“I usually see them in groups early in the morning,” says Judy Martin, a frequent shopper at the Chandler Fashion Center, an indoor/outdoor regional mall in the Phoenix Valley town of Chandler, Ariz. They come young or old, coupled or alone, with strollers or without. The “mall walkers” are the early risers who tread the 1.3 million-square-foot center hours before the first shopper enters.

“We open the doors at 6 a.m., just for the mall walkers. The stores don't open until 10 a.m.,” says Shawn, a young concierge. “They come here to stay out of the heat,” he says, referring to typical 100-plus degree temperatures outside. Some mall walkers like to end their laps with a cup of coffee at the Wildflower Bread Co. Their familiarity of the mall encourages them to come back later when stores open.

For Judy, a Niagara Falls, Canada, native who has lived in the Phoenix suburb for nine years, lounging on a bench watching the promenade jumpstarts her day. “I love that you can just walk if you want to. And you can always buy something later,” says Judy, who stops by Elephant Bar Restaurant every week with her husband Glenn, a retired mining worker.

Designed by Dallas-based Omniplan, the mall's three corridors include native stone, copper, wood and clusters of cacti. A billboard displaying Arizona's desert landscape provides an appropriate backdrop to the indoor excursions.

“Oh, he might be a mall walker,” says an excited Judy, pointing to a man in his 60s wearing a jogging suit. “My friend Lyn and her husband do their speed walking here all of the time. They're in their 50s,” says Martin, who usually sees retirees on her morning path. “I call them Q-tips, gray-hairs with white sneakers.”

For consumers — the average Chandlerite is 32 with an annual household income of $81,000 — mall walking is a good way to increase cardio and window shop. This is clearly a retail center built for women, Martin adds, “because men like circular malls and don't go window shopping. It's easier to find their way out.”

Chandler Fashion Center, owned by Macerich Co., opened its doors two years ago following the completion of Loop 101 Freeway, Chandler is growing fast, due partially to the new highway loops. The population increased to 216,000 in 2003 from 165,000 in 1998. “We've had almost 1,000 new residents come in every month since 1995,” says Christine Mackay, economic development specialist for the city. The area has a strong technology base, she says, with wealthy executives at Intel, Motorola and Microchip. Chandler alone has $3 billion in disposable income, says Mackay.

The mall is surrounded by three power centers. Competing malls include Mill Corp.'s Arizona Mills and Macerich-owned Superstition Springs Center and Scottsdale Fashion Square. Martin says she used to travel about 40 minutes north to the Fiesta Mall in Mesa before the Chandler Fashion Center opened.

As afternoon shoppers squeeze through the aisles with carts and shopping bags, it's no surprise that mall walkers only come out before the store lights come on. For them, it's walking the 10-meter.

Vitals

Location: Chandler Ariz.

Owned by Macerich Co. and managed by Westcor Partners

Size: 1.3 million square feet

Year Opened: 2001

Cost: $41 million

Anchors: Nordstrom, Dillard's, Robinsons-May, Sears, Cheesecake Factory