'Latinoizing' has Desert Sky flying
The harried mother entered west Phoenix's Desert Sky Mall, grabbing her young
daughter's hand before the tyke could dash toward Mariscos La Doña restaurant.
"No, mija (daughter). We don't have tiempo (time) to eat, so comportate
(behave), please," she said. "We'll eat later."
The setting could not have been more appropriate for the recent multicultural
exchange, because a stroll through the bustling Latino-accented mall showed
dozens of patrons chatting with sales associates in Spanish, English or
Spanglish. It was a far cry from 1981, when Desert Sky opened to serve a
predominantly Anglo clientele. More than a decade later, competition and
changing demographics resulted in a shopping center struggling to attract
customers of any ethnicity.
Mall officials soon realized that luring stores from discount centers and swap
meets favored by the area's burgeoning Mexican-American residents might help
save the flagging retail enterprise. The gamble paid off, with substantial
revenue gains over the past several years and a recent contract to bring La
Curacao, a California department-store chain known as the "Hispanic Best Buy,"
to the 892,000-square-foot mall.
The Latino-centric strategy is one that has taken hold nationwide as more
mainstream malls - including ventures in Kansas City, Mo., Tulsa, Okla., and
Salt Lake City - now target the nation's largest and fastest-growing minority
group to combat sluggish sales.
"We love what the mall is doing to attract all of these Latino customers,"
said Mia Terry, assistant manager of Desert Sky's Anchor Blue store. "We had our
highest sales numbers last year, and we'll probably surpass that this year."
Mall has had a bumpy road
In July 2002, Santa Monica, Calif.-based Macerich Co. bought Westcor, the
Arizona mall developer that built Desert Sky Mall.
But the mall had experienced decreasing occupancy levels, with flagship stores
such as JCPenney and Montgomery Ward jumping ship because of poor sales.
Competition from Arrowhead Mall, a 10-minute drive away, also had taken its
"Desert Sky Mall wasn't considered an 'A' mall or even a 'B' mall," said Zeke
Valenzuela, Desert Sky's general manager. "They even considered selling it
because business was that bad."
Instead, mall executives persuaded Macerich to bankroll a Spanish-language
print, radio and TV campaign to draw new customers. The same executives then
flew to Mexico City and Laredo and El Paso, Texas, to research Hispanic retail
trends at prosperous malls.
"We realized that we didn't have to go very far because we had the potential
tenants in our backyard, folks in bargain centers, strip malls or swap meets,"
Valenzuela said. "We needed to bring some of those in to give our customers the
flavor that they wanted."
A touch of Mexico
It didn't take much to persuade local Latino businesses to consider moving to
Desert Sky. Incentives, such as shorter, discounted leases and assistance with
merchandise placement, often helped seal the deals. But "haggling," a swap-meet
tradition, was out.
Initially, some Desert Sky tenants balked at efforts to "Latinoize" the mall,
such as bilingual signage and using Spanish-speaking sales assistants.
But they soon had a change of heart when the influx of new customers bolstered
their waning sales, Valenzuela said.
"They're in the business of making money, so who's not going to be happy when
their foot traffic and revenues increase?" he said.
Today, a stroll through the revitalized mall shows its multicultural approach.
Latino-owned businesses such as El Carrizal Realtor, which peddles land sales in
Mexico, sit a stone's throw from shopping mall mainstay Radio Shack.
Other offerings include Joyeria del Pueblo's jewelry store across from Bath &
Body Works, La Gran Bota shoe store across from Anchor Blue and Cinema Latino, a
four-theater chain that shows recent Hollywood movies with Spanish subtitles.
West Phoenix resident Olga Rios visits Desert Sky weekly. She recently rushed to
CandyMania, which features hundreds of dulces (candies) from Mexico, including
masapán, a popular peanut confection, and sweetened milk products from Productos
"I'm shopping for my daughter's birthday party treats," Rios said. "That's one
of the things that I love about this mall. That you can shop at the top
department stores but also . . . stores that help you hold on to your culture.
That's important to me."