Pricey American Dream mall makes huge bet on 'experiential retail'

NEW YORK (AFP) – Former Olympic skier Lindsey Vonn was among the luminaries on hand last month to christen “Big Snow,” North America’s first indoor ski facility, part of a new US$5 billion (S$6.7 billion) mega-mall in New Jersey.

For about US$30, consumers can ski for two hours on a 300-metre hill of man-made snow, the glare of the sun replaced by a metal ceiling in a venue that will be kept below freezing even in the dog days of August.

Big Snow is a flagship experience at the partially opened “American Dream,” an ambitious, long-in-the-making project about 30km from Manhattan that aims to reboot the shopping mall concept for the Instagram era.

The project, which garnered some US$1 billion in state and local incentives, is a bet that modern shoppers will be drawn to Vegas-like attractions plus elite shopping and dining opportunities and not fixate on the project’s carbon footprint, which is unknowable at this point.

After numerous delays and fitful construction that spanned more than a decade, American Dream began welcoming visitors in October, its gleaming white edifice beckoning drivers off the New Jersey highway.

Besides indoor skiing, visitors can try about two dozen rides at the Nickelodeon Universe theme park or skate on an NHL-size rink. A giant Dreamworks water park is behind schedule, having missed a deadline for November launch. Most shops open in the spring with hotels coming some time later.

“It’s just going to get bigger and better and crazier!” developer Don Ghermezian of Triple Five Worldwide said at the Big Snow’s launch.

Canada-based Triple Five is working to build similar projects in Saudi Arabia and Miami, although some Florida officials have opposed using public funds for the project.

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While there will be a fast fashion atrium, much of the retail focus is on the high-end, with developers envisioning Hermes customers being served champagne.

American Dream expects 40 to 50 million visitors annually, including a healthy number of international tourists who are being targeted by marketers.

The mall plans a “Secret Garden” area with living moss and an aviary with live bunnies, as well as a koi pond.

Such spaces, plus showcase areas for celebrity appearances, are tailor-made for younger generations active on social media, although the overall character of the facility may put off those focused on sustainable shopping.

American Dream will use massive amounts of energy and exacerbate air pollution because of extra traffic, said Jeff Tittel, director of the Sierra Club’s New Jersey chapter and a long-time foe of the project.

“It’s sort of like the Dracula that keeps coming back and each time the mall gets bigger and there’s more public money going into it” he added.

American Dream declined through a spokesman to comment on whether younger consumers focused on the environment might be turned off.

‘OUT-OF-THE-BOX RETAIL’

The project, originally dubbed “Xanadu,” dates to 2004, before the financial crisis and long before the e-commerce revolution doomed many retailers and older malls.

In 2011, then-governor Chris Christie brought in Triple Five, which owns the Mall of America in Minneapolis, to revive the project, which was halted because of financial problems facing its earlier developers.

Triple Five resumed construction in 2013, revamping the center to appeal to shifting consumer taste.

The company spent the first year or so “ripping out everything and we started essentially fresh,” said an American Dream spokeswoman.

“We punched out skylights, we widened hallways, we made it feel much more expansive.”

When the project is finished, it is expected to be 55 per cent entertainment and 45 per cent retail.

Retailers are required by contract to do something “extremely out of the box or experiential” to open in American Dream, the spokeswoman said.

For example, sweets shop IT’SUGAR opened what it is calling a “candy department store” on three levels to qualify.

Jim Hughes, a Rutgers University professor specializing in the New Jersey economy, said American Dream has a “positive chance” because of its focus on experiential retail, but that there will be “a lot of skepticism” given the project’s chequered history and uncertainty surrounding retail in general.

“It’s going to take a long time to get everything up and running,” Mr Hughes told AFP in an interview.

Neil Saunders, managing director of GlobalData Retail, said the offerings at American Dream were different and promising. But he said due to North New Jersey’s bad traffic and the existence of other malls in the area, the location was not ideal.

“The honest truth is there’s already more than enough retail provision in that area, you don’t need a new mall, even if its fancy and shiny and has lots of interesting things in it,” Mr Saunders said.

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