'Latinoizing' has Desert Sky flying
Arizona Republic

Mel Meléndez

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 toll.

"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 Aldama.

"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."