Marketplace makeover: Owner of Sandusky Mall works to keep it relevant as times change

Joe Bell has read the death notices.

“People have been writing the obituary for American malls for at least 15 years, sometimes longer,” says the director of corporate communications for the Cafaro Company, owner of Sandusky Mall in Perkins Township. “I remember talking to a guy back in around 2000, 2001, and he said, ‘You know, in five years, your business is going to be dead.’

“So much for soothsaying,” Bell adds. 

Cafaro is based in NIles, Ohio, home to its Eastwood Mall, and has several other properties in the state, a handful in Virginia and a few in other states – as far away as Washington.

Bell does acknowledge that this isn’t the heyday of the American mall, but says it still has its place. 

“Our retired president (Anthony Cafaro Sr.) used to tell me all the time, ‘Since the dawn of civilization, there has always been a marketplace of some sort, a place where people go to buy their goods, see their neighbors, maybe gossip a little bit, maybe get something to eat – that sort of thing,’” recounts Bell, who’s been with the company nearly 15 years. “It’s a gathering place, and that is our vision for what a good shopping mall should be: a place that serves a need in the community – not just for selling goods and services but as a place for people to relax and to socialize.

“Mall owners that take that attitude and are willing to make changes into the way they populate their malls – they’re going to survive.”

Surviving since its debut in March 1976, Sandusky Mall has been getting an ongoing facelift from Cafaro in recent years. 

Because of the loss of certain “anchor” stores, such as Macy’s and Sears, and because the big-box stores of today, such as Best Buy and HomeGoods, don’t take up as much room, Cafaro has made some physical changes to the layout involving demolition work to separate some of the structures. 

“(We) decided to create spaces where people could drive up and access some of their favorite stores more easily,” Bell says.

More recently have come interior improvements, such as new decor, LED lighting, carpeting and seating, with the latter not quite a finished aspect as of this conversation.

The mall over the last several months also has seen new tenants, including clothing stores Daily Thread and the locally owned D.Hilly, as well as Bubble House Ice Cream and Cell Fix.

“There are still some (mall) staples,” Bell says. “There are still Spencer’s. There’s still Kay Jewelers. There's still Auntie Anne’s pretzels, places like that. But you’ll find some different types of things, like, for instance, Bubble (House). That’s a new type of refreshment that’s just been introduced into the marketplace in recent years.”

Along with increased “diversity” in dining options, Bell expects more service businesses to take up residency at Sandusky Mall.

“For instance,” he says, “you get things like cell phone repair, and you’ll see services that lean toward health care – perhaps doctors, dentists, that sort of thing.”

What’s the sales pitch to a prospective tenant?

“Well, what we can point to are the demographics and the concentration of traffic that goes through there,” Bell says. “When you look at the stats, you’ll find it’s a very busy place. … We’re talking millions of people a year, (including) those folks who are from out of town who may need that last-minute thing or that last-minute service.”

The traffic is a big reason Billy Hill, the owner of D.Hilly, which caters largely to younger men, chose the mall for his new business late last year.

“I spent about a year just sitting in the mall – different times of the day, different days,” Hill says. “And when I walked in there during back-to-school (season), the traffic was ridiculous. I mean, I was really upset that I wasn’t in there already.”

Speaking of young people, teens and tweens long have made a mall the spot for a hangout. Is that still the case?

“They spend more time on their devices than they ever did before,” Bell says, “and so that is a challenge.”

How to meet that challenge? It’s all about the “BOPUS,” he says. 

For those unfamiliar with the acronym, that’s “buy online, pick up in store.”

“Everybody in the retail industry has aimed their marketing toward those who buy on electronic devices – or more likely preview the types of merchandise on electronic devices,” Bell says. “You’ll have people who like to sort of showroom it on (their) phone and find out what’s in the store – and then go take a run over to the shopping mall to purchase it.”

And in this era of FaceTime and Zoom, a virtual hang may be fine for some, but not everyone.

“In the words of one of our current leaders, Anthony Cafaro Jr., ‘You can’t have lunch with your best friend on your smartphone,’” Bell says.

He promises the company will continue to work to keep Sandusky Mall – which is soon to open an apartment complex, the Villas at Sandy Creek – relevant to the community.

“I urge people to keep their eyes open because more changes are coming and more additions will be arriving at the mall. It may not be tomorrow, but within the next year or two, you’re going to see new offerings there that address the needs of people.”