Not so long ago, people flocked to malls -- where the biggest draws were almost always the large department stores that anchored the shopping centers.
But with competition from big-box stores and online shopping, the business model for many area malls has taken a dramatic shift. Sure, the shopping experience is still important, but now more and more malls are focusing on a new way to lure customers: entertainment.
More than ever -- even on Black Friday -- patrons are heading to malls to see a movie, check out a new restaurant, play some video games or bowl a few lines.
"The traditional mall with four department stores as their primary traffic driver is no longer the best model," said Joe Parrott, a senior vice president with the Chicago offices of CBRE, a commercial real estate company.
A new Cinemark movie theater is scheduled to open next month at Spring Hill Mall in West Dundee. And a Round One entertainment center is slated to open in the spring at Fox Valley Mall in Aurora.
Other suburban malls already have taken the leap. The AMC Hawthorn 12 theater opened last year at Hawthorn Mall in Vernon Hills. There's a Pinstripes near Oakbrook Center in Oak Brook, a Dave & Buster's at Hawthorn and Level 257 at Woodfield Mall in Schaumburg.
"A lot of these big entertainment players are coming," Parrott said. "And the malls are interested in bringing tenants that are more experiential and broaden the appeal of the mall beyond just department stores."
Stratford Square Mall in Bloomingdale is a perfect example of the changing dynamic. The mall is launching a multimillion-dollar renovation and tenant improvement project that features both interior and exterior improvements at the 1.3 million-square-foot center. It's a continuation of an earlier renovation that included the 2014 opening of Round One, a 40,000-square-foot entertainment center that features bowling, billiards, numerous video games and karaoke.
Century Stratford Square movie theater also has solidified its commitment to Stratford in a deal where the mall and the theater will participate in a series of upgrades that include new seating.
Stratford owner and manager StreetMac LLC expects the changes to attract bigger crowds to the mall that has more than 135 stores -- with more signing up -- and draws roughly 12 million visitors a year.
"Good malls get better," said Maury Fisher, president of StreetMac. "Bad malls disappear. We're here to make sure this one continues to flourish."
Experts with California-based Green Street Advisors have predicted that 15 percent of malls nationwide will close or be repurposed over the next decade. But that doesn't apply to successful malls listed in the "A" and "B" category.
"The A's are doing very well," Parrott said. "The B's are trying to move up and avoid moving down. It's doom and gloom in the C category."
He declined to talk about specific malls in the Chicago area. But, he noted, several of them have done a good job adapting to change.
Like Stratford, Spring Hill Mall in West Dundee is going through a massive redevelopment project.
In addition to the opening of the Cinemark, construction will be completed next month on an exterior plaza and a new mall wing with outward-facing retail.
Mall owner Rouse Properties said in a statement that it's "beyond excited" to welcome the movie theater.
"The cutting-edge Cinemark theater adds a high-quality entertainment element to the shopping experience," the statement reads. "We are bringing to northwest Chicago a state-of-the-art retail destination that combines family fun and excitement with best-in-class shopping and dining."
Other suburban malls that have had sizable facelifts and expansions include Woodfield Mall, Oakbrook Center, Hawthorn Mall and Randhurst Village in Mount Prospect.
Randhurst Village was a particularly dramatic overhaul. The former indoor mall was transformed into a $200 million open-air "lifestyle" center with stores, restaurants and a movie theater.
Last month, Oakbrook Center celebrated the opening of a 12-screen luxury movie theater, joining an existing four-screen venue at the upscale, outdoor mall.
The owners of Stratford Square agree that mall-goers want more options.
"There's more of a trend toward food and entertainment experiences for people to have at the mall," Fisher said. "That's the progress we're looking to make as we go forward."
To complement the mall's dining and entertainment experiences, Stratford is redeveloping the lower level with a 9,500-square-foot brewery. The business, 25 West Brewery, is slated to open next summer and will be owned and operated by the group that operates Jameson's Charhouse.
"We have a restaurant (Jameson's) here in Bloomingdale in an outlot of the mall," said Frank Bolos, of Jameson's Restaurant Group. "So we're very familiar with the area. We've developed a relationship with the ownership group of the mall. We think the mall is going in the right direction."
A new Harley-Davidson apparel store also will open next to the brewery in the spring. Other future tenants include specialty coffeehouse Gloria Jeans, Keya Kafe Mini Donuts, and City Fashions, a fashion apparel store. Munchie P's, an eatery that offers gyros, sloppy Joe's, beef and fast food, opened last week.
Efforts are underway, too, to spruce up the mall, which opened in 1981.
Work has started on an exterior redesign of the southwest entrance. A glass atrium will be demolished to push back the mall entrance and create a new look that includes a grand canopy, outdoor seating and landscaping. The northeast entrance also is undergoing a facelift.
Anthony Giannini, a senior vice president with StreetMac, said the 35-year-old mall has "aged really well."
"I think that has to do with the original design and maintaining it -- keeping it fresh," Giannini said. "You need ongoing maintenance, continued investment."