New food court part of Fashion Mall's strategy

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After months of construction, a north side shopping mall is ready to take the wraps off just in time for the holiday shopping season.

The new Fashion Café at the Fashion Mall at Keystone opened Thursday morning. The lower-level dining area replaces the old upper level food court and patrons will quickly note the difference, not just in the look but the offerings.

Freshii, Pinkberry frozen yogurt and Elevation Burger are focused mostly on fresh, healthy foods, even organic.

It's one way the way the Fashion Mall is adapting to the ever-changing retail market. Another way is by adding new stores not available anywhere else in Indiana, such as Lush costmetics, Michael Kors and Free People.

Dr. Rachel Smith, an associate professor of finance at the University of Indianapolis, said malls in general are doing "whatever they can to draw consumers in."

With more and more people shopping online, Smith said malls have a strong incentive to step up their game. She said since online retailers often have the edge on pricing, malls are trying to keep consumers "from focusing just on price and instead looking at the whole experience. They're to position themselves as entertainment destinations."

Smith said malls that continue to evolve will always draw shoppers, noting "another thing we're seeing is a focus on service instead of just products, things like massage or eyebrows or nails. Some have even added a tax service at the mall."

David Contis, President of Mall Platforms for the Simon Property Group said, "Our competitive advantage is that people are still social beings."

Simon is the largest mall operator, with 339 worldwide. Its 15 Indiana malls include the Fashion Mall, Castleton Square and Circle Center Mall.

Of the changing dynamics in retail Contis said, "Online shopping is clearly competition to us, but what malls are doing is, people still want to touch a suit, feel a shirt, try it on."

He said that's especially true of the mall's key demo - women - who "make up 80% of the purchasing decisions."

Diane Braun and daughter Sara Ackermann are the kind of shoppers the Fashion Mall caters to.

The two came to the mall for the opening of West Elm, a new home goods store that they used to shop online. Each carried a big bag from West Elm.

As Ackermann said, "It's nice to finally not have to pay for shipping and to see it in person."

She and her mother said they like the experience of shopping, Braun said especially during the busy holiday season."

"It puts me in the spirit," she said. "I like hearing the music. I like the hustle and bustle and the crowds."

The Fashion Mall, in particular, seems to be holding its own in the competition for consumers.

According to Contis, it's among Simon's top 30 best-performing malls with a vacancy rate of just two-to-three percent.