Retail and COVID-19: What the pandemic could mean for WNY malls

Posted at 11:51 PM, May 07, 2020
and last updated 2020-05-07 23:54:38-04

BUFFALO, N.Y. (WKBW) — As the COVID-19 pandemic continues, retailers are reeling across the country, and here in Western New York.

“More than any other sector, the retail sector was already struggling before this,” Charles Lindsey, retail expert and a associate professor at the School of Management at University at Buffalo, said. He continued, “I don’t think in-store spending is ever going to go back to the way it was.”

Lindsey said three factors led to the decline in the American mall before the pandemic. This as stores like Toys ‘R Us and Sears declared bankruptcy prior to the pandemic.

  1. Online pressures
  2. Discount store competition
  3. Overbuilding issues

“For the last five to ten years, it’s been tough across the nation and also in Western New York,” Lindsey said.

7 Eyewitness News reporter Nikki DeMentri asked: “So if you add the pandemic on top of it, what does it mean for the retail world in Western New York? Across the country.”

Lindsey responded: “It’s devastating.”

Starting this week, more stores are doing the same in filing for bankruptcy. J.Crew became the first on Monday. Reuters reported Lord & Taylor considering to do the same. They are an anchor tenant at the Walden Galleria.

“This is just the beginning,” Lindsey said.

The future of malls and retailers was already changing from in-store experiences to online. The pandemic, Lindsey said, only accelerates the transition

“This is really going to require malls and retailers to reimagine,” Lindsey said.

In New York, reopening is happening in stages.

“To say well we either have to have a strong economy or protect public health. No. That’s a false choice. It’s not one of the other, it’s both,” New York Governor Andrew Cuomo said in a press conference Thursday.

A specific date remains a question, but when places like malls do reopen, Lindsey said it’s important to see what worked and didn’t in other states. Regardless of when stores do reopen, Lindsey says many consumers won’t be first in line. Alongside lower consumer confidence, Western New York’s unique advantage of being near the border and attracting Canadian shoppers could also hurt with the border closed.

“There’s going to be a lag. I don’t think anybody knows how long that lag is going to last, how many quarters, before consumer confidence comes back,” Lindsey said.

He predicts seeing more mixed use, lifestyle centers, but adds places already transitioning like the Boulevard Mall and Eastern Hills Mall will also be affected.

Lindsey said the only way for these retailers to survive is to get creative. Things like curbside pickup, click and pick options and appointment viewing could become the new norm.

“Retailers in Western New York have shown and retailers nationwide have shown they do have an ability to reinvent themselves,” Lindsey said.