Restricting the number of customers coming to a property at the height of the deepest recession since the Great Depression may seem like an odd strategy. But that’s exactly what the management of Northlake Mall, a 1.1-million-square-foot regional mall in Charlotte, N.C., opted to do by instituting a parental escort policy for teenagers in June 2009.

At the time, same-store sales for U.S. chain stores were in the midst of a 10-month-long losing streak and were down 5.1 percent from the year prior. Even tenants that survived the carnage without entering bankruptcy or closing stores were struggling. And retailers that catered to teens were particularly hard-hit. In June 2009, same-store sales for Abercrombie & Fitch fell 32 percent. Sales at American Eagle Outfitters tumbled 11 percent.

Yet, in spite of the dreadful sales environment, the mall’s tenants, including Abercrombie, American Eagle, Express and Hollister, were on board with the decision, says Phil Morosco, general manager of Northlake Mall. There were no major security breaches at the center in recent years, Morosco notes, but management felt the sheer number of teenagers on site was scaring away adult shoppers.

“We got to a point where we felt uncomfortable with our ability to provide a safe environment,” he says. “We’d have as many as 2,000 unescorted young people [here at one time]. Even the tenants were concerned with all these kids in the center.”

The policy is now in effect on Friday and Saturday nights starting at 5:00 p.m. After that time, anyone under 18 has to have an adult over 21 supervising them. Morosco says mall management wasn’t concerned about the policy hurting tenants. In fact, after discussing curfews with managers of other properties that have undertaken similar measures, he expected to see retailers’ sales numbers rise. Besides, the policy only covers a total of eight hours a week, he notes, and whatever traffic Northlake Mall might have lost in teenagers during Friday and Saturday nights, it had made up in increased traffic from adult shoppers.

Northlake Mall is part of a curious trend among U.S. retail centers. While teen curfews have existed since the 1990s, mall owners and managers have always been cautious about the strategy. Yet during the recession, owners have continued to opt to employ them. From 2008 through 2010, at least 20 properties throughout the country have instituted these programs, according to the most recent statistics from ICSC. The owners of these centers say they have seen few objections from tenants.

Teen curfews are designed to solve the problem of unruly behavior by under-aged mall patrons when they use the mall as a hangout in the after-school hours and on weekends. In addition to being associated with frequent fights and increased incidents of shoplifting, large crowds of unsupervised teens tend to scare away adult shoppers, resulting in lower sales, mall managers say.

At the same time, however, mall owners want to be careful about not alienating a segment of the population that will one day become their core customers. After all, at 113 million people, Generation Y, to which today’s teenagers belong, is larger than even the Baby Boomer cohort. And it does appear that owners have become savvier about implementing these policies without raising the ire of shoppers by getting input from local communities, scheduling family-friendly events during curfew nights and training their security personnel to handle policy violations in a non-confrontational manner.

Overall, there is no consensus within the industry as to whether curfews are the best strategy. In the worst cases, some mall owners have had to refute allegations that curfews are racially motivated. Some companies have employed them while others have avoided them altogether because of the negative responses they can draw. For example, Macerich Co., a Santa Monica, Calif.-based regional mall owner with 71 centers in its portfolio, has made a corporate level decision not to institute curfews at its properties. As a result, even owners that employ curfews can be reluctant to talk about them. Or when they do, they tend to define the policies in less controversial terms—for example, calling them “parental escort” programs.

“We don’t use the term curfew. It’s an adult supervision program,” says Jim Wofford, general manager of the 1.1-million-square-foot MacArthur Center in Norfolk, Va. The center instituted the program in October of 2009. It goes into effect at 5:00 p.m. seven days a week for anyone under the age of 18. “It was created for a safe atmosphere.… Before we rolled out the program, there was a lot of research and analysis on our part; we also had meetings with many of our stakeholders. Everyone, including the merchants, was very supportive and very positive about the introduction.”

Potential pitfalls

One of the biggest reservations mall owners have about instituting curfews is response from teenage customers. In some cases teen shoppers have organized boycotts—a feat that has become easier to accomplish with the help of social networking sites like Twitter and Facebook.

For example, when the managers of the 1.1-million-square-foot Christiana Mall in Newark, Del. instituted a curfew in July 2008 for Friday and Saturday nights, local teenagers created a Facebook group urging others not to shop at the mall. The group quickly attracted more than 1,000 members and received exposure on television and in the local newspaper.

Sometimes, the threats don’t stop with store boycotts. Managers of the Clearview Mall, a 700,000-square-foot center in Metairie, La., instituted a curfew program in February 2008 that required all visitors under 16 to be supervised by adults after 4:00 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays. The management instituted the curfew after a few adolescents attacked a food court worker. Prior to the fight, there were also reports of teens using drugs and having sex in the property’s parking lot.

In response to the curfew two local teenagers posted messages on MySpace threatening violence against the mall’s patrons and promising to bring guns to the center. The teens were arrested. Meanwhile, another 17-year-old mall patron started a MySpace group called Rise Against the Clearview Age Ban (RACAB). The RACAB site, which advocated beefing up security at the mall instead of using a curfew to deter unruly behavior, attracted more than 1,000 members.

Mall managers say that fewer teens at the property rarely result in lower sales, since most of the time the teens are not spending vast sums of money anyway outside of the food court. “They were here to socialize, not to shop,” says John Ecklund, general manager of Walden Galleria, a 1.6-million-square-foot property in Buffalo, N.Y. The center started using a curfew as far back as 2002 on Friday and Saturday evenings.

“I can recall there were a few tenants that were geared toward the teen market who expressed concern that it was going to negatively affect their business, but it did not,” Ecklund says. “It ended up being a non-problem. After instituting the program, we noticed shopper traffic increased on weekends and within a year we had noticed significant sales growth.”

Some curfews go into effect so late at night that management can argue many retailers are not affected at all. For example, Turnberry Associates recently issued a parental escort policy for teens under 18 at its Aventura Mall, a 2.7-million-square-foot center in Aventura, Fla. (The policy came to be after 12 teenagers were arrested for having a fight in front of the mall’s movie theater, though management says it was under discussion for some months). But the policy only covers Friday and Saturday nights after 9:30 p.m. At that time, the only venues that remain open at Aventura are the movie theater and the restaurants, according to Joe Szymaszek, vice president of retail operations with Turnberry.

More often, management is concerned about the potential for lawsuits if loitering teens feel they are being unfairly targeted or if the mall’s security staff doesn’t have the proper training to handle curfew violators. Many communities, for example, might suspect the curfews have less to do with controlling the number of unsupervised young shoppers at the property than with minimizing the presence of poor and minority teenagers, notes Chris E. McGoey, a Los Angeles-based professional investigator and security consultant.

There have been a couple of instances in the past three years where the NAACP got involved in helping ease tensions between mall managers and community members. For example, in the spring of 2007, the 1.8-million-square-foot Arbor Place mall in Douglasville, Ga. (owned by Chattanooga, Tenn.-based CBL & Associates Properties) instituted a curfew for Friday and Saturday nights. The measure caused some mall patrons to accuse management of targeting African-American teens. In response, NAACP representatives met with community leaders to explain how the curfew worked and tried to educate teens about their rights. They have also made visits to the property to ensure the curfew was being enforced fairly.

Meanwhile, some mall managers who plan to institute curfews get in touch with NAACP ahead of time to get the group's input and approval. That’s what the management of the Tower City Center in Cleveland, Ohio did before putting in a daily curfew after 2:30 p.m. in the fall of 2007.

Learning to deal

Aware of the potential for bad publicity, mall managers are trying to exercise as much caution as possible when they put the curfew option on the table. They undertake months of research, looking at other malls that have curfews in place, and go out into the community to talk to local police departments, faith groups and municipal officials to get their input on how extensive the curfews should be.

They make sure to give notice to both teens and parents weeks in advance, so when policies take effect, the potential for misunderstandings is minimized. For example, when Northlake Mall was about to implement its curfew, the mall’s management met with the local school superintendant to make sure school officials distributed curfew information to their students. And three weeks before the curfew was about to start, the management asked volunteers to stand at the entrances to the property and give out the information to passersby.

Mall managers have also become savvier about using social networking sites to update shoppers on new policies and promote family-friendly activities at the times the curfews go into effect. Jones Lang LaSalle Retail, an Atlanta-based third party management provider holds “Family Friendly at 5:00 p.m.”, with programming that can include anything from fashion shows to free movie nights to craft fairs to photo contests. It uses Facebook and Twitter to get the word out about the activities.

In fact, mall managers at most centers emphasize that they don’t want to prevent teens from visiting after hours. They just want them to come with their families, rather than congregating in common areas with scores of other teens.

“The retailers want to do business with everyone,” says Phil Morosco, the manager at Northlake Mall. “The kids are still welcome at the center; we are just asking them to come with an adult.”

At the same time, mall managers have to be careful about training their security staff on how to enforce the policies effectively and minimize the potential for conflict. When Jones Lang LaSalle institutes a curfew at any of its properties, the mall’s security guards undergo up to two weeks of training on the subject, says Elizabeth Faulkner, vice president and regional marketing manager with Jones Lang LaSalle.

Faulkner, who attended one of these seminars herself, says topics of discussion include how to approach the teenagers, how to check their IDs and what to do if you have a teen at the property after 5:00 p.m. without a parent present.

“I was very impressed—there is not much that is left to chance, it’s all very though out, including the safety and comfort of the shopper,” Faulkner notes. “It helped see that there is a misperception people have of the program that sometimes kids come to the center and are told to leave. But it isn’t that way at all. The security officers are told to ask the teens what time they came [in case they arrived before 5:00 p.m. and lost track of the hours], we have a place set up where they could watch movies as they wait for someone to pick them up. None of this is done in a negative way.”