Mall of America, for all its “bigness” is not a stranger to small entrepreneurs and independent retailers. Now it is providing a lifeline to some Minneapolis businesses hard hit by the pandemic and the civil unrest resulting from the death of George Floyd.
On October 1, the mall will launch a new, temporary rent-free venue called “Community Commons”. It will be populated by local, Minneapolis-based boutiques, restaurant and art galleries that were shuttered in the spring. The businesses were selected via an application process, which MOA’s Executive Of Business Development and Marketing Jill Renslow describes as an initiative of “hope and possibility.” “Mall of America joins the efforts to help rebuild the hearts, minds and livelihoods of our diverse retail community” she said in a statement.
Balancing Big and Small, Local and National
Seventeen retailers have qualified to occupy the 5,000 square-foot space on the mall’s second level, previously occupied by beauty chain Riley Rose, which closed nationally. It is expected the stores will remain through the Spring of 2021.
Besides being a generous and community-minded gesture, the addition of small, entrepreneurial retailers to MOA is a draw to consumers who want to contribute to the sustainability of these hard hit retailers, many of whom existed on the margins of retailing.
Additionally, with the failure of so many national specialty retailers due to bankruptcies, mall of all sizes need to be creative in finding or even creating new “retail life.” Once more, the notion of “shop small” and keeping it local, often seen as antithetic to major regional malls, is exactly what consumers are looking for right now.
And as we close in on a holiday that most experts believe is going to dramatically favor on-line shopping, malls must offer more than the mere offline embodiment of readily accessible online brands.
In MOA’s DNA
Thinking small is hardly foreign to Mall of America. In November of 2018, MOA launched Fourpost, spawned by mall owners Triple Five Group, led by Mark Ghermezian. It was designed to be a type of entrepreneurial “Makers Market” featuring local start-ups and digital native brands, whose exposure to the mega-malls’ throngs was typically unthinkable. The concept provided off-line accessibility and exposure, without painstaking processes and major development costs. The kiosk-type marketplace featured a highly flexible product display system, pared with short-term leases of three and six months, with virtually no initial cash outlay.
I toured and reported on Fourpost just after its opening, and found the concept very compelling, with interesting goods and in many cases novel backstories. Among the concept’s shortcomings, beside a puzzling name, was the mall’s apparent lack of promotional support for the unique “make-tailers”
The experiment was shuttered in January 2020, as Mr. Ghermezian was named Co-CEO of the historically challenged, New Jersey American Dream Mall. Mark’s departure was noted in a twitter post- “My team from Fourpost will be joining me as we embark on this new chapter together.”
Championing the Entrepreneurs
I reached out to Mall of America, regarding the mall’s position on promoting the new Community Commons initiative. Communications Vice President for MOA, Dan Jasper did respond in an e-mail, stating that the mall “will provide marketing, communications and business support to these small businesses at no cost.”
Included in the outreach initiative are a wide range of niche retail, restaurant, and arts entities; business impact both by civil unrest and the pandemic. Raeisha Williams, owner of Heritage Tea & Beverage stated “We’re happy to see that the Mall of America is trying to engage, particularly with African American businesses.”
One of the most unique community groups whose talents will be featured is the teen-staffed non-profit creative group Juxtaposition Arts, whose artwork will be displayed in the space. JXTA has been an incubator for artists ages 12 to 21 for the past 25 years. Unfortunately, their own Minneapolis community arts space was looted during the riots. JXTA has helped over 3,000 children and young adults through training, and mentoring programs. Their rich and vibrant graphic declarations of hope and optimism have embellished the community through its quarter century of operations.