The 2.9 million square foot American Dream mall is finally set to be the biggest spectacle in the history of New Jersey malls. Malls have, for better or worse, become part of the fabric of New Jersey, with even a 1994 State Supreme Court ruling calling them “traditionally the home of free speech” in the state.
New Jersey malls are also notorious for their drama and the $5 billion behemoth opening 8 miles west of Manhattan - complete with its 450 shops and restaurants, amusement parks, ice rink and ski area - is likely going to carry the torch of that tradition forward.
There's still skepticism about the mall's location and long-term viability, however, especially since the project has hit endless setbacks and hangups since first being conceptualized 17 years ago, long before the current "age of Amazon".
Retail historian Michael Lisicky said: “I looked at it almost like a freak show when it was under construction. This is the American dream, having what looks like a dog’s breakfast in the middle of the Meadowlands, that is of questionable ecological health? Then topping it off with a retail component closed on Sundays?”
Robert Kugler, a 46-year-old author and publisher from Virginia who has a shore home in New Jersey, said: "I can’t think of a reason I’d ever go to East Rutherford ever again in my life unless I was going to see the Eagles play.”
George Ritzer, a University of Maryland sociology professor who came up with the term "cathedrals of consumption" said: "What the new mall is trying to be is a spectacle -- a number of different spectacles."
And New Jersey malls are no stranger to spectacles. For example, in 2016, a costumed Easter Bunny at Newport Centre in Jersey City was smacked by an irate parent - and the video went viral on YouTube.
Lisicky said: “You’ve got to love these quirks of New Jersey. Maybe American Dream is going to be one of those quirks.”
Regardless, the mall's arrival to the Northern New Jersey scene has nearby competitors scrambling to figure out ways to stand out.
The mall's owner, Triple Five Group, is expecting 40 million visitors per year once the full map is up and running - a number that would surely devastate some of the nine nearby malls that are already competing for traffic out of the New York metropolitan area.
North New Jersey's mall scene has survived off of a pulse from New York City, as New Jersey doesn't implement a sales tax on clothing. In the city, shoppers pay 8.875%. This has helped fuel "continued demand" for malls in New Jersey, even as brick and mortar shops across the nation buckle. Nearby Paramus, New Jersey still boasts the busiest retail ZIP code in the country, despite the fact that many retailers stay closed on Sunday as a result of the county's "Blue Laws".
Whether or not the landscape will shift with the introduction of the American Dream mall remains to be seen. The mall will first see its theme part and ice skating rink open before its retail section opens up next year. The complex is 45% retail and 55% entertainment, including indoor snow skiing and a DreamWorks water park.
Rick Rizzuto, vice president at real estate research firm Transwestern in New Jersey, said: “I think the size alone is a pretty big draw.”
The Short Hills mall, about 30 minutes away, says it's not worried about the new competition because it offers high end services and "experiences that enhance its appeal beyond just the merchandise itself."
Short Hill mall General Manager Jamie Cox said: “Setting ourselves apart doesn’t necessarily have to do with the big roller coasters that American Dream is working on; it has to do with a differentiated shopping experience.”
Cox claims American Dream won't be able to match features like the VIP lounge in its Chanel boutique and Canada Goose's "Cold Room" where customers can test the company's gear in temperatures as low as -13F.
Cox continued: “Our customers might go there once or twice for entertainment purposes, but when they want to shop they’re going to come to Short Hills.”
Goyal still thinks that higher end malls may be able to offer something that American Dream can't. She said: “You go to American Dream for the entertainment. But I think if you want to go purchase something, you may not want that bigger presence where you might get lost.”
Paramus' Garden State Plaza, about 20 minutes away, also strives to differentiate itself by having become a "mini city", complete with residential spaces, public gathering spaces, restaurants and traditional retailers. Currently, it offers high end services like valet parking and a concierge.
She said: ”It’s like the Stew Leonard’s that opened up last month. American Dream’s going to attract a lot of people because it’s brand new, but that newness will go away eventually. Unless it has something that you can’t find anywhere else, it may lose its sizzle.”
Rick Rizzuto agreed that the mall would draw people in, and even postulated that it could help other nearby malls: “It will have a large enough reach that people from Pennsylvania and Connecticut will come to see it at least once. It will draw a lot more people than the area is used to, which should result in spending at the other malls in the area.”