Clarence Fanto | The Bottom Line: Online shopping looms as biggest challenge to slumping mall
LENOX >> Have you been to the Berkshire Mall in Lanesborough lately?
I have, and it was a dispiriting experience in many respects. It was a Saturday just a few weeks ago, and while it would be an exaggeration to label the shopping mecca as a ghost town, there was certainly a distinct lack of hustle and bustle.
The building of the mall back in 1988 was a great occasion, though there was plenty of concern at the nearby Allendale shopping center, up to that time a focus of retail activity in the Pittsfield metro area. The city's North Street merchants and restaurateurs were worried as well.
But the mall had a new cinema complex (which led to the demise of the surviving movie houses elsewhere in the city), and anchor stores such as Steiger's, which begat Filene's, and later Macy's. Service Merchandise was an original tenant until it was torn down in 1999 and replaced by Best Buy in 2002, which closed five weeks ago. Hills became Ames, and then Target. Old Navy came and went.
The current store directory lists 54 major and minor tenants, including original anchor Sears as well as JC Penney. Macy's future depends on the parent company's still unannounced list of up to 40 "underperforming" stores it plans to close next year.
Although the mall management declined a request for the current occupancy rate, Eagle archives show that at one time, the mall boasted more than 80 shops.
Cinemas a standout
There are still bright spots, for sure.
Regal Cinemas has converted its tired multiplex into a state-of-the-art complex with reclining stadium seats, advance reserved seating online, and even a liquor license. Attendance has reportedly doubled and in terms of amenities, the 10-screen cinema is now competitive with the Beacon in Pittsfield and the Triplex in Great Barrington — though not in the diverse film fare offered by those locally owned movie houses.
Target seems to be the biggest draw, with its brightly-lit, well-organized something-for-everyone department store, now including more groceries, a Starbucks mini-cafe and a Pizza Hut Express. Macy's and JCPenney continue to be appealing shopping destinations and as for Sears, one can only hope for its survival.
But the rest of the mall has seen better days, to put it as charitably as possible. Though a sit-down eatery, the Garden Grill & Tavern, remains, the food court has only three purveyors — there used to be seven or eight.
The onetime center of community activities and hangout for young people (which became troublesome because of rowdiness on weekend evenings) is a shadow of its former self. PacSun (Pacific Sunwear) is said to be closing right after Christmas.
Despite rumors of the mall's sale or demise, The Eagle's business editor Tony Dobrowolski reported a few weeks ago that the owners, Strategic Asset Services, LLC, a subsidiary of a Texas-based real estate holding company, insist the property is not on the market. There's no word yet on a tenant to replace Best Buy, whose closing came as a surprise.
Social media gossip about a purchase of the mall site by Unistress was swatted away in no uncertain terms by company President Perri Petricca.
The mall's woes are typical of the fate that has befallen many 1970s and 1980s malls across the country. Many have closed or are dying.
In our area, the center of gravity has shifted southward to the busy Berkshire Crossing complex with its array of restaurants, Barnes & Noble (keep your fingers crossed), Staples (ditto), the expansive Market 32/Price Chopper, Home Depot, BJ's Wholesale Club, Walmart, Michael's, Verizon and more.
The nearby Shops at Unkamet Brook (home of Panera Bread, Ninety-Nine and Dick's Sporting Goods, among others) and the Stop and Shop Plaza add many more choices to the mix. The Lee Premium Outlets are just 25 minutes away.
The year-round Berkshire economy remains far from healthy, and the loss of 300 prime positions at Sabic will only delay further recovery. Many area residents, underemployed or working multiple part-time, low-wage jobs, have very limited spare cash.
But I would submit that the biggest challenge facing the Berkshire Mall, others like it, and retailers in general — from big box brick-and-mortar behemoths to mom and pop stores — is online shopping.
More people bought merchandise on their desktops and mobile devices over the four-day Thanksgiving weekend than from physical stores. The trend is accelerating, since it's hard to beat Amazon and some of the sites run by Target, Best Buy, LL Bean, Apple and many others for value and convenience.
If you remember the video game Pac-Man, the Internet is much like it, swallowing up everything in its path. But some of us still prefer to shop with our fellow citizens, to try things on, to test out everything we consider buying, from cars to headphones.
The outlook for malls and stores depends on how many shoppers still want and need the hands-on experience and interpersonal contact that no website, no matter how well-designed, can offer.
There was a time when many of us avoided malls because we felt they undercut local in-town merchants. Now, with the threat posed by cyber sellers, a mall store — indeed, just about any store, anywhere — is looking pretty good.
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