Sharie Collins cooed and cheered as her friend Mercedes Hernandez strutted down the runway in a bright yellow dress at a fashion show this week inside Coddingtown Mall.
"Yeah, girl!" cried Collins, 18, at the runway show held at the Santa Rosa mall's first "Girls Night Out" event. Under the mall's wooden rafters, young models swayed their hips in skinny jeans and cocktail dresses, showing off the fall fashions carried this season by Macy's, J.C. Penney and Old Navy.
Nearby, an aesthetician from Brow Art painted wrists with henna tattoos of flowers and hearts, while retailers like Old Navy offered special discounts for the night.
The excitement brought a jolt of energy to Coddingtown, which is reinventing itself in the midst of a changing retail landscape, where brick-and-mortar retailers face increasing competition from online shopping websites, and consumers keep a tighter grip on their wallets.
Nationwide, malls and stores are increasingly hosting free events to emphasize the in-store experience and lure shoppers away from their computers and into their stores.
"Promotions and marketing have always been present in all retail companies, but I think there's really a stepped up effort to bring people into the stores," said Jesse Tron, spokesman for the International Council of Shopping Centers. "Those free-wheeling days of spending certainly were reined in during the recession ... there's definitely the need to compete, and to present yourself as a different option."
Retailers large and small are looking for memorable ways to tangibly connect with customers and enhance the shopping experience.
Hairdressers at J.C. Penney in Santa Rosa gave 1,800 free haircuts to children in August, just in time for the first day of school, said Mike Gobble, store manager.
At iLeoni, the dining store in Petaluma, events are an integral part of the store's retail strategy. This weekend the store is hosting a cupcake bake-off, and other afternoons it has held cooking demonstrations to attract and entertain clientele.
"This is a really tough economy that we're in right now, so this is to make it a much more interesting shopping experience," said Mary Clare Anderka, saleswoman at iLeoni. "In the last three or four years or so, there's been more of a need for it, to just attract people."
E-commerce is absorbing a growing share of retail spending. In the second quarter of this year, Americans spent $54 billion online, more than 5 percent of total retail spending, according to the U.S Department of Commerce. E-commerce spending grew 15.3 percent compared to the same quarter last year, outshining total retail spending, which grew just 4.3 percent.
Auto retailers may face less threat from online sales, because most drivers want to check out a car in person before deciding to buy, said Henry Hansel, president of Hansel Auto Group.
Even so, his company is rolling out free car washes, pet grooming and concierge services for customers who have their cars serviced with his mechanics. And the remodeled Volkswagen dealership has amenities like wi-fi and flat-screen TVs with individual headphone sets.
"If you don't give people an impressive in-store experience, it gives them an excuse to buy online," Hansel said. "This is sort of the entertainment society, where everyone is either texting or looking at their iPhones or iPads ... There's a real interest there, so I wanted to be consistent with that."
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