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11/30/2021

Pyramid's Stephen J. Congel on post-pandemic consumers

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When Chain Store Age asked me to write a piece about what I thought 2022 would look like, they suggested that I write about what pandemic-influenced changes would endure once the virus had receded. But as the owner-operator of one of the 10 largest shopping destinations in the United States — Destiny USA in Syracuse—we at Pyramid felt that the biggest impact COVID-19 had on our business was the acceleration of a process that was already well underway at our properties.

For the last 50 years, we have been transforming enclosed spaces that, at their inception, were all about shopping into destinations that drew people from hundreds of miles away to traverse the world’s largest suspended rope course, to dine at 40-plus restaurants like P.F. Changs to the Cheesecake Factory and, yes, to shop at 250 stores ranging from Apple to Zumiez. We have long labored to create the centers that would be the first stops for people on back-to-school or Christmas runs in a retail center business that had been far over-built.

However, I do believe the pandemic effected a profound change—not on us, the center owners; not on you, the retailers—but on the audience we both strive to attract and satisfy: consumers.

The pandemic truly changed the shopper. How could it not have? People were afraid to leave their homes. In fact, they were told not to leave their homes if they didn’t absolutely need to by the Surgeon General, by their local governments, and by their employers who encouraged them to conduct all their business on their phones and PCs, turning Zoom into America’s conference room.

And in the process, it made the shopper more highly educated. More educated about pricing, about quality, about alternative brands and alternative buying options.

"Brands like Amazon, Warby Parker, and Untuckit are doing nationwide expansions into physical retail. If online sellers are out to kill brick-and-mortar retail, why are they moving into our malls?"

What we’ve observed is that the retailers that most successfully embraced an omnichannel platform during the past year (and previously) were the ones that won the most business during the pandemic and the ones that best positioned themselves for success in 2022 and beyond. Today, whatever the consumer wants, retailers have to provide. They need to do a better job on choices for pricing and availability. They have to provide new options for how people research and make a purchase, employing both physical and digital options. Both Target and Kohl’s have done an excellent job of swiftly embracing omnichannel, setting up package pick-up zones inside their stores and curbside pick-ups in their parking lots.

There has been a big mind change in the general public about shopping brick-and-mortar and shopping online. Look at some of the most successful direct-to-consumer brands like Amazon, Warby Parker, and Untuckit and they’re doing nationwide expansions into physical retail. And it’s not brought about so much by COVID-influenced changes. It’s been amplified by supply chain issues that the pandemic shined a spotlight on. Industrial real estate is in very short supply and physical stores now play a crucial role as local distribution centers for high-volume online brands. Not long ago I saw a story on Chain Store Age’s website called, “If you own a mall, you also own a warehouse.” It’s so true. If online sellers are out to kill brick-and-mortar retail, why are they moving into our malls?

Truth is, the formula for Pyramid’s success is relatively simple. It’s to put a few hundred of the highest quality sellers of goods and services together with the best entertainment options, the widest selection of restaurants — hotels in our larger properties—and provide them excellent service and amenities.

Not all enclosed shopping centers will survive, but the best ones, the ones that are paying attention will—especially those that find exciting new retailers, redefine the shopping experience, and adapt to changing consumer preferences.

About the Author

Stephen J. Congel is the CEO of Syracuse-based Pyramid Management Company, owner-operate of 13 malls and shopping centers in the Northeast. Read More