Things aren’t always what they appear. But sometimes, perceptions become reality.
Take the businesses inside the Lebanon Valley Mall, for instance. There are many things about the local mall that don’t appear to be the same as they used to.
The Lebanon Valley Mall is changing right along with the turbulent times in which we currently live – much like it always has. What hasn’t changed is the mall’s role in the Lebanon community, and management’s commitment to the town it serves.
For 50 years, the Lebanon Valley Mall, which is located at 2231 Cumberland Street on the west side of Lebanon, has been a shopping center, a gathering spot for locals and one of the social-economic focal points of Lebanon County. The good news is that it doesn’t appear that the mall is going anywhere anytime soon.
“The core values put in place by the Boscovs have always stayed true to the basics,” said Jacob Stein, who serves as Boscov’s community relations coordinator, among his many roles with Boscov’s department stores. “The idea is: ‘If you’re catering to your core customers, you’ll do OK’. It’s about serving customers. We take pride in our customer service. At the end of the day, if you’re selling quality products at reasonable prices, people will go there. We’ve got what people want, at the lowest possible prices.
“You’re always looking at what others are doing and questioning if you’re doing the right things,” Stein added. “I’m thankful we’re founded by great values and that we’ve stayed true to them. There are winners and losers in this business. It’s kind of been a non-neutral situation for us for the last ten years. We’ve been juggling and keeping everything in the air.”
The Lebanon Valley Mall has experienced the same financial challenges facing many malls across the country.
Online shopping has changed the way malls do business. More customers are staying home and doing their shopping from the comforts of their electronic devices – and that was even before the year-long and ongoing COVID-19 crisis hit.
“We’re not going anywhere,” said Stein. “We’re not going to foreclose, or anything like that. We have no debt. You can’t file for bankruptcy if you have no debt. We’re not pulling the plug. We’re not handing our keys over to some bank. We’re in it for the long haul. We live in a social media age. Now, everyone has a voice. On the surface, that seems to be a good thing, but it creates some challenges.”
A current stroll through it may serve as a shock for those with strong memories of how the Lebanon Valley Mall once was. Anchor and Lebanon Valley Mall owner and developer Boscov’s still remains, as does long-time vendors Mancino’s Pizza, Kay’s Jewelers, Bath and Body Works, Foot Locker, General Nutrition Centers and the Regal Lebanon Valley Stadium Ten movie complex. Now, the mall is also anchored by Hobby Lobby, Planet Fitness, PriceRite and Lifeway Church, in spaces where businesses like Murphy’s Mart, Ames, Acme Markets, J.C. Penney’s, Radio Shack, Waldenbooks, Kinney Shoes and Zale’s Jewelers once operated.
While the only true constant about the Lebanon Valley Mall over the years has been change, there currently seems to be a movement within the mall away from retail establishments and towards service-related businesses like Quest Diagnostics, Danstation School of Dance, Five Stones Kids, and even a pair of branches of military recruiters. Stein said that 80 percent of the 40 available store spaces are currently being leased.
“I think the closed mall industry itself is headed towards evolving the physical structures and finding new ways to serve communities,” said Stein. “Maybe that means more medical-related businesses. It’s not your traditional shopping center experience. Maybe more storage-related businesses or indoor entertainment offerings. It’s a matter of taking a step back and examining what are the realities of the mall world and what are the needs of the community. And what’s the best and highest uses for the spaces.
“You might say that we want to return to the indoor shopping experience that it once was,” continued Stein. “But that’s unrealistic. We like to tell ourselves we’re doing what every good business does. We’re asking, ‘What’s the appropriate thing to do from a business perspective? What’s the right thing to do long term?’”
Boscov’s opened the Lebanon Valley Mall in the early 1970s through Lebanon Valley Mall Company, owned by the department store’s realty subsidiary, and the mall’s anchor represented the first Boscov’s store built outside of Berks County. Today, the third-generation, Reading-based regional chain operates 48 Boscov’s department stores in the northeast and mid-Atlantic region of the United States.
There was a time that seems like not so long ago when younger people went to the Lebanon Valley Mall to shop, meet friends, hang out, and maybe even stop by the 25-cent arcade.
“I look at the Lebanon Valley Mall as a success story in that it’s not a vacant lot,” said Stein. “There are similar properties that are dead and waiting to be torn down. For as tough as the economy is today, we’re lucky to have all of our anchors filled. We were trying to stay ahead of the curve before the pandemic hit. We kind of knew that malls weren’t going to be around forever. All the pandemic did was accelerate the process by five or ten years.
“We have a lot of irons in the fire,” added Stein. “But at the end of the day, some of the decisions are out of our control. It’s not easy. It requires a lot of investment. We’re putting money back into it. The family is willing to put financial resources back into it, and because they are, it’ll be a good story. If you don’t invest into a property, it’s doomed.”
For many years, local shoppers have shunned the Lebanon Valley Mall and taken their retail dollars to surrounding cities like Lancaster, Harrisburg, Reading and even York. The Lebanon Valley Mall is just one of more than 60 indoor shopping centers currently operating in Pennsylvania.
“Social media get shared so much, that some of it seems like facts, and perception becomes reality,” said Stein. “If your perception of a mall is that it’s 100 percent retail, then it’s going to be a total failure. It’s not what’s out there today. As a mall owner, our focus is business to business. We’re there to do business with businesses who work with their customers. If we do that, we perceive success much differently.
“Do we have a business that’s financially sustainable and driving traffic to our property?” concluded Stein. “In that way, it’s very successful. But we don’t look at it the way we did 30 years ago. We’re proud of our work and what we’re doing for our vendors? As a consumer, the first thing you think of is ‘It isn’t what it used to be. What happened?’ Perception is something we have to be aware of, but we can’t let it dictate our decision making.”
In that way, the Lebanon Valley Mall continues to apply the lessons it has learned from the past.
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