The pageantry that marked the reinvention of Santa Monica Place eight years ago attracted thousands of people who lined up to see the new, airy iteration of the outdoor mall. News reports from the time describe bouncing beach balls on the third floor as locals lined up for gift cards, discounts, ocean views and access to the new rows of luxury tenants like Juicy Couture and Tiffany and Co.

In contrast, the current shift in downtown’s open-air mall is subtle, noted by a trickle of press releases announcing new tenants that mark a departure from the luxury retailers who moved in a decade ago. The lines outside pop-up art experience Candytopia signal a new phase for the mall as the retail industry grapples with a national phenomenon attributed to online shopping: the retail apocalypse.

“What we’re doing is giving that mall credibility that they think out of the box,” said Candytopia co-founder and CEO John Goodman, who says the four-month tribute to candy drew 25,000 visitors in March. After decades steering mall staples like Wet Seal and Charlotte Russe, retail veteran Goodman says times have changed.   Goodman views the temporary lease as a boon to malls looking for new ways to attract millennials accustomed to buying the things they need with a swipe or a click. A $30 dollar ticket to Candytopia gets you as many Instagram selfies and Snapchat stories as you can take.

After the July 4th weekend, Candytopia will pack up and move to a new mall in a new city.

“The whole mall experience has to ‘iterate,’” Goodman said, using the term associated with constant reinvention in the tech world. “I call it shoppertainment. There has to be a reason to drive into a mall when otherwise they can shop online. What’s the experience that’s going to do that?”

Candytopia is not the only experience hoping to draw crowds to Santa Monica Place. In fact, the third floor of the mall will not have a single clothing store by the end of the year. Instead, it will have the Arclight movie theater, a children’s museum, an expanded cooking school, a tech entrepreneur academy, and restaurants. The mall’s top marketing manager says those businesses will draw both locals and tourists who support more traditional stores on the floors below.

“Twenty years ago you would see mostly apparel at the mall and now you see so many types of things that sort of make an experience,” said Stephanie Eglin, the senior marketing manager for Santa Monica Place in an interview with the Daily Press. Eglin still considers Nordstrom and Bloomingdales as key anchors to the mall, in addition to the theater and the museum.

Eglin says the mall is transitioning at a critical time for retail. The carefully orchestrated makeover by the mall’s owner, Macerich, comes as the ‘retail apocalypse’ dooms suburban malls across America. USC marketing professor Anthony Dukes says 2018 will continue to be a year of upheaval for retailers competing in the digital age.

“There are websites dedicated to dead malls,” Dukes said. “Locally, we’re seeing a transformation. Look at Westside Pavilion. They’re going to lease a lot of that space to offices now.”

In March, the ownership behind the mall made famous in movies like Clueless announced 500,000 square feet of the mall will be converted into “creative office space” leaving just 100,000 square feet for shopping, restaurants and a movie theater. Macerich once owned a part of the Westside Pavilion but sold their portion last November.

Dukes says online shopping isn’t the only trend threatening malls. He says younger people simply don’t drive as often as previous generations. Too many tenants, the recent opening of the Expo Line across the street from Santa Monica Place is crucial to their enduring success. The CEO of the future Cayton Children’s Museum that will open later this year says Santa Monica’s public transit, nearby parking garages, and wide sidewalks were key factors in their decision to move into the mall. Once open, the museum is expected to draw 300,000 visitors a year through exhibitions and programming.

Management at the mall says residents can expect to see more changes in the future. Public documents reveal Tesla has considered a move from the Promenade into Santa Monica Place. Macerich’s Vice President of Property Management says the rest of downtown should embrace new ideas as more national chains close up shop.

“We are so technology driven and innovative in this particular location,” Julia Ladd said. “It’s a magnet for attracting diversity and testing the waters.”

Kate Cagle

Senior reporter for the Santa Monica Daily Press