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New Plant Shop Joins Numerous Nontraditional Mall Tenants In Chicago As Retail Landscape Evolves

CHICAGO (CBS) -- The Coresight Research group says 25 percent of America's malls are projected to close by 2025.

As CBS 2's Marissa Parra reported Thursday morning, some local malls are getting creative in a race to replace empty storefronts made worse by the pandemic.

Across from the pristine mannequins of the Banana Republic Factory Store at Block 37, Desiree Washington gets her hands dirty. Her slice of heaven is trimming greens.

"Oh, I love them! I've got plant tights, plant dresses – I frequently even have plant masks," Washington said.

She co-owns the Potting Bench Plant Studio with her partner Aaron Bouverette. During the pandemic, they fell into the trend of turning a hobby into a living – only now, their work tending to plants draws an audience of curious faces pressed up against the mall window.

"I think it surprises them – people in general – when they're out shopping don't expect to see this, in a mall especially," Washington said.

Washington has already noticed a massive difference in clientele since they moved into the urban mall weeks ago. More frequent than the shoppers with bags in hand are the hurried commuters with a laptop bag slung over their shoulder.

"They'll run in here breathless, like: 'Wow, plants! I need one for my office!' before they run out," she said.

Washington and Bouverette's idea to bring their online plant business to a mall first started at a kiosk earlier this year in Louis Joliet Mall in Joliet, before they "repotted" their inventory to plant roots at Block 37 downtown.

"We saw a need. People started wanting plants more during the pandemic, and I know malls are trying to figure out a way to attract new customers," said Washington, gesturing around at the mall. "This place was a ghost town."

Situated above the Chicago Transit Authority Red and Blue lines, the plant shop joins a growing list of non-traditional mall tenants. Those tenants are now neighbors with the AMC movie theater on the mall's top floor, which debuted in 2015.

Adjacent is First Ascent indoor rock climbing, which opened two years later. And also new to the block this year is the Five Iron Golf Experience.

They are not to be confused with the Topgolf Swing Suite at the 900 North Michigan Shops on the Mag Mile. Topgolf opened in 2019.

"What you describe is one of the directions shopping malls need to go," said Northwestern University Professor of Marketing Alexander Chernev.

Chernev, who studies consumer behavior, said this is just part of the evolution of malls as more people turn to online shopping. The pandemic just made it all happen faster.

"One way malls are changing is focusing more on entertainment and socializing, because online services like Amazon can already substitute the shopping component," Chernev said. "What we cannot get online is the experience."

And offering a unique experience is exactly what that little slice of green heaven at the Potting Bench Plant Studio delivers.

"When [customers] turn the corner and see our shop, they are like (gasp)!" Washington said.

Block 37 has seen its share of financial struggles since its debut in 2009 made worse during the pandemic, as the line of empty storefronts seemed to grow. Potting Bench has made a home out of what used to be the Godiva shop, which announced the closure of all 128 U.S. stores in late January.

Washington hopes their growth, with both their plants and customer base, will breathe new life into Block 37.

"Our ultimate goal is to be a reason why people come here," Washington said.

Potting Bench has plans to expand beyond the shop and offer classes in the mall's basement to new and experienced plant owners – even Chicago students.

The latest updates are available on their Facebook page.

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