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Two different types of shopping centers on Empire Street in east Bloomington point to the future of retail.

Empire Crossing, an outdoor shopping center on the north side of the street, has experienced renewed business since 2016 with the redevelopment of the former Kmart and Circuit City stores in the once largely vacant Colonial Plaza Shopping Center.

The two big box store sites are now occupied by PetSmart, Dick's Sporting Goods, HomeGoods, Five Below, Carter's, Oshkosh B'gosh and DSW-Designer Shoe Warehouse. They are among 27 retail shops, several restaurants and other businesses offering furniture, tires, loans, and hair, nail, spa and tax services.

"I think smaller stores in general are making comebacks," said Rob Karr, president of the Illinois Retail Merchants Association, in discussing the new dynamic.

That trend is helped by people like Carroll McCormick of Bloomington, who shops at Empire Crossing all the time.

"I love it," she said. "It's got everything I need. It's very convenient. You can just walk in, get what you want and walk back out."

Bloomington Economic Development Coordinator Austin Grammer said shoppers have been "very excited about all of the new stores" at Empire Crossing.  

Meanwhile, on the south side of Empire Street, is Eastland Mall. The city's only indoor shopping center dates to the late 1960s and "is definitely in a period of transition with the closure of Macy's and Penney's," Grammer said.

The closures last year of the longtime anchor stores compounded the mall's struggle to draw shoppers.

"The traditional mall that we may have thought of is going the way of the dinosaur," said Karr. "However, it doesn't mean you are necessarily going to have an empty, big building sitting there. They are being re-purposed in some cases."

Empire Crossing is the type of mall that is growing more  — "an outlot-type of mall with a series of buildings in a quasi-town-square design where not just merchandise, but dry cleaners, financial and other types of personal services are available."

"That kind of approach is thriving and doing very well now," said Karr. "A segment of the population is gravitating toward more personal service. It is harder to deliver that in a larger format like a mall, so you are seeing smaller formats."

Changes in shopping patterns and lifestyles, especially a demand for convenience, are prompting the shift, Karr said. 

"People are going back to the outlot or strip malls. We're all busy. We all like convenience," said Karr, adding the new direction is being driven by millennials.

Through technology, millennials and others have become accustomed to more convenience and individualized attention they get quickly online, he noted.

"So we then also transfer those expectations to other things, to where we want to get in and out of a store, a beauty shop, a dry cleaner or whatever it may be, more quickly than we have in the past," said Karr.

"You see brick-and-mortar stores becoming more like the online-type of remote selling," he added. "Some used to argue that online retail was going to be the death of brick-and-mortar. It's not the death of retail. It's the morphing of retail. It's an evolution of sorts."

Meanwhile, indoor malls are changing dramatically and quickly, added Karr. 

Eastland Mall owner CBL Properties has signed two smaller tenants to occupy part of the J.C. Penney store space —  family clothing retailer H&M and Planet Fitness. No plans have been divulged for the remaining 30,000 square feet. A new Outback Steakhouse is being built in a corner of the mall's parking lot.

CBL is still evaluating plans for the former Macy’s space, which it purchased for $2 million.

Large malls elsewhere are being divided up in different ways, said Karr.

"It would have been unthinkable 15 years ago to have a grocery store as an anchor of a mall. Now they are putting in grocery stores as anchors," said Karr. "They are putting entertainment centers. Malls, to thrive today, have to be destination-type malls or very high-end (shopping) malls."

McCormick said there's a place for both indoor malls and outdoor shopping centers. 

"We still need the indoor malls," she said. "I still like in the winters to go inside the malls to shop."

Follow Maria Nagle on Twitter: @Pg_Nagle

Bloomington Reporter

Bloomington reporter for The Pantagraph.