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Chicago Daily Herald
Roaming around Stratford Square Mall in the early 2000s with his friends, Ryan LeBreux of Bloomingdale thought it would be cool to work there — to hit up the food court on his break or preside over the scene as a worker, not just a kid. Now he does. LeBreux is the founder and owner of L.I.F.T. Academy, a small-group fitness training center that moved last June from the other side of town to a spot inside the mall. His decision was based a tad on nostalgia, but experts say it's also part of a trend that's reshaping many suburban malls, as more fitness and self-care facilities set up shop in traditional retail settings to attract a different type of patron.
"To eventually become a tenant in the same mall that I spent so much time going to as a kid, that meant a lot to me," said LeBreux, 32. But, he said, he also thought "I would be able to reach even more people by having more of a presence in such a big center located in the heart of Bloomingdale." Experts say an increasing number of malls are adding boutique fitness centers and specialty salons as they strive to expand their reach with more experience-based businesses.
Experiences such as eyebrow shaping, waxing or workouts are "internet-resistant" things it's impractical or impossible to do online, said Joe Parrott, senior vice president of retail services at the real estate firm CBRE. Malls are adding them to their list of tenants to match "the way society shops." The move follows a long-established trend of adding entertainment options such as movie theaters and bowling alleys.
Hawthorn Mall in Vernon Hills, for example, features AMC Theaters and Dave & Buster's, a sports bar and gaming center; Fox Valley in Aurora has a new Round1 bowling and amusement center; Woodfield in Schaumburg has Level 257, a "PAC-MAN"-themed restaurant, bowling alley and game lounge; and Stratford Square has a Cinemark movie theater, a Round1 and ToPlayVR, a virtual reality gaming center. Parrott said the self-care push represents another way mall owners are trying to diversify and stay relevant.
Yorktown Center in Lombard began creating what it calls a "self-care precinct" last summer; Stratford Square, lists several businesses under a "Performance" category in its directory; and Hawthorn includes a Ballroom Dance Studio and two specialty massage businesses. There aren't any gyms or specialty fitness centers at Woodfield, spokeswoman Bonni Pear said, but the mega-center boasts a makeover studio, an eyebrow art salon, a relaxation center and The Art of Shaving, which offers barber services and aromatherapy for men.
Not surprisingly, industry experts say it is young adults driving the charge toward niche self-care businesses. Millennials "seeking experiences and self-fulfillment" are willing to spend on dining, entertainment and exercise trends, Yorktown General Manager Todd Hiepler said. Shoppers are looking for multipurpose destinations, he said, that can check off several items from a to-do list and make it fun to boot. That fits with Melissa Ohlson's women-focused fitness center, The Barre Code, which opened last June as the first of Yorktown's "self-care precinct" shops. Roughly 100 clients take classes in cardio, strength training and restoration each month, and they love the convenience of hitting other stores after a workout, Ohlson said.
"It's a quick and easy place where you can also run errands, grab coffee, do your own thing," she said. "It has more of a community feel." Community is exactly what mall managers are going for when they incorporate lifestyle and experiential businesses. Malls are planning more events to highlight the things people can do and new experiential businesses are finding synergy with shops selling related goods.
"It's been interesting to watch the dynamic as these owner-operators cross-promote with each other and with our retailers," Yorktown's Hiepler said. The mall's self-care precinct is "becoming a broader community that we never had before."
As frequent shoppers, moms also are finding a new niche. Both Yorktown and Stratford Square offer FIT4MOM classes, which use walkways and play areas as workout zones for mothers pushing strollers. FIT4MOM Lombard franchise owner Lesley Lehman moved to the mall in mid-2016 as the self-care trend began taking hold. She said classes with at least 10 moms begin at 9 a.m. — an hour before the mall opens — and feature power-walking for interval and circuit workouts.
Afterward, many moms take their kids to the mall's free play area or a bounce house business called Funflatables. "Moms stay and shop after," she said. "They say, 'I have a return,' or, 'I'm heading to H & M or Baby Gap,' or, 'There's coffee.'" As micro-gyms and new beauty options begin filling storefronts, shoppers are adjusting their expectations, said Stacy Kallas, Stratford Square marketing director.
The center now includes a "street soccer" play center, a dance studio, a skating center, a jiu jitsu studio, LeBreux's L.I.F.T. Academy, a FIT4MOM group meeting spot and even a Bloomingdale Park District satellite location where kids do martial arts and parents do yoga. "People are opening their minds to seeing more at shopping centers than just retail," Kallas said. "It's working for us."
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