When it was built in the late 1980s, The Pines Mall was a regional shopping destination. Today, it’s seeing a rapid decline, even though its owner is trying her best to save what’s left.
Journeys’ time at The Pines Mall has come to the end. It’s the second national retail store within the past year to shutter its doors there. Mall owner Judy Vu attributes a few reasons for the shoe store’s closing.
“They could not find a good manager or a good worker,” she said. “They have been losing merchandise a lot. The company told me Journeys is the best compared to Little Rock, they sell more. But the more they sell, the more they are missing merchandise like the Old Navy before.”
The White Hall Journal made several attempts to contact Journeys corporate office to confirm Vu’s allegations but wasn’t able to speak to someone by press time.
Rachel Simmons of White Hall said she has been visiting the mall since she was a teenager. She said it saddens her to see the decline.
“This used to be the place to go, to shop, to hang out, everything,” Simmons said. “Now it’s just a ghost town. I really hope something can be done to help boost it, because it holds a lot of memories for many of us. And we really could use the shopping space.”
Pines Mall troubles
After Sears’ departure in August 2016, the only anchor stores in the mall are JCPenney and Dillard’s. And taking a stroll from Dillard’s to JCPenney, which are located on opposite ends of the mall, follows a path of dark store fronts that once were occupied by retailers such as Foot Locker, Old Navy and even Walmart. But those days seem to be perceivably long gone as Vu says she’s struggled to attract anchor and national brand stores.
“They (companies) say the city is not doing anything about the theft,” she said. “They (police) get the people for theft and they get in jail one day and the next day they get out and they come back again. That’s why the city has to do something. Many anchor stores (and) many big franchises are not coming here for that reason.”
Despite Vu’s claim of not receiving support from the city, Pine Bluff Mayor Shirley Washington says she hasn’t talked to Vu about The Pines Mall. In fact, Washington said she only met once with Vu by personal invitation to talk to her about tenants’ concerns with new management.
“I don’t know what’s happening at The Pines Mall,” Washington said. “It’s a trend that’s not just happening in Pine Bluff. But you have to have owners that are business savvy. You can’t expect the city to go out and recruit businesses for the mall.”
The White Hall Journal contacted Pine Bluff Police Department Chief Ivan Whitfield about Vu’s claims of thefts in the mall, but he did not get back with the paper by press time.
What was once a bustling place full of people and businesses now only has 35 tenants, including Bath and Body Works, Shoe Dept., Hibbett Sports, Rainbow, GNC Live Well and various specialty shops. Art Co. of Wichita Falls, which is Vu’s company, acquired the mall in January 2015 from Pine Bluff Income Properties. Prior to that, Pine Bluff Income Properties bought the mall in 2011 after the current owner at the time — General Growth Properties — filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in 2009.
In the three years under Pine Bluff Income Properties management, 11 businesses were added to The Pines Mall. National chain Carmike Theaters has also left since Vu’s purchase of the mall, marking a total of four national outlets to leave behind memories where their businesses once stood.
Garfield’s Restaurant and Pub was shut down in 2015 following non-payment of taxes totaling over $40,000 from February to December 2015 by the Arkansas Department of Finance and Administration. Several other restaurants have also come and gone.
Vu has taken over management of the theater.
Future of malls
There remain about 1,300 enclosed shopping malls nationwide, according to Business Insider. What’s happening at The Pines Mall is not unique to Pine Bluff, as malls are seeing a decline in sales as online shopping has increased over the years.
In 2015, ComScore analyzed which shopping categories received the largest sales online. Data from ComScore, a global leader in cross-platform measurement of audiences, advertising and consumer behavior, showed that clothing generated $51.5 billion in online sales, beating out personal computers and tablets, which have led market sales the past 10 years. A continuous decline in sales and customer traffic of brick and mortar stores has resulted in retailers closing thousands of stores.
So far in 2017, Business Insider has reported 6, 375 retail stores, including RadioShack, Payless, Rue21, Kmart, Sears, American Eagle, BCBG, Michael Kors, Staples, Macy’s, Guess, J.C. Penney, Wet Seal and many others have announced they are set to close locations, not to mention Amazon’s shakeup of the retail industry by their continued growth.
The industry has taken a hit by the Amazon effect, which TechTarget characterizes as the “ongoing evolution and disruption of the retail market, both online and in physical outlets, resulting from increased e-commerce.”
According to national retail expert Mark Cohen, American shopping malls will soon turn into bare-bones outlet centers.
“Necessarily, many of today’s traditional department stores will have to close,” Cohen wrote in The Robin Report. “I don’t think it’s too far-fetched to consider that other than the 235 regional ‘A’ malls, most of the shopping centers that will survive will all become outlet centers in one form or another.”
Macy’s is already trying to adapt to the changing landscape of retail by adding a discount store in its store with apparel sold for up to 80 percent off. And now, JCPenney is piloting a similar concept with about six stores including the one located at The Pines Mall. The location debuted its “Clearance Center” on Friday.
The design will allow customers to shop a “unique and value-driven section of clearance apparel for women, men and kids at saving up to 70 percent off,” a news release said.
The new, specially designated areas feature bright signage signaling the change and directing customers to the savings.
“They have implemented a store within a store, and we also have a total clearance store,” said JCPenney general manager Margie Murphy.
“But this is just a pilot program just to kind of see how it’s going to work.” So far, Murphy says the customer feedback has been positive. “It has been phenomenal,” she said. “When we put it out, it’s gone. We’re very pleased with the sales that have turned around with it. The company is doing very well within these stores and I think it’s a great future for us.”
Anna Vetsch of Watson Chapel wasn’t aware of the changes to the store until she walked in. In fact, she thought they were closing until she asked an associate about the signage across the store.
“It’s a good thing,” she said of the new concept. “I’ll come in more often and bring my daughters.”
Even though Cohen is optimistic about the future of retail, he does forewarn that businesses that can’t adapt to the change will shrink.
“To be viable, retail malls of the future will have to be increasingly modern in appearance, offer acceptable access and be more heavily invested in high security practices than they are today, in the face of likely continued terrorist/deranged citizen threats,” he said.
Doors of opportunity
And while national retailers are leaving the mall, it’s making room for local business owners to set up shop.
Kendrick Harris is opening up King Cuts, a premiere barbershop next to another small business owner: Sha’s Sweets, a bakery. Larry Kirkland, owner of Larry Kirkland Formal Wear, said he convinced Harris, who works in a local shop, to move to the mall.
Kirkland, who has been in the mall for nearly two years, has been in business for about 40 years. But he saw a chance to be a part of change when he decided to move his specialty shop to The Pines.
“I wanted to try to bring back business to the mall,” he said. “I came out here as a consultant with Miss Vu, and I was working with her in this store and we just outgrew her (in the store). So, she moved out and allowed us an opportunity to come in here.”
Flipping through his guest book, a place where he asks his customers to sign before leaving, Kirkland talked about the lack of signatures from people in his own backyard of Pine Bluff. Kirkland said that most of his shoppers are out-of-state, listing Tennessee, California, Texas and even Africa as some of their homes.
Simply put, Kirkland said residents talk about shopping locally, but instead drive 30 minutes or so to go elsewhere, which he feels played a part in the mall’s business decline.
“They don’t shop here,” he said. “They go to Little Rock.”
Kirkland said the move to the mall has turned his sales around by 110 percent thanks to his store’s close proximity to Dillard’s, along with the store front that allows him to showcase items.
“I love the atmosphere, and I have a lot of walk-by traffic,” he said. “I have signs out there. You have to have flashing lights or something to get people’s attention, and when you do that people will come into your store and shop.”
Despite the uncertainty of The Pines Mall, Kirkland said he plans to stay and help usher in new business to hopefully restore the mall back to its heyday.
“This is an ideal place for folks to go into business, and especially black folks to go into business,” he said. “You have to have a good product, though. I try to get as many black folks in the business as possible.”
Vu says seven shops are expected to open sometime next year, but couldn’t provide names or dates.