“When I first started working here, it was a busy mall. It was better than Sherway,” says Susan Azeez, who’s been working as an optometrist at LensCrafters in the Etobicoke mall for over 20 years.
She believes this is because many of the mall’s big brand stores have shut down operations like Shoppers Drug Mart, La Vie en Rose, and Bulk Barn, the most recent closure that saw operations shut down at Woodbine Centre in August 2019. According to Azeez, these stores “brought a lot of business into the mall.”
Nick Pulsone, who recently graduated from Ryerson University’s spatial analysis master’s program also says that the lack of anchor tenants – big brand name stores that have a large pull in customers – could be the part of the reason for the decline in visitors.
“When anchor tenants leave, especially in malls, that’s usually a giant sign of decaying productivity in the mall,” said Pulsone in a phone interview with GH360.
According to his 2017 undergraduate thesis analysis about the productivity of the mall, Pulsone says “the number of vacant tenant locations continues to increase while the total number of active retailers across all categories are decreasing.”
Between 2001-2011 96 stores had closed or moved out according to data from Ryerson University’s Centre for the Study of Commercial Activity (CSCA). Some of these stores include McDonald’s, The Body Shop, Espirit, and Wine Rack.
Pulsone’s analysis also compared census data over a 10-year period and suggests that the demographics of the surrounding area have changed from “white family households with young children” to a more ethnically diverse, younger, and single demographic with students from Humber College and the University of Guelph-Humber comprising a large part of it.
“This is something that’s very big. If you don’t take into account these changes in retail, you’re going to be marketing to a demographic that isn’t there,” says Pulsone.
Pulsone, who grew up close to the mall says he remembers Woodbine being marketed as the one-stop-shop for families. Parents could shop at the stores while the kids enjoyed the rides at Fantasy Fair. He says that since census data shows the number of families in the area declining, better marketing tactics are needed to draw in the new single and more ethnically diverse demographics.
The mall was bought in 2015 by Issa “Chris” Hinn, CEO of Woodbine Mall Holdings Inc., who introduced an ambitious revitalization plan to expand Woodbine to include a convention centre, theatre, water park, and new condos. Pictures of the redevelopment plan can be found around the mall.
In a 2017 interview with Bisnow.com, Hinn says the expansion would take four years and would cost $57 million. Renovations would include improving the washrooms and food court, putting new asphalt for the parking lot, adding LED lighting and creating more seating for guests.
According to some staff, the mall has only received a few cosmetic renovations so far: new floor tiles, chairs and tables scattered throughout the mall and some new rides at Fantasy Fair.
When contacted by GH360, Hinn did not respond to requests for an interview.
Pulsone thinks Hinn’s plans for renovations are a step in the right direction but believes there needs to be major changes in order to make the mall financially successful.“To really and truly make the mall prosper, there’s going to have to be some large-scale development.”
He says bringing in more brand name stores is a good start. “If people are driving by on Highway 27, and they see this store that no one really knows they think ‘why should I go there?’ That’s not a really good business decision.”
With many of the anchor tenants gone, Azeez says that most people now come to the mall for Fantasy Fair. “This here is what keeps the mall going,” she says.
But the amusement park isn’t doing so well either, according to Nanda Shuman, manager of Fantasy Fair, who’s worked at the amusement park since 1992. “Comparing then to now, we’ve seen a big drop in the past two to three years,” says Shuman.
Shuman says the decline in the number of visitors at Fantasy Fair could be due to a number of things including families having less money for entertainment and competition between newer amusement parks like Canada’s Wonderland.