BOSTON — WHEN you walk into the Sawgrass Mills shopping center near Fort Lauderdale, Fla., you may not be aware of the sound of birds at first. But listen carefully and you'll hear them. At Gurnee Mills, another large complex near Chicago, you will shop to the sound of crickets chirping in the background.
Why the sounds from nature? It's all a matter of entertainment, says Anne Lipscomb, vice president of marketing for the Washington, D.C.-based Western Development Corporation, creators of the Mills ``megacenters.''
Entertainment has become crucial to a shopping center's success. Larger malls increasingly include movie theaters; food courts; jazz, piano, or vocal concerts; and hands-on merchandising offered by companies such as Nike Town and Nordic Track, where a shopper can test the equipment or even play a quick game of basketball. (Cities try public-private partnerships downtown, Page 9.) The high-tech audio systems in the Fort Lauderdale and Chicago centers make a shopping trip a unique ``Mills experience,'' Ms. Lipscomb says.
The four Mills centers, located near Fort Lauderdale, Chicago, Philadelphia, and Washington, feature everything from food courts with themes (one is modeled after a county fair) to ``Mills TV'' - television monitors dispersed throughout the centers to broadcast advertisements for tenants. Western Development, trying to learn from the Walt Disney Company's success, has given names to parking lots and store entrances at the centers (there is the ``blue dolphin'' entrance, for example).
``Entertainment is just breaking ground,'' says Tom Schriber, president of Donahue Schriber, a Newport Beach, Calif., shopping center developer. ``All the shopping complexes have movie theaters, and we already know that those can work economically,'' he says. But when it comes to incorporating entertainment into shopping centers, ``the question I still have is, `Does it economically make any sense?' ''
Centers are emphasizing entertainment primarily to extend shopping hours, he says. ``The longer you can capture them [consumers] - by eating, movies, or more frequent visits - that's your competitive edge, and that's why we're all looking at this thing.''
Entertainment has made developers stop and think about how to remerchandise their shopping centers, Schriber adds. ``Previously, shopping centers were tenant-driven,'' he says. ``Today, they are more consumer-driven.''
Phipps Plaza, a 25-year-old megacenter in Atlanta managed by Compass Retail Inc., underwent a $140 million renovation in 1992. Seventy-five new stores were added, including the first Nike Town to be located inside a mall. Also with the renovation came a 12-screen movie cinema. ``Shopping itself remains a draw, but centers are competing with many more elements,'' says Bernadette O'Grady Dimauro, marketing manager for Phipps. ``Time is perhaps our greatest competition.''
With more families working and so many demands on their schedules, centers that offer entertainment as well as shopping allow families to spend time together, Ms. O'Grady Dimauro says. ``They serve a dual purpose.''
BUT sometimes ideas for entertainment backfire. In 1989, when Western Development was laying out plans for Franklin Mills, a 1.8-million-square-foot complex near Philadelphia, the company worked with Disney on the concept of using dancers and animated characters throughout the mall. Once the center opened, however, it quickly became apparent that the entertainment component was more of a nuisance than an asset. ``On weekends, the mall is so jammed that these sorts of additions don't enhance a mall experience,'' Lipscomb says.
Demographics usually dictate what kind of entertainment venue will be successful. ``With entertainment, we have to be a lot more sophisticated,'' Schriber says. ``What is entertainment today might not be entertainment tomorrow.... You've invested all your money and time into a concept, but then it becomes passe in five years. The consumer wants something else. Therein lies the risk.''
One solution is to work on broadening the customer base, Lipscomb says. At Sawgrass Mills in Fort Lauderdale, 35 percent of the shoppers are tourists, primarily from South America and Europe, she says. To cater to those customers, the center offers currency exchanges and has a staff of multilingual customer service representatives. The company's tour and travel program has been successful as well.
``All the programs we've added, from Mills TV to tour and travel to the customer service booths increase our labor costs,'' Lipscomb says. ``It's an expense ... but we want to hold on to our niche, and to do that we have to have those additional benefits.''