By  on December 20, 2005

NEW YORK — Anxious about large groups of loitering teens and their potential for disruptive behavior, some U.S. shopping centers have reduced that risk by imposing restrictions to discourage youths from using malls as hangouts.

The shopping center operators have a delicate balancing act. They want to perpetuate safe, family-friendly environments, and also avoid turning off one of retailers' most sought-after age demographics.

Their solution has been to establish adult-supervision policies, which typically require children under the age of 15 or 16 to be accompanied by an adult, defined as a person 21 or older. However, policies differ from mall to mall. Pyramid Management Group, for example, applies the restrictions to teens under 18.

"We did some research and found that 16- and 17-year-olds were some of our most interesting challenges," said Bob Harrington, director of corporate security at Pyramid.

The rules apply to common areas — department stores are exempt because they have separate street-level entrances — and are usually in effect on Fridays and Saturdays from 4 p.m. until closing, which are the heaviest periods of teen use.

The issue of unsupervised teens is high on the shopping center industry's agenda because some youths can be menacing and occasionally violent. What started out as a test about a decade ago has become a more common practice. Seeking to reverse declining traffic — the mere sight of packs of teens is enough to unnerve many shoppers and send them heading toward the door — malls are restricting the hours that unescorted teens can visit.

Centers that have tried it said the effects are profound. "The whole environment and perception of the mall was that it wasn't a pleasant place to shop," said Joe Gistaldo, manager of the Poughkeepsie Galleria in Poughkeepsie, N.Y. "It's paid off in spades. We have tons of strollers on Friday and Saturday nights. It's an environment I've wanted to see for five years."

Before imposing an adult-supervision policy, the Mall of America in Bloomington, Minn., the biggest U.S. mall with 4.2 million square feet of space, had to contend with 11,000 to 14,000 teenagers wandering in packs throughout the 78-acre property on a given day. Other customers, including families, seniors and tourists, were fearful, said Julie Hansen, a mall spokeswoman.So the Mall of America, owned by Simon Property Group, in 1996 began requiring youths under 16 to be accompanied by an individual 21 or older. The policy initially was in effect on Friday and Saturday from 6 p.m. until closing. The rules were recently tightened when the mall determined it needed more coverage and moved the start time to 4 p.m.

"We were essentially a baby-sitter," Hansen said. "We didn't have any serious incidents, but we were afraid we would."

The year before the Mall of America put its policy into place there were 300 incidents involving teens, which ranged from menacing to aggravated assault and petty theft. That number shrank to two in 1996. "We don't really have any incidents now," Hansen said. "Does shoplifting happen here? Of course. Do kids ride on the escalators the wrong way? Of course. But we haven't had anything serious happen."

A survey this year by the International Council of Shopping Centers revealed that 28 of the 125 centers responding, or 20 percent, had imposed the teen restrictions. The majority were instituted within the last three or four years. There are about 1,000 shopping malls in the U.S.

"One of the reasons we're talking to our members is because we've been getting more calls about parental escort policies in the last two years," said a spokeswoman for the ICSC. Simon Property Group, as well as mall owners Taubman Co., General Growth Properties, Pyramid Management Group and CBL said escort policies are used at certain centers.

By restricting the hours they can visit the mall unescorted, centers risk losing business and offending a major constituency. Sixty-eight percent of youths aged 12 to 19 spend time at a mall in any given week, according to the market research group Teenage Research Unlimited. On average, teens spend 3.5 hours at the mall each week. They spent about $170 billion in 2004, or an average of about $91 per week.

While the current teen cohort is shrinking, they will continue to be important to retailers. Tweens, now aged eight to 12, are expected to grow at twice the rate of the general population through 2010, TRU research shows."It's always a fine line because you have a group of retailers who cater to teens," said David Levenberg, vice president of security and loss prevention at General Growth Properties. "Other stores say these kids aren't my customers and they're driving away my customers. There's the importance of the teen segment — they're going to be lifelong shoppers."

Malls with adult-supervision requirements don't necessarily have similar characteristics. Of the five malls among Pyramid Companies' 21 centers in the Northeast, some cater to working-class customers and others to more affluent shoppers. The common denominator is that all are in or near large metropolitan areas where crime among teens is an issue, said Harrington.

"Sometimes they go too far and get into arguments and turf battles," Harrington said. Once the policies are in place, however, teens mostly abide by the rules. None of the mall executives interviewed said they have had a problem enforcing the rules. "The kids do show up unescorted occasionally," Harrington said. "We've had very good luck in implementing the programs. There have been very few instances where we had to involve the police to escort people out."

In addition to the Mall of America, Simon Property's Pheasant Lane Mall in Nashua, N.H., and Town Center at Auroa in Aurora, Colo., have policies aimed at teens.

Security directors said the adult-supervision requirements have not been challenged in court. "From what I understand, it's not an issue because it is private property," Harrington said.

Teen-oriented retailers at the Mall of America — there are about 60 — initially opposed the escort plan. "Some store owners thought their business would decline," Hansen said. "Now they're behind it 100 percent. The kids coming in weren't really shopping. The kids just wanted to come and be seen. We've seen a huge decline in unsupervised kids. The retailers seem to think it's worth it."

Still, some teen-oriented retailers are less than enthusiastic.

"I don't think there's a mainstream problem with teenagers and a need to institute a systematic curfew," said Tom Lenox, a spokesman for Abercrombie & Fitch and its Hollister and abercrombie divisions. "I didn't know there was a problem with gang warfare at the Mall of America. I'm not sure of what the order of magnitude is for this.""Our customer is between 7 and 14 years of age, so usually a parent or guardian brings her to the mall in the first place," said Too Inc.'s vice president of investor relations, Robert Atkinson. "Staying too late or running around on their own is not really a problem, therefore we don't take a proactive position on the issue. They might be shopping in our store by themselves, but somebody had to bring them to the mall. Our customer is exclusively female, and girls usually pose less of a security issue than boys. She's usually under the supervision of an adult. If it's an item of any expense, it's mom and dad who have the credit card, so I don't think we're losing a customer."

Sue Mills, the owner of Glitz, which sells prom gowns and eveningwear at the Mall of America, prefers that teens shop with an adult in her store since the dresses are expensive. While Glitz never attracted hordes of youths, Mills was uncomfortable when they came into the store unescorted.

"How can you be polite when you know the kids are playing with a $500 gown," she said, noting that Glitz customers are in the 13- to 15-year-old age range. "It's hard to see your beautiful gowns being played with. Yet in two years these kids are our prom business. We need them to be here."

At Fairlane Town Center in Dearborn, Mich., general manager Cathy O'Malley said stores saw a slight decline in sales when the escort policy was put in place last year and food court tenants experienced the biggest declines. "The kids have found a way to shop up until 5 o'clock," she said. "After 5 p.m., anyone under the age of 15 has to be accompanied by an adult."

Before the policy, there was less business being done and more frequent confrontations between teens and mall security staff, O'Malley said. "We really had to take control of the center and make parents and guardians take control of the kids."

A key to the success of Fairlane's program was meeting with community leaders before the plan was introduced. "Our market consists of very strong Hispanic/Latino, Muslin and African American communities in Dearborn," she said. "We wanted to make sure we spoke to each of those communities in their own language."Community leaders suggested that the mall impose the policy throughout the week rather than Friday and Saturday only. They also came up with the idea of limiting the number of children an adult can accompany.

"Local leaders said, ‘What are we going to do with them when you put them back in our communities,'" O'Malley said. "We partnered with the Boys and Girls Clubs of Southeastern Michigan to publicize a calendar of events. I wish there were more activities for kids. We keep going back out into the community to make sure we don't need to tweak our program."

Before resorting to the escort policy, the Poughkeepsie Galleria, which is anchored by Filene's, J.C. Penney, Target and Sears, tried adding security guards. "That didn't solve the obnoxious behavior and foul language," said Gistaldo. "We paid two police officers then bumped it up to four."

When the center instituted an escort requirement on Sept. 9, there was an immediate effect, Gistaldo said. "We did an informal survey of our tenants and 90 percent were in favor of the policy. I've seen quite a few kids who used to come alone now coming with their parents. Instead of a T-shirt, their parents are spending $60."

Adult-supervision policies can have other positive effects. Peter Berardi, general manager of the Galleria Crystal Run, a Middletown, N.Y., center with Loews Theaters, Dicks Sporting Goods, Filene's, J.C. Penney, Sears and Target, said shoplifting has fallen substantially since the policy was imposed. While Berardi had no statistics, anecdotal information from tenants points is strong. "It's stepped down enough for them to tell us," he said.

Four of CBL's 79 malls have moved to escort policies. Hamilton Place in Chatanooga, Tenn., Columbia Place in Columbia, S.C., Southpark Mall in Richmond, Va., and Old Hickory Mall in Jackson, Tenn. "The kids were attempting to use the malls in a manner that wasn't its intended purpose," a spokeswoman said. "Our policy goes from 6 p.m. until 9 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays. It only applies to six hours of the total shopping hours per week and it's been successful in creating a family-friendly environment."Levenberg of General Growth, however, said there are other ways to control teens, including codes of conduct that define unacceptable behavior and special training for security staff on how to interact with youths. "If they continue to be a problem we may ask them to leave the property for a period of time, such as six months or several years," he said.

General Growth has also tried to schedule family-oriented events on weekends, and activities just for teens such as concerts and a shopping night called the Scene.

Other malls have been even more creative. Rivertown Crossings Mall in Grandville, Mich., has a high entertainment and dining component with a 20-screen Cinemark Theaters and restaurants such Chili's, Olive Garden, On the Border and Bob Evans. The mall, which is near a high school, opened a school store selling logo merchandise staffed by students who use the experience to learn about retailing.

"There are a lot of things that can be done short of curfews," Levenberg said. "In our portfolio of 220 properties, only one has a escort policy. Our view is that an escort policy is the last resort."

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