Mall culture in Southern California has permeated the popular culture over the last generation. Be it Moon Unit Zappa’s “Valley Girl” or many of the scenes from Fast Times at Ridgemont High, what goes on at California malls sets the tone for cultural behavior throughout the nation.
Or, at least that was the case. But things are changing in big ways in California’s malls in recent times. Remember that iconic “Free Fallin” video from 1989 that you couldn’t avoid on MTV at a time when MTV actually cared to play music? Although the lyrics suggest locales in the San Fernando Valley, the video was shot at the Westside Pavilion Mall, which is located between Beverly Hills and the beach in Santa Monica.
And despite the “Silicon Beach” tech-entertainment boom, as well as the recently opened light rail line that passes besides this nationally-known mall, the mall is closing. Real estate values have soared in this West Los Angeles neighborhood, as have household incomes due to the thousands upon thousands of new jobs from the likes of Google, Amazon Studios (building a multi-billion-dollar movie and TV studio nearby), and countless video game companies mere minutes away.
Yet, this mall can’t survive. The opportunity cost of making the mall into living space, a college campus, or any number of other proposals on the table are more tempting than trying to lure more retail anchor stores into this once super-profitable, fantastically located mall. To be clear, there’s no coal mine or steel mill closing leaving the neighborhood in financial hard times; in fact, the exact opposite is the case. Moreover, one of the more well respected Southern California AV chains, Ken Crane’s, was right down the street from the Westside Pavilion and it too is gone having been replaced with–get this–a 99 cent store, while other retail in the area continues to thrive, such as Anawalt Lumber (a higher end hardware store), The Wine House, and a high-end florist called the Hidden Garden that is absolutely fantastic.
To see the complete 180-degree change in perspective on retail in full effect, all you have to do is drive about 10 minutes east to the Century City Mall on Santa Monica Boulevard. Century City is the neighborhood where Fox Studios is located, as well as many of the more iconic office buildings, such as Nakatomi Plaza from Die Hard or the “Twin Towers” featured on Yes’ Going For The One LP. While the Westside Pavilion was going down the retail drain, the same parent company, Westfield, invested north of a billion dollars into this mall, which originally opened in the 1960s.
Today, Century City Mall competes directly with Rodeo Drive and all of the retail grandeur of Beverly Hills and in many cases shares the same stores and/or luxury brand products. If you were so inclined you could hoof it from the Century City mall to Rodeo Drive in about 15 minutes on foot. (Not that anybody walks in L.A., except on treadmills, even if they count their steps on their Apple Watches, but it really isn’t that far.)
The new Century City Mall is unlike anything you’ve ever seen. It’s a mall completely rethought for the future. There have always been movie theaters there, but now the theaters are without question the most luxurious in the world. Parking can be reserved online. Valet parking doesn’t require a ticket–just your cell phone number so that they can have your perfectly washed car ready for you when you’re done shopping or eating or whatever. Need a new car? Tesla has a dealership right in the mall. There’s also reserved parking for Tesla owners, so once you pop for said ride you never have to look for a space and have readily available chargers.
Not feeling well? The Century City Mall has both a UCLA urgent care clinic designed for walk-ins and, directly below that, there is a more preventive health clinic called NEXT HEALTH (where you can get a B-vitamin IV or cold sculpting or Botox or whatever foo-foo things silly people do in this town to stay looking good.
Hungry? Holy Christ, you have seemingly unlimited options. Mario Batali’s Eataly is the best “grocery store” that I’ve ever seen (beating Zagaras in South Jersey back in the day by a long margin). It has not only Roman pizza fired fresh all day, but also thinner Napolitano pizza, fresh bread, plus a fish monger, an Italian butcher, a cheese store with every truffled-option you can dream of, a woman making fresh burrata (that’s buffalo mozzarella with cream inside) by hand, not to be confused with another woman hand-making white corn agnolotti pasta for the fresh pasta case. Not feeling Italian? Over by the UCLA clinic is Ding Tai Fung, a Taiwanese noodle house founded in 1972 that is the only Michelin Star chain restaurant in the world. They are known for their “soup dumplings,” which are so good that his gigantic restaurant often rocks a two-hour wait.
Like ice cream? There is a high-end ice cream store in one of the walk-by, pop-up store,s but that isn’t very fancy. They also have a strong gelato stand inside of Eataly, but but that doesn’t quite compare to GROM from Turin, which has some of the most dense and intense flavors that you’ve ever tasted. But then again, that’s not even the best place for gelato at the mall. Bacio Di Latte from Milan offers perhaps the most over-the-top frozen desert experience you’ve ever had. Ricotta and Nutella gelato. Cucumber and sweet cream gelato. Five different variations of chocolate for those who can’t get enough of the stuff. Fruit flavors so strong yet with a mouth-feel that’s unlike anything Bryers ever could conceive of. OK, I’m really hungry now.
Wanna buy something? The Westfield Century City Mall has it all, but not things aren’t offered in typical or obvious ways. For example, Bloomingdales has long been a part of the Century City mall, but it’s been reconfigured to be more like the store is in Manhattan, meaning that they have brand specific boutiques over just gross displays of mediocre merchandise. For example, if you wanted a new watch, there’s a Tourneau store inside the Bloomingdales. How’s that? Not good enough? There’s a dedicated Breitling store, as well as a dedicated Rolex store, assuming Tiffany’s didn’t meet your needs with their Patek Philippe inventory.
For technology, there is of course an Apple Store, as well as a Microsoft Store. There also is an Audio Video Center, which is a local AV chain located below the dumpling place from Taiwan selling high performance audio and video. Perhaps not Rolex-level AV stuff, but you can see a beaming OLED Sony or LG TV and some pretty good, mid-level audio.
Hell, even the Kardashians are in on the party, as they have a “pop-up store” with nothing but initials on the plywood in front of the store where the divas from Calabasas sell makeup to the literally hundreds of Valley people lined up for a chance to help that clan become “self-made billionaires,” as if they needed the help.
What’s the lesson here for specialty audio video? There are so many to consider. Let’s face it, the “stereo store” as we know it in nearly all cases around the country is stagnant and likely dying. Typically owned by some dude in his 60s, things haven’t changed much inside the store as the owners tend to be quite risk adverse after all of these years. Said stereo stores demand to make huge profit margins selling high dollar AV products without investing in the overall experience or marketing. And isn’t that the exact opposite of the lesson of the Century City Mall? The Century City Mall isn’t just selling merchandise (although there is plenty of the good stuff); they are selling a good time, a good feeling. I haven’t bought a thing at the redone mall in terms of merchandise but I have done research that led to me buying a new $4,200 Apple Macbook Pro, new Tumi luggage, and more. I return to the mall because Ding Tai Fung is insanely good and every foodie friend of mine wants to eat there and is willing to travel through Los Angeles traffic to do so. Eataly is off-the-chain, but I am often too full from affordable soup dumplings to do too much damage there, but if you came hungry, you could easily rock a $1,000 tab without blinking an eye while loading your pantry with the best Italian provisions known to man. AMEX Platinum Card, you have been warned!
What if the technology (note: I didn’t call it a stereo) store of the future looked like retail at the Century City Mall? What if the AV retailer of the future created an experience where on Saturdays there were cooking classes on their Wolf and Sub-Zero appliances? What if there were movie screenings with movies in 4K that had question and answer sessions afterwards with local film school professors? What if you could experience what an OLED or QLED TV looks like with your best college or NFL team before you invested for your man-cave? What if kids were given guitar, drum, keyboard, bass, or vocal lessons from The School of Rock (or local music teachers) while Dad was listening and said performances were recorded in HD and played back on said high-end system? What Baby Boomer, stuffy-ass, soon-to-go-out-of-business stereo store is doing that? Engaging with a new generation of clients like Century City is doing with rich Millennials who value experiences over tangibles yet seem to be buying plenty of tangibles, too?
There is a severe risk, however, for the specialty AV business: the age-old problem of “build it and they will come”, which has been tried worldwide in high-end audio. I am strongly warning against simply building an expensive stereo store with the best, most fancy rooms that have everything money can buy. That’s a proven global retail failure from Beverly Hills to Las Vegas to Philadelphia to Amsterdam. Just having every AV component known to man doesn’t sell them. What is missing is the experience. What is missing is the user engagement that traditional stereo stores had back in the day when audiophiles would congregate on a Saturday afternoon and trade opinions while picking up a new issue of TAS or Stereophile along with a gold-plated MFSL copy of The Wall to take home and paint the edges green before playing.
There are new ways to get more than old white men involved in specialty AV, and there are stores that do just that all over the country. A good example is Bay Cities (not to be confused with the fine sandwich shop in Santa Monica), which sells all of the most high-end appliances at elegantly appointed showrooms all over West Los Angeles. They also have events where you and your wife experience your aspirational $10,000 Wolf range in action in ways that overcomes Wife Acceptance Factor far better than the typical $10,000 speaker demo. Lexus has a relationship with the Pebble Beach Lodge and The Inn at Spanish Bay that pretty much allows you to grab the keys to one of their cars and tour the majestic 17 Mile Drive in Pebble Beach, thus experiencing the worldly sights, incredible smells and the overall experience–at no cost. Along the same lines, Rolex installs outdoor clocks at some of the world’s most famous golf courses so that when you think Pebble Beach or Carnoustie or wherever, you think Rolex. They want you to associate their brand with good feelings, strong positive emotions, and they are smart to do that. How do audiophile companies do this today? I am not sure other than to say that they should look into it, as it’s brilliant, engaging marketing.
On a positive note, there are retailers today who get the experience concept already; there just aren’t enough of them to make a national splash. Star-Power in Dallas, Scottsdale, and beyond offers everything from Sonos to soundbars, but also sells high end appliances, home finishes like flooring, shades, and beyond. They have 4K screening rooms, as well as game rooms complete with vintage arcade games and golf simulators. They get it.
ABT in Chicago-land does something similar. They embrace the experience. They make a next-level “stereo store” designed to not only get more dollars from the money spent on a higher-end home, but to make the event fun for the entire family.
How would you reinvent specialty AV retail? What caveats would you have for any proposed store (like watching one’s overhead, etc.)? Or is AV (or perhaps all) retail doomed in the long term as some pundits have suggested? There are some that think that in the end there will be very few Century City Malls due to the pervasiveness of Amazon.com or online retailers. Do you buy that? Is physical retail still part of your buying experience? And if so, what brings you in the doors?