Amid a sluggish economy and battered consumer confidence, marketing directors at shopping centers across the country are reaching out to consumers, tugging at both their heart and pursestrings in attempts to drive traffic, build customer loyalty and promote good corporate citizenship.

In October, to mark the grand reopening of Del Monte Shopping Center in Monterey, Calif., San Diego-based owner American Assets Inc. plans to sponsor Project Dreambuilder, a fundraiser benefiting a local children's museum. At the 675,000-square-foot, open-air center, five furnished, child-size playhouses, donated by local builders and architects, will be displayed through Oct. 18. At the opening, a raffle will be held for one of the playhouses and a live auction for the three others.

On the opposite coast about two weeks later, Cleveland-based Forest City Commercial Development and West Palm Beach, Fla.-based Goodman Co. will mark the grand opening of the Shops at Wiregrass in Wesley Chapel, Fla., near Tampa, with the “Print Pink!” campaign. For $50 donations to the American Cancer Society in the fight against breast cancer, shoppers will be able to leave their handprints or inscribe a personal message on clay tiles. The tiles will be signed and glazed, then displayed at the 750,000-square-foot, open-air lifestyle center.

“The commitment to give back to the community has been very much an important part of branding the shopping center,” says Judi Lapin, a marketing consultant in Costa Mesa, Calif., who specializes in retail properties. “Those are things that don't have to cost a lot of money.”

And they bring along a side benefit. Reaching out to the community can help drive traffic to shopping centers. At a time when many retailers are struggling with disappointing sales results and consumers are conserving gas and cutting back on shopping trips, generating foot traffic is more important than ever. That means marketing directors are especially busy.

Return policy

In a down economy, a first instinct might be to cut back on marketing. But many owners and managers say that would be a huge mistake. Developers Diversified Realty Corp., a Beachwood, Ohio-based owner and operator of more than 700 shopping centers in the United States and abroad, emphasizes marketing and branding, in both good and bad economic times.

This year, Developers Diversified launched some new initiatives, including Project Imagination, which encourages children ages 5 to 14 to express, through writing or artwork, how their city or state helps shape America. Charitable donations will be bestowed in the winners' names.

Also, this year Developers Diversified kicked off an 11-city U.S. tour featuring sculptures by pop artist Romero Britto. Sponsors have been secured for each city. John Kokinchak, executive vice president of property management at Developers Diversified, says displaying Britto's works at 11 of the company's lifestyle centers inspires creativity and encourages art appreciation. Proceeds from fundraisers tied to the exhibition benefit the National Multiple Sclerosis Society Scholarship Fund.

“We try to think of our shopping centers as the hub of their communities,” says Scott Schroeder, vice president of marketing and corporate communications at Developers Diversified. “We're trying to demonstrate that shopping centers are more than just a place to do your back-to-school shopping. There are also some great things that they can do to contribute to the community.”

In 2007, Developers Diversified honored close to 200 American children in its inaugural Kids with Heart program. The kids, representing nine U.S. centers, were honored for their work with charities, kindness to others and contributions to their communities. This year, Developers Diversified expanded the program to almost 30 shopping centers in the United States and Puerto Rico. The company estimates expenses for last year's program cost less than $40,000. However, the campaign captured $400,000 worth of media exposure.

Connecting with the community doesn't necessarily have to mean donating. It could also be as simple as raising awareness and engaging consumers. For example, in August, at 150 malls nationwide, Chicago-based General Growth Properties launched the six-week UR Vote Counts campaign. The program, whose “spokesgirl” is Disney star Selena Gomez, educates teens about national and world issues, and encourages them to cast their mock votes for U.S. president. As part of the campaign's charity element, teens can select which nonprofit organization will receive a $15,000, $7,500 or $2,500 donation from General Growth Properties. The participants received offers for giveaways and retail promotions. They were also eligible for a $5,000 General Growth shopping spree.

Common cause

When devising marketing strategies and figuring out how to create and foster local communities, one of the most important steps is identifying the shopping center's core customers.

To that end, Santa Monica, Calif.-based Macerich Co., knew that women were the vast majority of the shoppers at its centers. But it didn't know exactly what the women in its markets were looking for. So the company conducted focus groups at five of its malls. The conclusion: Women were starving for networking opportunities that contain a do-good component.

Based on that information, Macerich teamed up with the nonprofit Step Up Women's Network in establishing the Step Out Step Up program. The Los Angeles-based nonprofit's goal is to strengthen community resources for women and girls through promoting health, education and well being.

In May women gathered at more than 60 of Macerich's properties for Step Out Step Up initiatives. At one center, that included a mother-daughter breakfast where volunteers also filled 30,000 wellness bags to send to women affected by cancer. The company brought its tenants into the loop by asking retailers to donate products for the bags and restaurants to help cater the event. Besides the bag-stuffing, volunteers could pamper themselves by taking advantage of cosmetic makeovers, spa treatments and fashion shows.

The response from the community was so overwhelming that Macerich was able to fill the wellness bags with ease and, in fact, could have upped its targets if it had realized just how many people were going to show up, says Susan Valentine, senior vice president of marketing at Macerich.

Macerich was so pleased it plans to sponsor another Step Out Step Up event during the upcoming holiday season. On Dec. 11, shoppers will be invited to Macerich properties to gift-wrap 40,000 holiday presents that Macerich will buy for local underprivileged women. Next year, Step Out Step Up will serve as the umbrella theme for several Macerich-sponsored events, says Valentine.

Step Out Step Up offers shoppers “even more of a reason to come to the mall,” and that can translate into more purchases, notes Valentine.

Pumped up

Shoppers at GK Development Inc.'s nine regional malls have something to celebrate too. With its marketing promotion, Barrington, Ill.-based GK is trying to ease consumers' “fuel fright.''

In April, GK's North Grand Mall in Ames, Iowa, received more than 1,400 entries — including 570 e-mail addresses — in a first-time giveaway for a gas-saving scooter valued at nearly $2,100. Last month, during Iowa's tax holiday, North Grand offered a $10 gas card to any shopper who presented at least $100 in receipts from one day of shopping. The average spent by promotion participants was $144. Other GK malls are conducting gas giveaways as well.

“We're really hitting a hot item by offering the shoppers what concerns them the most, and right now that's fuel,” says Debbie Wodrich, director of marketing at GK.

Another retail center achieving success with pocketbook-minded consumers is Talega Village Center in San Clemente, Calif. The 103,000-square-foot community center, developed by Irvine, Calif.-based Hopkins Real Estate Group, opened in mid-June.

It's anchored by a Ralphs grocery store. A coupon-filled, grand-opening piece mailed to 12,000 nearby residents notched a 21 percent redemption rate. Traditionally, a 2 percent to 5 percent redemption rate is considered decent for a marketing mailer, says Lapin, whose Lapin Consulting Group worked with Talega.

Lapin senses “a gung-ho attitude” among her clients toward overcoming declines in retail sales.

“I'm not seeing any kind of cutbacks on marketing expenditures due to the economy,” she says. “If anything, I'm seeing programs continue to try to keep shoppers coming in.”