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Local malls compete for kids


Malls have long catered to shoppers with children by employing Santa Clauses to listen to kids’ wish lists and, more recently, Easter bunnies to hand out eggs. In recent years, the competition to attract children and, in turn, their parents, has become stiffer. Shopping centers are trying to entice families through offerings ranging from the whimsical, such as giant turtles to climb on, to the practical, such as family restrooms.

Valley West Mall, 1551 Valley West Drive, West Des Moines, is trying to establish itself as a leisure-time destination for families through its Family Fun Night on the last Tuesday of each month. It offers inducements that include giant inflatable rides, temporary tattoos, balloons and a coloring contest. The winners of the contest, one girl and one boy, receive bicycles given away by Star 102.5 radio.

“Tuesday nights are typically slow for the mall business,” said Trisha Barton, Valley West’s marketing director. “We wanted to provide a positive family event. People can pick up the kids, come here for dinner and have a relaxing night at the mall.”

Valley West also offers practical amenities for parents. During the shopping center’s recent renovation, it added a large glass elevator with lots of room for strollers. The mall also has several family restrooms, which have a large toilet for adults and a smaller one for children. In addition, these facilities are unisex, eliminating the awkwardness of fathers taking their daughters into the men’s restroom or mothers taking their sons into the women’s restroom. The mall has diaper-changing stations and a nursing area with a comfortable chair and lights that can be dimmed if they are too bright for infants.

“People have less free time these days, and more people take their kids with them everywhere,” Barton said. “The more we’re family friendly, the more time they’ll spend here, and hopefully the more things they’ll find to take home with them.”

Merle Hay Mall, 3800 Merle Hay Road, received a lot of attention in November when it opened a new children’s play area with a reading center and toys that fit the theme of nature and landmarks in Central Iowa. There is a model of the Grand Avenue Bridge for kids to climb on, a blue carpeted area that represents Gray’s Lake, and more. In fact, when planning the play area, Merle Hay employees consulted with the Department of Natural Resources to make sure the animals and insects they depicted were native to Iowa.

“Building a play area had been in discussion for some time,” said Angel Head, the mall’s marketing director. “We have a high degree of stroller traffic. This was a chance to give back. The response has been even better than we expected. We expected to see a few hundred kids and parents use it each day, but instead we’ll see nearly 1,000 on a weekday. On the weekend, it so packed you can barely move and everyone has a brilliant time.”

Jordan Creek Town Center, 101 Jordan Creek Parkway, West Des Moines, will offer family restrooms and nursing rooms. The mall, scheduled to open Aug. 4, has clustered its family retailers into one section near the children’s play area.

“Kids get tired of being in the stroller,” said Julie Jacoby, director of corporate communications for General Growth Properties Inc., the company building Jordan Creek. “This allows them to burn off some steam so they’re set to go for another hour or two. You have a large number of parents with children who are in your primary shopping market. You want to make sure they have all they need to spend the time necessary in the mall to accomplish everything on their list.”

Southridge Mall, 1111 S.E. Army Post Road, has a carousel, family restrooms, diaper-changing and breast-feeding stations and a play area with a reading center. The play area has a Lego theme, with a structure of large Legos for children to climb on. The third Tuesday of each month, Waldenbooks employees read to children in the play area.

The mall also targets families with children through community involvement. Through the School Cents program, 18 schools on Des Moines’ South Side compete for their share of $20,000. Shopper turn in their receipts on behalf of one of the schools, and the schools with the most receipts receive the most cash, though no school walks away empty-handed.

Southridge also hosts kids activities, such as a winter craft center administered by Grandview College’s child development program and an overnight indoor campout for a Girl Scouts of America troop. The company that owns the mall, Santa Monica-based Macerich Co., places an emphasis on being “the town center,” according to Southridge marketing manager Karen Sol. The company gives employees 20 hours of paid time off each year to volunteer for a sanctioned non-profit organization.

“They encourage us to get involved in the community,” Sol said. “I’m on six boards. They’re shopping here and giving us money. You can’t always take. You have to give back.”

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