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Malls Taking Gentler Approach Toward Teens : Shopping: They hang out amid the stores, blocking entrances and intimidating customers. When banning the youths did not work, merchants tried getting them involved in the business.

ASSOCIATED PRESS

With Christmas shoppers breathing down their necks, the people who run the nation’s almost 35,000 shopping centers have an eye out these days for the droves of teen-agers whose high jinks sometimes explode in violence and whose presence sometimes intimidates other shoppers.

About a dozen shopping centers and malls have gone so far as to ban teen-agers entirely at critical hours.

And even those that haven’t are looking for ways to cope with youngsters who have adopted the comfortable and elegant mall surroundings as second homes.

At its fall meeting in Kansas City, the International Council of Shopping Centers held a seminar titled “Hanging Out: Whose Shopping Mall Is It Anyway?”

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At McKinley Mall in Hamburg, N.Y., 15 miles from Buffalo, no one under 20 is allowed inside between 6 p.m. and 10 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays, unless they are reporting for work or are accompanied by an adult.

The mall took the action after an estimated 600 teens inundated the mall’s food court one Friday night and a fight in the parking lot spilled over into the common area.

At the Randall Park Mall in North Randall, Ohio, the operators don’t allow unescorted teens at any hour. Even teen-agers going to the theater must be brought and picked up.

Omaha’s Park Fair has banned people under 18.

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Beyond those shopping centers that have banned teens, far more have reported trouble controlling teen crowds that clog common areas, block store entrances and generally, if inadvertently, intimidate customers.

But banning teens has also posed an ironic conflict. Teens are good customers. They spend a lot of money.

Mall operators say the problems stem from changes in the community, a growing number of two-income latchkey families and the cuts made in school budgets, leaving the teens no place to go when the closing bell rings. They are a new kind of temporarily homeless, and the mall is a haven.

The scene at Aurora Mall, outside Denver, Colo., this Christmas season is a study in contrast to a year ago.

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This year there are teen-age advisory boards at all eight high schools in the mall’s neighborhood, and each of these sends a representative to a super advisory board that meets once a month at the mall.

These youngsters, with adult advisers drawn from the community, help devise programs that can help revise adult perceptions about teen-agers.

So this Christmas they will field Customer Service Ambassadors, drawn from the high schools, who will help adult customers with their parcels, with directions to shops, and try to change adult attitudes to the teen-age presence. There will also be teen-agers available at the mall to wrap Christmas presents for customers.

Consider last year. Mall operators began to notice a growing number of youngsters in the spring of 1989. Susan Keene, general manager, says they were congregating in large groups, “acting out in loud fashion” and otherwise horsing around. “We started receiving complaints from our adult shoppers” on Mondays following the weekends.

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“So in order to get rid of the problem and get rid of it fast, we instituted a get-tough policy in the fall of 1989. It was a kind of steamroller approach.”

Youngsters were handed wallet-sized cards with rules of behavior on them--no behavior likely to cause a disturbance, no sitting on planter walls, no alcoholic beverages, no blocking store entrances. After two weeks notice, they were given one warning and then photographed and banned. Recalcitrants were arrested by local police and charged with trespassing.

The mall was banning 10 to 15 youngsters every Saturday.

But it didn’t work. There was no decrease in teen-agers coming to the mall. Harassment was not the answer. Furthermore, the mall became the target of a boycott and pickets from the black community, which perceived the tactic as being aimed at their children.

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“While only about 20% of Aurora Mall shoppers were African-American,” says manager Keene, “about 75% of the kids who come to the mall are African-American.”

Clearly something else had to be done. The mall began with a marketing survey, intercepting youngsters and holding discussion groups to find out just who they were. What they found was something of a surprise.

The teens and their parents, they discovered, had a sense of ownership of the mall, even though it was private property. They felt it was their right to congregate there, not just to shop. The youngsters came to be with their friends, to make dates, to find out where the parties were, all of this in lieu of a school environment that had suffered from budget cuts.

The mall offered an elegant and inexpensive focus for the youngsters, and in some cases a place they perceived as being safer than their own neighborhoods. The youngsters, concerned about gang activity in the community, saw the mall as safe haven.

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Stephen Huber of a Cleveland firm that manages a number of malls says that on one occasion three teen gang members were standing at an entrance to the mall when four members of a rival gang drove by. The four turned the car around, got a running start, jumped the curb and crashed into the entrance in an attempt to run down their rivals.

Oddly, gang activity is easier to deal with than the teen problem, shopping center operators say, because the police know who they are and what to do about them.

Not so the average teen-agers. The market survey showed that the teens visited the Aurora Mall one to three times a week, visited an average of 10 stores and spent an average of $64 a visit. Most of them had sincere career aspirations, and in spite of their bizarre dress and behavior were basically “good kids.”

So the mall operators set about changing their own mind-set, and that of security people. Just because kids had intimidating appearances and numbers, it didn’t mean they were bad or that they were any more bizarre than previous generations.

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The mall also hired a customer service director whose job is more public relations than security, which also comes under his purview. The accent is on politeness, requests to move on, or please don’t block the store front. It seems to be working.

And the city of Aurora put a highly visible police mini-station in the heart of the mall.

There was a similar impasse at the Columbia Mall in Columbia, S.C., where a heavy-handed approach eventually yielded to gentler means. Without knowing it, the mall operator had used a strong but old South Carolina law that permits the banning of people from private property for six months under penalty of law.

They used the law frequently, but then discovered it had been passed as a tool for segregationists. There was a community uproar.

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Now the mall has a polite Customer Service Corps, neatly dressed people in blazers and carrying radios and directories of stores. They help customers with parcels, give directions and act as new sets of eyes and ears as they roam around the mall.

The emergence of the mall as a prime community focal point has been growing throughout the nation each year. The number of malls and floor space has been growing about 7% a year, drawing 172.4 million adults, 70% of the population.

Malls and shopping centers now number 34,683, and more than 1,500 new ones were started in 1989. One near Minneapolis plans to house about 600 stores.

So the teen problem can be expected to grow.

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Most expect the banning of teen-agers to abate, however. Teen-agers are a growing $56-billion market, and this has not passed unnoticed.


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