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An entrepreneurial examination on the reentry of “activity seekers” and their spending habits amongst today’s consumerism trends, followed by tactics in cross-connecting networking books of business for maximizing online and offline success.
Recently, my wife Megin and I spent a Friday evening walking around one of the many mega-malls known to define our area of northern New Jersey for a better part of two hours. We weren’t shopping, we were only thereafter taking our eleven-year-old son and his two buddies — who were meeting up with more schoolmates — to then all “hang out.” Now, hanging out at the mall with friends on a Friday night is one of those old school (especially Jersey-centric) activities that back in the day was common practice during the Eighties and Nineties… With a few minor differences.
While I was usually dropped off and then got picked up (or, rode home through a pick-up arranged via a friend’s parental unit), Megin and I stayed and later collected up the kiddies after our respective times spent apart. And, five bucks was my spending money (my entire weekly allowance), whereas my son took me for a twenty spot. He pointed out how that’s the same when adjusted for inflation (although it’s technically nearly doubly inflated as 1992’s five is actually $9.94 today). Anyway, we were not starving, so we decided to dine on a quick meal in the food court at a decent Thai eatery. (Sadly, no Roy Rogers amongst the options). We then proceeded to stroll up and down, left to right. . . assessing the scene. . . observing the changes in surroundings, and the people (or lack thereof).
Now, anyone my age is clearly aware of the “mall walking” golden era of years ago, which, based on my son’s chosen weekend night out, is making a comeback. When I was his age, yes hanging out was the top thing to do, but it also encompassed eating and shopping. Although we may have had a bit fewer bucks to spend, it was a collective effort. Meaning, the mall on a Friday evening (especially during crappy wintry weather) was THE PLACE TO BE. Go look up an old YouTube video for the proof, it was a setting perpetually packed with wall-to-wall kids, some parents too. The point is, PACKED is the keyword. I’ve only been to this establishment, the “Westfield Shopping Center” (known previously as the “Garden State Plaza”) a few times since Covid, when it was a ghost town. But I was pretty stunned at how here as we pivot into post-pandemic, it was pretty empty. To be specific, the stores where you bought things were nearly empty. What thrived were the places where you didn’t just go to buy things but to do things.
The summarizing fact: spending money to engage in an array of organized, independent and/or group-based activities has overtaken spending it to accumulate objects amongst the general population who venture off of their sofas and into society.
While I do not see the mall model getting an extreme makeover immediately as far as what offerings are inside, it better pivots its position sooner rather than later. Its outdated format clearly has secured a status as an endangered species. Without an overhaul to coincide with the modern marketplace mindset movement, extinction is imminent. Here now, are a few indisputable takeaways to back up my belief, based on this tour.
Overall, in sizing up every storefront (meaning any business not providing a service but solely selling products) as a whole, contained visitors at a 15-20% occupancy capacity.
The food court area was probably the busier overall mall section, but it was only filled at about a 25-30% capacity.
That places an astounding 50% of everyone else (besides others just hanging out) actively visiting activity-based businesses.
In recognizing #3 as being really sort of a newfound addition to the mix, it made for a complex conundrum. Quickly categorizing every mall guest at an average of 50/50, split between retail and dining was easy and straightforward in the past. Especially since both sectors stood soundly at max capacity, most of the time. Even further still, on my visit — the weekend primetime kick-off hours – forget it, you’d wait in lines at every inch three decades ago. Even one decade ago. It’s pretty mind-boggling to see one person working and one person browsing across an entire department in Macy’s. Or the record store. (Sorry, disregard that second store). Where was everyone? Well, they were all doing their things at those places to be!
There was a spot jam-packed, featuring a flock of children and adults flying drones. Droves of drones. You walk in and rent one, get a controller, and are able to loop-de-loop and zip around your own “course.” Elsewhere, a “selfie store,” also had quite the buzz around it, all for allowing one to enter, pay their fee, and then eagerly immerse themselves in the enjoyment of posing and picture snapping unlimited shots (with their own camera phone) while in front of any number of multi-colored computer-generated backdrops. Every insanely themed photo booth was lined up systematically, with privacy panels dividing the different designs. These ranged from a “Lovers Lane” for you and your valentine, an “Alice in Wonderland” typeset (where there was a girl dressed up as the title character), to a snowy “Winter Wonderland.” It happened to be lightly snowing right outside, where a free photo-op could have been achieved just the same, so it was certainly intriguing seeing even that section had drawn interest. Regardless, whoever came up with that is brilliant because he or she knew it was all about the idea of going out to do something. (Even if it was simply to go inside and pretend you were outside.)
The enticing nature of these new concepts is they’re much more unique than a hat boutique, and, most importantly, uniqueness in the “FOMO” era portrays a sense of urgency that has a longer standing carryover compared to dropping a paycheck on a stylish shirt soon to go out of style. Yet another popular destination was an outdoor (simulated) skate park for those with desires to be Tony Hawk. You bring your own pads.
Some of these far-out joints are indeed totally original, and who knows which may or may not be brief pop culture blips, but I honestly feel most will make it. Plus, more will come and redefine the mall experience. My call is that within five years, there will probably be only one retail department as occupants (and probably owned by Amazon). What’s wild is that lots of reincarnated interests of old can be seen, bridging the generation gap like the two producers of the international smash hit “Cobra Kai” did between today’s whippersnappers whose mom and dad were “Karate Kid” lovers. (My son and I had our binge bonding time together on it’s New Year’s debut day.) What I mean by that is, take the super rad skatepark. It harkened back memories of me going to “The Roller Rink” as a youth. The key component defining distinctions between 1992 and 2022 is that for the most part, such sportfish spots as skating rinks, your bowling alleys, billiard halls, batting cages, mini-golf courses, and the like had a commonality of chosen real estate. The majority of such traditionally existed as stand-alone. Same as movie theaters. Though the movies are more of a sedentary space to gather, they still require some effort from us. “Let’s go to the movies” is still said. It was never “let’s go buy a movie,” because unless you were talking about getting a tape to bring home and play on the V.C.R., it was all about being out and about where the action is. At the hot hangout. On a date night. The whole attraction is in the exercises of heading to, and being at that destination. Westfield doesn’t yet have its own lanes or putt-putt, though it does have an A.M.C., which is primarily accessed from the main exterior entrance – though also serving solely as a stand-alone destination on Sundays when the mall is closed for N.J. Blue Laws. But the rest of the time, it resides half inside the mall, where teens spill in and out of the arcade game-filled lobby.
If you don’t believe me, go take a tour for yourself. I guarantee you’ll agree that the “action” category is growing exponentially. But reserving a room on this bandwagon must be done before the bus goes by, and it may move so fast that it’ll marginalize the movie’s magnitude. IMAX stuck around to go beyond another novelty, even still, seekers of a more fulfilling undertaking above the scope of the not-so-strenuous sitting-viewing-M&M chomping are chomping at the bit for more FUN! My earlier record store reference was not made without reason. The movie’s eventual extinction may play out in the same vein. Although these A.M.C.s hang on because going to the movies is still GOING OUT to a PLACE, that punch doesn’t pack what it previously did as our endless inundation of viewing options took a Chunky bar bite out of it all. Social component aside, what’s left is little more than a “concept” of being an activity than one in actuality. And yes there’s the video game lobby, but a few modest retro consoles and a claw machine are even becoming passe.
That industry’s own technological growth in perfect conjunction with a sizing up of popular preferences shared within the gaming community made this the case. X-Box, Sony, and the others figured out exactly how to skyrocket into new dimensions through the path of an arcade renaissance evolution. The busiest of the bunch during my tour was. . . The “gaming” store. This, in essence, was a gigantic recreated bedroom setting in a store, built to resemble a scene from any Fortnite fan (most of today’s youth). There were the multi-colored monitors, keyboards, mouses (mice?), microphones, headsets, laser lights, cameras, controllers, joysticks (?), and whatever other “gaming gear” they use all over the place. Yes, it’s all the rage and a long way from Pac-Man and pinball.
Therefore, no matter what supplemental “fun zones” A.M.C. tries carving out to compete, whether it be implementing a bigger and crazier claw machine with iPhones as prizes, or a pre / post film lobby section permitting adult drinking, their fate is in question. I briefly worked at one of these theater bars not too long ago and can say first hand it rarely had more than a few guests at any given time. Oh, and I bought into the A.M.C. “Ape Nation” stock phenomenon a year ago but am still holding on for it to take off to Pluto. As long as their primary purpose stays as it has always been (selling movie tickets, snacks, and soda) they’ll only barely be the hangers-on, as the second fiddle battling every “Netflix and Chill” homie who can crunch with confidence on far cheaper microwaved popcorn. The same as streaming your tunes sent Sam Goody packing.
The mega mall’s main reason for being, from the beginning (a foundation based on shopping), will be their undoing for suburbanites that are turning transformative in ways far more progressively upward compared to ‘82, ‘92, or ‘02. Millions of us do more and more of shopping online every minute. Amazon is not a fading trend. Most of the THINGS you previously had to GO OUT for you simply don’t have to do. Whatever is left will inevitably come to you soon enough in some way from some carrier. Amazon will then buy them out and deliver under their brand.
With all of this said, what does this genuinely mean for the future? Businesses that want to stay in business in an interactive sense must re-brand. Or make way for the new ones. Don’t think every human has gotten so lazy that nobody ever wants to leave home – we do – especially after Covid lockdowns. The fact is it has to be worthwhile. It’s not worthwhile to visit and spend time at a clothing shop with a manufactured, false social component when it takes far less effort, time, and money to click a few buttons and get that designer shirt at the doorstep. We require real socialization in our civilization. Even if it’s semi-virtual like the gaming store, it was nice to see the kids interacting with other kids – albeit for brief moments in between them digitally interacting online with someone from across the street, or across the world.
Any place with offerings of interactive nature showcase the desired dominating design for the modern man, woman, child, whomever. Across whatever age and background. This model unequivocally rose in the ranks when it comes to in-person consumerism mentalities. A such defined “place to be” provides interactive entertainment currently craved. Places with just STUFF (whatever the ilk) alone ain’t gonna cut it forever.
Satisfying all the senses in our super-stimulated society is the goalpost of 2022.
“Equal opportunities of profit penetration are presented when executing your in-network tools of the trade. This is dual dealings.”
FROM MEGA-MALLS TO MEATBALLS AND MEDSPAS
I’d like to say I am pretty well traveled and in tune with many cultures and sub-cultures. The whole “mall sub-culture” was a major thing all over the U.S. — especially prevalent in the late Eighties / early Nineties — even sparking a board game (“Mall Madness,” 1988) and its own slang language heard on sit-coms and practiced in person. While Hollywood may be responsible for nationalizing interest and claim California as the origin state for starting the madness, the ties to my home state of New Jersey are even deeper. Hence, why does such subject matter warrant this level of examination to me? (1995’s “Mallrats” puts this in context).
I’m fully aware of my propensity to often make old-school references to a lot of topics. The reason for this is that although I am obviously typing on a laptop and using cell phone apps like everyone else, my heart and mind are very much connected to a litany of old-school ideals. An appreciation of many lost values of the present was ingrained in my upbringing in my past. That will never waiver, and there’s nothing wrong with that, as long as you are able to move with the times in making adjustments so that you can keep up. In the business sense, keeping up is not enough, you have to be ahead of the curve. The Garden State has the most malls and diners per square foot stretching from top to bottom, so one would have to be particularly distinct to stand out from the pack if those fields are your chosen career here.
I owned and operated a mobile food company — “Johnny Meatballs Catering” — for over ten years. I grew a multi-faceted tree, with branches in internet / television / film / music / merchandise. And more, all done in my own show-biz style derived from a singular seed of sandwich selling learned through childhood memories. That nostalgic incorporation under which the seed is based stemmed from my growing up and eating Italian-American meals. I was serving not just the food, but the experience. The recreation in those memorable moments was made by forming bonds with every bite. I brought a dinner table concept out “to the streets,” and encapsulated it in the J.M. character.
Traveling to summertime feasts and festivals with a pop-up set-up which included tables, tents, flags, signs, two different converted hot dog wagons; “The J.M. On-A-Roll” carts (red model and black model), as well as a converted mini school bus; “The Meatball Mobile,” I made a living — nowhere close to a fortune — but I did pride myself on posterity. Being the first street vendor to specialize in one particular signature dish brought credibility, and, as Tik-Tokkers would say, clout. Selling said dish directly to hungry guests at a variety of locations was a welcome concept, and I did it at just the right time. For a while, I also sold the meatballs frozen in several grocery stores. I further augmented my income with novelty “got balls” t-shirts and caps and shipped my proprietary “Ten Spice Blend” nationwide.
Enjoying a bit of a semi-celebrity status (which too went national with three reality T.V. show appearances), next came the recording of a Lou Monte-esque I-tunes download; “The Meatball Song” (performed in local clubs and played on the radio), and the publishing of a recipe filled autobiography sold on Amazon (“My Big Friggin’ Book”). All of this culminated with the filming of a mini-documentary (“The Johnny Meatballs Experience”), chronicling my quest to serve the crowd at the Super Bowl Tailgate Event in 2014 when it was held at MetLife Stadium. I greatly enjoyed the coverage that came with it all, from getting interviewed on the local news to being visited by reporters from Italy. My home and holiday client base grew.
This all may seem like a solid body of work, and I am proud of the accomplishments across these various branches. A modest Sunday sandwich I grew up eating became a brand. However, uncommitted partners and no real team to organize everything properly left many of the fruits neglected to where they no longer grew. So while there were sporadic, incredibly fulfilling, and money-making moments, there was equal heartbreak. Too much emphasis was placed on that posterity and popularity, over profit. Succeeding takes both. The primary problem was that I was working out of my house, as well as different cooking commissary kitchens, and traveling to all kinds of public and private locations, without a main hub of operations. No headquarters to streamline everything. Stripping down all the sizzle leaves the steak, and people want that brick and mortar site to exist for their own satisfaction. An assurance of legitimacy if you will, was desired, requiring a need for that business homebase.
The “bread and butter” was of course literally the food. In 2019, I found a small storefront in a Hudson County highrise complex to churn out a menu chock full of favorites all year long. “The Johnny Meatballs Caffé” was born. And then Covid hit shortly thereafter. I was forced to close up shop and pretty much have phased out the business since. Except for the occasional party tray delivery to long-time loyal customers, the J.M. era is now another memory.
Looking back, I do have some things I wish I’d have done differently. Although I had a huge following on all the most popular social media outlets (facebook, twitter, instagram, YouTube), with a combined fifty-thousand-plus collection of fans and followers, I did not properly utilize those followers. I was a day late and a dollar short as the saying goes before I recognized the importance of quantifying every individual “engagement.” That being each and every reply and comment on posts, each “like” and “share,” etc. for the purposes of distinguishing who was indeed a true transaction conducting consumer, and one who was just consuming content but nothing more. I also failed at organizing all others who could’ve served me in other ways – either via collaborative efforts or as potential referral partners. Every one of those organizational tasks has certainly been super important for years now, and when the Coronavirus hit the world, so much more shifted online. If you did not make sure your networking channels were tightly woven together and maximized in every way possible, there wouldn’t be much of a chance to stay afloat. My sinking ship reiterates being ahead of the curve as the only way.
The modern marketplace mindset movement leaves little room now for an excess amount of mom and pop cuisine choices. Arriving late to the party results in a lost reservation and leaves nothing but crumbs. Chain franchises moved fast to claim the stranglehold, and even many of them had to pair down locations in the wake of Covid dining restrictions, pivoting into a takeaway mode with emphasis on pick-up and contactless door drop-offs through Uber Eats and other third party organizations. For a company like mine, this spelled doom, because although I sold consumable goods, it was just as much about the services. The experience.
That is lost when mask mandates and social distancing limit your engagement, and it’s especially frustrating now when the folks from these social network sites really do want to socialize AND spend. In-person. Unfortunately, that desire has not thus far outweighed the risks. At least not for me. My special sandwich just isn’t enough of a draw in these uncertain times to justify a full-on revamp. Perhaps one day I may explore returning to the Johnny Meatballs chef’s coat, and while that brand will always be in some way part of me, the ship sailed in terms of tweaking the components required to take on the current landscape of food sales and service.
I’m far more dedicated at this juncture to furthering plans of resurrecting another avenue of hospitality, holding roots from decades ago (during those days of pre-internet, activity-based businesses part of the 2022 comeback as detailed in my modern mega mall examination. A passion project of eventually opening up an indoor, climate-controlled sports practice and fitness facility will hopefully come soon after I secure funding. I’ll leave that topic for another day, but whenever I do my next venture, it will be done applying all of the knowledge acquired over years of online and offline interaction with the three C’s: my customers, counterparts, and competitors.
Megin is a successful businesswoman who has owned and operated several successful north Jersey med-spa establishments. She not only learned to astutely observe (and pivot her style at times if necessary) the daily habits of her own three C’s — it was the tireless application of an innate understanding to recognize one across-the-board marketplace mentality: fulfilling clientele needs. In her desire to constantly learn the latest industry trends before they enter into mainstream popularity by attending health, beauty and wellness conventions and seminars from Miami to Beverly Hills, it opened the door to utilize this collected expertise in converting knowledge into quantifiable, monetary returns. This occurred through her decision to create an umbrella brand for operating a consulting-by-contract venture, organized and kept in 24/7 cultivation across those same social media platforms for an always interactive, up-to-the-moment tool, directing the course of action.
By streamlining and highlighting the particular contacts with which to converse at any given time based upon the urgency of needs, this yields a definitive advantage for maximizing efficient fulfillment of such — hereby enabling a seamless connective thread amongst a very impressive circle of clientele and their corresponding practitioners of preference. Any dealings done as an independent entrepreneur must include accumulating an ever simultaneous, equal functioning book-of-business, regardless of choice trade. If the business-to-business AND straight-to-consumer sides of your venture are perpetually penetrated, there becomes added opportunity for effectively advancing positive outcomes for all.
Furthermore, when you are an invested advocate facilitating a transaction between two of your own in-network parties, everyone wins. Megin was brilliantly preemptive in all of this, and I am not insecure in stating her success exceeds mine as such steps ahead served her interests. It has so masterfully shown me a blueprint to emulate. She not only finds involvement across all aspects of aiding interested individuals with their chosen sought out self-wellness / aesthetic request by thoroughly taking that tactful position to share informative options — she also dually directs doctors for example, as an assisting partner when moonlighting as a coordinator of events where said sought services are rendered. “Botox parties” for example, have helped exponentially revamp north Jersey-N.Y.C. area medical and beauty facilities, salons, and other related practices. In her dealings with elective procedure healthcare professionals; primarily double-board certified plastic surgeons performing twelve-hour body reconstructions and expert injectors of one-hour facial enhancement visits, she soaked in all sides like a sponge.
Spinning everything into a lucrative earning equation with a well-versed variety on which way to capitalize, she’s found the best-run establishments are always those where the medspa management team have all their ducks in a row. Specifically focusing on continually creating an atmosphere in which each service offered is maximized by clients is yet another takeaway lesson. This comes in the circular, habitual style of an emphasis on the trends that are offering the curiosities. In turn, the ensuring of endless results in success lies in the curiosities continuously satisfied. Only when the offerings aren’t available to give is a chance missed.
Take it all in. I’ve supplied the data on what’s wanted, how to give it, and what you get back after a real-time tour and years of previous experiences on what works. (As well as what not to do.) Apply the math and it all comes together. Reentry of activity seekers = the modern marketplace mindset movement + equal opportunities of profit penetration = executing in-network tools to dual dealings.
Time is money, so now it’s time to practice what I preach.