Malls and shopping centers, as most things in life, require regular maintenance and attention to detail to thrive and succeed.

The most exciting designs and finest materials may launch a glamorous new high-profile retail center, but it is routine professional care that keeps it on a steady course toward customer loyalty and continued profitability.

Maintenance experts cite a number of trends affecting the care of property, all of which offer challenges and opportunities for the makers of cleaning products and equipment, for service providers, for designers and other suppliers.

Developers and managers appear to favor outsourcing everything from housekeeping and maintenance to landscaping and security. Chores they once supervised in-house now are going to bid. Companies are rising to the challenge by offering efficiencies, quality control and a wide variety of bundled services - one-stop shopping, as it were.

Mall and center materials are following the fashion pendulum as it swings from hard surfaces to soft ones - from sleek, spare lines to plump, stuffed and upholstered, from ceramics to woods, from frosted and moody to gleaming and bright.

National prosperity has created shoppers. It also has left us with low unemployment and a terrific labor shortage. As a result, housekeeping companies are intensifying their searches for staff and offering higher wages in the process.

Keeping pace with change Keeping a close eye on retail center operations and emerging trends and concerns is Mike Gonzalez, director of sales and marketing for SSC's Shopping Center Division in Knoxville, Tenn. SSC provides housekeeping and complete maintenance services. While center owners have been outsourcing housekeeping and security for some time, Gonzalez sees a more recent management move toward outsourcing maintenance as well.

"They see it as a way to stabilize or reduce total operating costs," he says.

SSC offers its maintenance customers everything from a computerized maintenance tracking system to electrical and plumbing repairs, painting, lighting and roof maintenance, interior and exterior landscaping, pest control and even elevator and escalator care. The company has established strategic business alliances with local companies to help fulfill its contractual obligations.

Attracting and keeping staff is a continuing challenge with no simple solutions. "We are always looking for people," says Gonzalez. "Wages are at an all-time high. The labor shortage drives up costs and threatens quality.

"We generally pay above-market rates, and offer incentives such as vacation pay and retirement benefits," he continues.

Another issue facing both service providers and developers is the deregulation of energy expected in the next 10 years. Energy providers and others not currently in the industry are looking at how they can re-invent and market themselves.

Soft and hard surfaces Gonzalez says changes in interior materials continue to affect housekeeping staffs. He reports renewed interest in bright designs using polished brass and glass - high-gloss amenities. "We also have more soft seating areas with carpeting and upholstered furniture," he says. "While they may be appealing to consumers, they are harder to care for."

Xencom Systems Inc., the Dallas company that provides cleaning and general maintenance services to enclosed malls, seeks to partner with its customers in efforts to keep these retail centers in the best possible condition.

"Our program is a joint effort," says Mike Ponds, president of Xencom. "We have specifications for cleaning, but we try to involve mall management in solutions."

Ponds agrees that trendy, cozy, soft areas pose hard problems for cleaning specialists. Sugar-laden soft drinks and bubble gum on carpets, litter tossed about and food court fallout make mall retail a "tough animal," he concedes.

"Ninety percent of malls outsource housekeeping, a trend that picked up momentum in the late 1980s," he continues. "Outsourcing both cleaning and maintenance hasn't taken off like I thought it would.

"Many malls like to keep at least a few maintenance people on staff," he adds.

Faced with rising labor costs and shortages, his company is exploring new equipment and cleaning materials that can get the job done with possibly fewer human hours attached. "We must be creative," he says. "We try to spread out our rising costs over the life of a contract, which might be for a period of two years."

Xencom's quality-control plan calls for qualified, on-site managers who work so closely with mall management that they are really a part of its team, says Ponds. Area managers oversee mall-based staff, visiting and critiquing on a regular basis.

There is, however, no such thing as a standard approach to housekeeping and maintenance, he says. "Each building is unique - they aren't cookie-cutter by any stretch of the imagination."

Continuous improvement Public settings in malls and shopping centers may be going "overstuffed," but main traffic corridors are likely to remain hard surfaces. Powell, Tenn.'s VIC International Corp. product manager of restoration and maintenance, Bob Murrell, uses the expression "smart design" to describe flooring trends.

"We should use the appropriate material with the long-term benefit of cost effectiveness and ease of maintenance, durability, ease of restoration and, finally, aesthetics," he says.

"Porcelain tiles are durable and stain-resistant but are not generally restorable," he adds. "Granite also has these properties, but is restorable many times.

"The most popular flooring materials are still natural stones and ceramic tiles," he continues. "Terrazzo is making a big comeback, and decorative concretes are en vogue."

VIC International products can protect new hard floors and bring life back to tired and worn natural stone surfaces. As Murrell says, "A restored marble floor can actually be more valuable than when it was newly installed." Restoration not only improves appearance, it helps reduce future maintenance costs.

"This spring, we are unveiling a new product, Friction Stone, which will actually improve the coefficient of friction on virtually all hard surfaces," he says. "It will not harm delicate surfaces such as polished marble.

"It also will revolutionize the slip/fall status around the country," he adds.

The company offers some on-site assistance in training, Murrell says. "Our products are not rocket science, but do require some basic knowledge of hard-surface floor care."

Away with noise, litter Retail industry pundits refer to shoppers increasing appetites for upscale settings, which include attractive approaches, starting all the way out at the curb.

Schwarze's S343-D Series, a sweeper on a one-ton truck chassis, has been significantly updated for 2000. This year, the sweeper, popular with developers and managers for keeping parking lots clean and safe, features Schwarze's Whisper Wheel.

The new model cuts sweeper noise by some 70%. It is up to 20% more fuel-efficient and has a low enough profile to allow it to sweep in more parking structures.

"In addition to the patent-pending Whisper Wheel, we are offering an optional bolt-on shroud," says Tommy Allen, national sales manager for direct sales, in Huntsville, Ala. The 343 Series also can be fitted with a snowplow.

Unkempt parking lots are one kind of nuisance. Noise pollution is another.

"As suburbia expands and closes in on shopping centers, neighbors are more sensitive to sweeper noise," says Ranger Kidwell-Ross, a Schwarze consultantbased in Washington State and editor of American Sweeper Magazine.Given that m ost lot sweeping occurs late at night, dampened noise is a feature of growing importance.

Industry wisdom says crumbs attract rats and plastic bags invite pedestrian falls. It also is said that cigarette butts are among the worst and most prevalent forms of litter, and that some cigarette filters take five or more years to disintegrate.

CSL Inc. Environmental Products in Destin, Fla., designs and produces a receptacle that fairly begs smokers to deposit cigarettes and cigars in it before entering a store or mall setting. A Smokers' Outpost snuffs out smoking materials through oxygen deprivation, according to Lea Tucker, director of sales. The urn-like receptacle has an opening about waist-high into which smokers can place tobacco products. The Smokers' Outpost series is available in plastic and new cast-aluminum models and matches CSL trash containers.

"This is a way to get rid of those nasty sand urns that may fill with water when it rains and which must be emptied frequently," Tucker says. And fewer butts on the pavement around building entrances not only removes litter but also improves appearance.

"Smokers' Outpost features a galvanized pail liner which can be wiped down from time to time," she says. "Each unit typically is emptied every other week."

Parking allowed While it is primarily utilitarian, the parking lot of a shopping center or mall is a critical marketing tool. A smooth blacktop, freshly striped, sends a signal that this may be a pleasant place to do business.

A parking lot with cracked and discolored areas, potholes and standing water is uninviting as well as unsafe.

Shopping center managers should carefully inspect their parking areas at least twice a year, according to CHEC Engineering Consultants, a Redding, Calif., company that specializes in pavement designs, analysis and asphalt concrete technologies.

"It's important to do a visual rating or analysis," says Charles Smith, CHEC director of marketing. "Note the areas that are starting to show signs of failure - defects that won't go away, like alligator cracking on the surface. Then monitor those areas."

Simply patching cracking sections is not enough, he says. Pavement fails because of water beneath the surface. These areas need to be isolated and drainage should be observed.

"We recommend more than just digging out and patching," Smith says. "What you put down and when you put it down is critical." Repair and maintenance decisions should be based on a professional study and rehabilitation strategy for all bad sections.

CHEC, which offers 5- to 10-year pavement management plans, also performs asphalt materials sampling and testing, pre-purchase inspections and construction management.

In addition to surface conditions, signs and delineation or parking-control systems affect the appearance and safety of parking areas. Safe Hit of Hayward, Calif., produces flexible sign posts for handicap and no-parking signage and energy-absorbing parking control systems that dictate the flow of cars and trucks and keep traffic from areas where it is not intended.

"There are many benefits to using flexible sign posts," says company spokeswoman Joanna Kwiecinski. "If they are struck by a vehicle, they can be replaced without having to re-drill, and there is little vehicle damage."

Likewise, the company's yellow or gray parking control delineators are energy-absorbing. They deter drivers without demolishing bumpers and fenders.

Above all, inspect roofing Twice-yearly inspection, spring and fall, also is recommended by at least one company for all roofing systems. If there are problems, the dilemma - as it is for parking lots - becomes whether to repair or replace. And as with parking lots, water usually is the villain. Wind and sunshine also play significant roles in perpetrating roof wear and damage.

"The ability to determine problems is related to the experience of the inspector," says Jim Conner, North American Roofing Systems executive vice president in Indianapolis. "The information-gathering process can be more sophisticated today."

A professional inspection report should spell out in writing a program that includes repair processes, times and expenses. It should include photo documentation and explain warrantable circumstances.

Roof design is the key, Conner says. A good design includes adequate drainage and suitable roofing materials.

Seeking experts rather than generalists, sticking with a maintenance schedule and expecting thorough, well-documented reports with opportunity for follow up are the backbone of successful mall and shopping center maintenance programs, from top to bottom.