Who will save the mall? Teens -- duh.

The battles never seem to let up for the American institution that is the mall. Like everyone else in the retail world, they've got ups and downs with consumer spending to contend with. But then there's the rise of e-commerce and those trendy outdoor shopping plazas -- how's a cavernous complex with a fountain and a Mrs. Fields to compete?

The recession has made that question more pressing than ever. The answer is, and always shall be: teenagers.

So at a time when things are looking pretty dismal for mall retailers (see today's Wall Street Journal, (subscription required) which describes how stores like Ann Taylor are haggling their mall landlords over rent), it would be wise for the lessor and lessee to work together to capitalize on their most loyal clientele.

I can think of two things malls and their chain-brand tenants can do to keep teens happy: don't push their budgets, because the recession has made them newly budget-savvy, and don't try to sell them celebrity-stamped goods, because they're tired of it.

And I can think of one thing malls can do to make them spend more of their allowances -- physically go out of your way to engage them. Urban Outfitters merchandises hundreds of hipster-friendly books each year -- why not stage book launches, complete with snacks and gift bags, as older-skewing stores sometimes do?

Another idea: malls have a record of holding cheesy runway shows for their retailers' new styles. They'd generate much better buzz and foot traffic if they toned down the approach a bit. A bazaar-type setup in the middle of the mall -- showcasing the season's new shipment in the center, offering tables of sale items from stores around the perimeter -- catches teens in their natural walking patterns. They'll be more responsive if they feel like they're browsing something they happened upon -- after all, the teens who don't plan to spend anything might never walk into a store.

These are just suggestions. It's important for malls to never lose sight of their primary customer -- the teenagers, who are their captive audiences. The beautiful thing is, they're unaffected by the economic climate (the driver's age has more to do with it -- once they get their licenses, they're out of there). But malls must keep working to entertain them -- they can't take them for granted.

You know where else teenagers used to hang out a lot? Drive-in movie theaters. And they're all but extinct.
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