How online shopping and Covid changed mall tenants


Long gone are the days families would spend Saturdays at the shopping mall, lounging near the fountain with an Orange Julius or flitting from Thom McAn to Cavages to Waldenbooks.

Edie Lee creates a variety of paintings of artifacts and pop culture figures at Cool Ass Art in Eastern Hills Mall.

Most of the stores shoppers remember visiting in malls aren’t there anymore. If they haven’t gone out of business, they have headed for greener pastures in strip malls or other non-enclosed locations.

Sure, malls still have their stalwarts such as Spencer’s Gifts, Hot Topic and Bath and Body Works. And Walden Galleria and Fashion Outlets of Niagara Falls USA are in a league of their own.

But you’ll have as much of a chance of finding a psychic or a wrestling match – or even a church – in today’s malls as you would a food court or a shoe store.

As online shopping slowed foot traffic to a crawl and Covid-19 put the nail in its coffin, the Boulevard, Eastern Hills and McKinley malls have had to get creative to fill a growing amount of vacant space and lure people in. Even the Walden Galleria is branching out into more of a shopping and entertainment mix.

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Empty storefronts are the reason why malls are adapting. And it is still an uphill struggle. Around 44% of the space in the McKinley Mall remains vacant.

With fewer shoppers, malls have cut their hours. They have also had to be less strict about requiring shops to stay open during all mall hours – which means you might be hard-pressed to find more than a handful of shops open on a Monday or outside of peak hours.

Things have been especially complicated as Boulevard Mall and Eastern Hills Mall wait in limbo to be transformed into outdoor, walkable town centers, and McKinley goes through another ownership change.

If you haven’t been to a mall in a while, you might not recognize it.

Cool Ass Art

Spiritual adviser and artist Edie Lee organizes tarot cards on a table in her store, Cool Ass Art, in Eastern Hills Mall. “We haven’t even advertised, and people are coming in,” Lee says.

New ways to keep cash registers ringing

Nickel City Wrestling, owned by Steven Stroh Sr., held its practice at Dipson Theatre in Eastern Hills Mall on Thursday, June 8, 2023. This is…

“I’m not looking for your traditional mall tenant,” said Dalton Drake, events coordinator at Eastern Hills Mall. “I’m looking for a business that doesn’t mind being in a mall and can work with any event we bring in.”

In the absence of traditional mall traffic drawn by long-gone anchor stores such as Sears and AM&A’s, Drake works to stage events that bring in people who might stick around to visit other tenants afterward.

Roughly 30% of tenants at Eastern Hills have contract agreements to pay the mall a percentage of their sales, on top of their monthly rent, so higher foot traffic is in everyone’s best interest.

Beyond Van Gogh (copy)

The immersive “Beyond Van Gogh” exhibit in the Eastern Hills Mall parking lot drew half a million visitors in 2021.

The immersive Beyond Van Gogh exhibit in 2021 drew a half million people. The annual Off-Broadway Farmers and Artisans Market, which started as a way to scoop up displaced Broadway Market vendors, regularly brings in more than 1,000 shoppers. And an animal adopt-a-thon brought in 1,400 people a day, leading to 500 adoptions and plenty of runoff traffic for tenants. Other events bring in numbers just as strong: car shows, festivals, carnivals and, soon, the World’s Biggest Bounce House.

Tenants said they can rely on events to keep cash registers ringing and – for nonprofit organizations – donations flowing. But often, as was the case with such tenants as New Age shop Alchemy of Spirits, events sometimes bring new tenants.

“I love to watch people go from a 6-foot table at an event to a 1,000-square-foot store and then keep building and taking off,” Drake said.

Edie Lee has been serving as a spiritual adviser and selling art professionally since she was 14. At Eastern Hills Mall, she has a combination gallery space – where she sells paintings ranging from $300 to $2,000 – and a curtained reading corner where she reads clients’ tarot cards. She is part of a wave of psychics, mediums and Wiccans that have set up shop at area malls with their crystals, candles and New Age philosophy.

Typically, Lee had made her living at home, doing commissioned pet portraits and selling at art fairs and craft shows on the weekends. At one such event, Drake coaxed her into taking on her own space in the mall. Just 20 days into her soft opening, she sold 14 paintings, covering her lease payment in just one sale.

“We haven’t even advertised, and people are coming in. And in this area, they buy,” Lee said, referring to the surrounding affluent demographics in Clarence and Williamsville.

Lee organizes the mall’s popular psychic fairs that bring in dozens of psychics and thousands of people for on-the-spot readings. She does paint nights, where groups paint while she takes them aside for one-on-one “life readings;” and she’s in the process of setting up after-hours ghost hunting walks in the mall with paranormal investigator and star of Travel channel’s “Ghost Adventurers” Nick Groff.

Cool Ass Art

Edie Lee’s store at Eastern Hills Mall offer’s paint nights and “life-readings” and she is in the process of setting up after-hours ghost hunting walks in the mall.

Not in the mood for a medium? How about a punch in the face?

At McKinley Mall, Schaffer MMA offers a variety of mixed martial arts and muay thai classes – those that get athletes ready to beat each other senseless in cage fights.

McKinley Mall is also home to Red Dragon School of Martial Arts, a tamer, more traditional martial arts dojo.

Eastern Hills Mall boasts not one, but two professional wrestling companies. Nickel City Wrestling and Buffalo Wrestling Academy.

Nickel City Wrestling Practice

Owner/head trainer Steven Stroh Sr. jumps off ring rope while being guided by Brad Barringer during a Nickel City Wrestling practice on Thursday, June 8, 2023.

Nickel City’s wrestlers have been known to jog around the mall in character – and one pair even crashed through the mall’s fountains during a sold-out match in the main concourse.

“We were looking for a permanent home, and we found it at Eastern Hills,” said Steve Stroh, Nickel City’s owner.

The company was formerly based in warehouse spaces in North Tonawanda and Niagara Falls.

“It’s affordable and it’s a more comfortable experience for fans,” Stroh said.

Food Court Skatepark

In this February photo, Weldon Jones skates at the future location of Food Court Skatepark at the McKinley Mall.

Malls’ wide-open spaces make them a perfect fit for other types of athletes looking to practice their sports, too. McKinley Mall will soon host Food Court Skate Park – a 16,000-square-foot, indoor skateboarding park designed by San Diego-based Ramp Carnies, the same company that builds courses for the X Games and pro skater Tony Hawk.

Sports Performance Park in the Eastern Hills Mall has a bricklike façade that looks like a baseball stadium. The interior is nearly as cavernous. At roughly 60,000 square feet, it boasts two baseball diamonds with AstroTurf, a dozen batting cages and six pitching mounds.

It started as a baseball and softball facility where athletes could practice their skills, and has now branched out into other sports, including pickleball. It also has chiropractic services, training schools and a crossfit gym on site, as well as a pro shop selling sports gear.

Nickel City Wrestling Practice

At roughly 60,000 square feet, Sports Performance Park in Eastern Hills Mall boasts two baseball diamonds, a dozen batting cages and six pitching mounds.

The fun and games don’t stop there.

McKinley Mall has Bison City Cornhole, which hosts leagues and individual play of the game that involves tossing a bean bag through a hole in a wooden board.

Boulevard Mall has Buffalo Bridge Center, a nonprofit social club that hosts bridge card games sanctioned by the American Contract Bridge League. It also offers bridge lessons and supervised play.

Eastern Hills Mall has Bison Billiards, a lavish pool hall with 18 tables of varying styles.

Western New York Garden Railway Society couldn’t have found a better way to showcase its members’ meticulous train displays than its glass-front spot at McKinley Mall. Even when the space is closed, a bright red button invites passersby to press it and activate the trains down the track.

Consumerism gives way to community and collectibles

Mckinley Mall (copy)

The McKinley Mall, where shoppers can visit Tabby Town, a no-kill cat adoption shelter. Around 44% of the space at the mall remains vacant.

Nonprofit organizations have found a good fit in malls – which put them closer to the communities they serve. Rather than hiding their message in an office park, they directly reach people who might be willing to donate time or money, or might need to use the services themselves.

Tabby Town at McKinley, a no-kill cat adoption shelter, brings its furry fosters up close and personal with those who might be able to provide them a forever home.

Most people have never heard of Sleep in Heavenly Peace – a volunteer organization that builds and delivers beds to families who need them – unless they have walked past their storefront at Eastern Hills.

The Hope Project of WNY looks like a home store, but it’s another nonprofit organization that lets those in need “shop” for housewares, clothing and other basic necessities for free. And Mats for a Mission weaves sleeping mats for the homeless using donated plastic bags.

“It’s been a wonderful opportunity for the community to check us all out while shopping at the mall,” said Gail Potter, Mats for a Mission’s founder. “We’ve had so many people walk in to learn more about what we do because of it. We’ve actually gained quite a few new volunteers because of that opportunity.”

Eastern Hills Mall (copy)

The Eastern Hills Mall contains multiple churches, including Epic Church, housed in a former Sears Auto Center, and Vessel Church, in a former Brooks Brothers store.

Malls have been accused of being shrines to consumerism – now they have actual shrines. Epic Church, led by Free Methodist-ordained Pastor Mark Rouse, has made its home in the former Sears Auto Center at Eastern Hills. Vessel Church, with its rousing music and Jesus-centered message, fills a former Brooks Brothers store. The arrangement works: Churches bring their flocks, and the faithful hopefully flock to the mall’s stores and eateries after service.

Buffalo loves to thrift – and here's where they go

Buffalonians love their thrift stores, and new Google search data pulled by EmpireStakes.com shows the Buffalo region is near the top of the list when it comes to the number of thrift stores it has and the frequency it searches for thrift stores.

Western New Yorkers love to go thrifting and antiquing. As a result, consignment and collectible shops at community malls are thriving. Niagara Emporium at Eastern Hills Mall has 75,000 square feet filled with everything from like-new furniture and decor to rare Hot Wheels cars, metal Genesee beer trays and taxidermied animals in the former Macy’s department store. Vaughn Collectibles Rising Sun, with its giant collection of Funko Pops and sports memorabilia, is about to nearly triple its space at Eastern Hills. And What’s in Your Attic? has enough business to support two locations, at Eastern Hills and McKinley malls.

The consignment model works even for nonconsignment stores. Some shops will often take on extra merchandise from outside vendors for a price when they’ve got extra space, then take a portion of the profits when the merchandise sells.

Collectibles shops, which buy and sell things such as Pokémon cards, action figures and other collectibles, are thriving at community malls. Because they also do swift business online, they need affordable space to store and ship their goods. Hobby Spirit, which specializes in Japanese imports, also hosts Dungeons and Dragons tournaments; and Pallet Town Poke Shop at Boulevard Mall specializes in Pokémon trading cards and all things Pokémon.

“People love that collectible merchandise,” said Russell Fulton, Eastern Hills Mall manager.

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