Malls and other large retail properties have been facing some major uphill battles. With eCommerce growing explosively during the pandemic, a lot of retailers have had to face some hard realities, including reducing their store footprints, or eliminating them entirely. But what happens to the empty buildings that are left behind? Investors still need someone to fill those spaces, otherwise the property becomes totally useless.
Even though retail is experiencing shrinkage, there are other things that could fill those empty spaces. Aquariums, for example, are starting to spring up in old malls and abandoned big-box stores across the country.
SeaQuest splashes into former retail spaces
SeaQuest, an interactive zoo and aquarium chain, is expanding into more markets as the pandemic continues on. Currently, SeaQuest branded aquariums are located in nine U.S. states, but two more are working on coming online this year: one in Atlanta and the other in Grand Forks, North Dakota.
This successful aquarium chain has been in operation since 2015 and is often found in shopping malls as an alternative to an anchor store. The Atlanta location, for example, is going into an abandoned Sears at the Mall at Stonecrest, becoming the largest SeaQuest location with over 25,000 square feet.
The Atlanta SeaQuest should open by the third week of October and will offer interactive experiences found nowhere else, such as opportunities to play with otters, swim with sharks, and pet manta rays. SeaQuest also books birthday parties for children and adults alike as part of its business model.
Swimming in revenues in North Dakota
SeaQuest as a whole has created some impressive revenues since the first location opened in 2015. Yearly gross revenue figures have been estimated at $3 million to $4 million, according to CEO Vince Covino, and he has estimated that the annual economic impact of the facility in North Dakota could be as much as $15 million.
The Grand Forks destination is set to take up residence in 17,000 square feet of an abandoned 100,000-square-foot Kmart that was part of the Grand Cities Mall. When Covino approached the Grand Forks city council about his proposal, he made a point that is too-often missed when considering what to do with these old vestiges of in-person retail: These are experiences that cannot be accurately replicated on the internet or through the use of other types of technology.
It’s not like you can order up a caiman alligator from Amazon, after all…
The Millionacres bottom line
The road for mall owners has been a long and uncertain one, and the pandemic didn’t do anything to help that. Instead of watching retail stores slowly find their feet again as more friendly and experience-oriented versions of themselves, like many larger retailers were attempting to do in smaller footprints, investors were served a heaping platter of chaos and uncertainty.
Plenty of small businesses failed entirely, along with restaurants and other mainstays of mall culture. What remained were climbing vacancies in a time when no one was quite sure if it was safe to even be indoors with people from other households. I think it’s safe to say that the pandemic put a whole bunch of the last nails in a lot of mall coffins.
Attempts to fill those spaces with e-commerce fulfillment centers is a practical, but not quite synergetic, solution to the problem. eCommerce fulfillment centers absolutely pay the rent, there’s no question about it, but they don’t do a lot to foster a sense of community, like in the heyday of the mall experience.
An aquarium, on the other hand, not only brings families into older malls that have fallen out of favor -- they also bring other businesses back. A family could spend part of their day at the aquarium, then have lunch, check out the retro arcade (because, let’s face it, they go with malls like cheese goes with mac), browse the shops, and maybe catch a movie. It’s not such a bad idea. It seems to have worked as a functional and even healthy business model once, not so long ago.