J.Crew, Coach, and Banana Republic. The Macy’s offers designer brands that are no longer available at other Twin Cities locations, even downtown Minneapolis. Herberger’s, too, stepped up its assortment for Southdale. Meanwhile, chains looking to downsize have been quick to flee: Abercrombie & Fitch, The Body Shop, and The Children’s Place among them. Storefronts once occupied by fine jewelers and better boutiques now host a revolving stream of no-name markets selling scarves and silver-plated jewelry. While the better restaurants and movie theater draw crowds, their street-facing design has failed to drive traffic to the rest of the mall. Tacked-on additions created dead ends and bad visibility. As a result, the third floor and JCPenney wings are ghost towns.

There was a time when Southdale was, hands down, the first place any retailer would consider setting up shop in the Twin Cities. That it remains one of the first places, according to leasing experts, is a testament to good geography, desirable demographics, and, in no small part, habit.

“People here grew up with it,” says Meyer, a commercial leasing expert. “They may live in Maple Grove now, but all their life they’ve shopped at Southdale.”

Edina remains a thriving trade area. It has everything a retailer could want, says Meyer: high income, density, and good access to highways. Edina’s population is aging, but the city also boasts considerable growth among young families, Meyer says. At both ends of the spectrum, these groups are more likely to shop moderate stores than luxury, says VanDalen, suggesting that the arrival of mid-tier department store Herberger’s was intentional, not a consolation prize because the mall couldn’t lure a luxury store like Neiman Marcus.

“Everyone wants us to be a high-end center,” VanDalen laments, pointing in the direction of Galleria, which is home to Tiffany & Co. and Louis Vuitton. “Galleria is a great partner. We want to be middle to upper end.”