Wednesday marks the 40th anniversary of West Edmonton Mall opening its doors to the public.
While the audacious shopping centre and tourist attraction may no longer the be the largest in the world (it lost that title in 2004), it continues to be a popular and iconic fixture in Alberta’s capital.
It is credited by retail experts for its ability to adapt to changing times.
“I think it’s a big part of the city’s identity,” says Matthew Dutczak, the Edmontonian behind the celebrated Best Edmonton Mall website that delves deep into the history and oddities of the shopping centre, which remains the largest in North America.
“It’s a world-class facility,” he says. “It really was one of a kind.
“As I was growing up… to me and my group of friends, it was something we took pride in.”
Craig Patterson is the CEO of the industry publication Retail Insider, as well as the director of applied research at the University of Alberta’s School of Retailing.
“(The mall) really put Edmonton on the map,” says Patterson, who is currently based in Toronto but grew up in Edmonton. “It was a different world.
“West Edmonton Mall has certainly been a trailblazer in terms of coming up with a retail concept that is clearly compelling to consumers.”
‘Right place at the right time’
According to the West Edmonton Mall website, the shopping centre’s concept is “inspired by the traditional urban bazaars of Persia, where shopping and entertainment were plentiful and operated in tandem, fulfilling a variety of consumer needs all in one place.”
That vision was brought forth by the organization behind the mall, Triple Five Group, a conglomerate that also boasts other megamall projects in the U.S.
It is owned by Edmonton’s Ghermezian family, which had acquired a sizeable amount of land in the Edmonton area, earning it significant profits through real estate deals.
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West Edmonton Mall, known to many locals simply as “the mall” or “west ed,” is currently a staggering 5.3-million square feet in size and still holds a Guinness World Record for having the world’s largest parking lot.
The list of amenities it boasts remains mind-boggling: over 800 stores and services, the iconic Fantasyland Hotel, over 100 dining venues, an indoor beach and waterslide attraction, an ice rink, a shooting range, a casino, a movie theatre, a man-made lake that includes a full-sized ship modelled after the famous Santa Maria ship, an indoor amusement park, a comedy club and more.
“You really can spend a full day at the mall and it doesn’t have to be all about shopping,” says Andrew Knack, a city councillor who represents the ward that West Edmonton Mall is located in.
“They’ve tried to make it more of an experience and that seems to be working for them.
“There was truly nothing like it when it opened.”
Knack, who spent years working at an audio equipment store at the mall before becoming a politician, said he believes aside from its flamboyance, the shopping centre offered a unique experience in northern Alberta when it opened.
“You had this large enclosed experience,” he says.
“Even on a cold winter’s day, you could go to the mall.”
When Phase 1 of the mall opened in 1981, it was 25 hectares in size, featured about 220 retail stores and services and was anchored by three department stores: Eaton’s, Sears and The Bay.
Phase 2 arrived in 1983 and saw the mall grow in size and number of stores and also add its amusement park and skating rink.
In 1985, Phase 3 saw the mall grow again and become even more adventurous in terms of the scope of attractions inside: themed shopping areas like Europa Boulevard, the World Waterpark with its indoor wave pool, an indoor miniature golf course, an indoor lake housing live dolphins and three full-size submarines.
In 1986, the mall was struck by tragedy when the Mindbender roller coaster crash at its amusement park left three people dead and another person critically injured.
The ride shut down for more than a year as it underwent safety modifications.
While more additions came before Phase 4, that stage of development was completed in 1998 and saw it add an IMAX movie theatre.
Dutczak says he believes that in addition to the Ghermezian family’s grand vision and financial ability to move the project forward, there were a confluence of factors that led to West Edmonton Mall capturing the imaginations of people across Canada in the 1980s.
“Why did that happen here?” he ponders. “It’s not like people sought out, ‘Oh, we have to do that in Edmonton.’
“(Edmonton was) a relatively small city in northern Alberta… around half-a-million people (in the early 1980s)… (and then) became home to the world’s largest shopping mall… When you look at it in that context, it was odd.”
Not long after the mall opened, the Wayne Gretzky-led Edmonton Oilers hockey club went on a dominant and legendary run in the NHL, capturing five Stanley Cup championships between 1984 and 1990.
Dutczak notes that the years of Oilers mania coincided with West Edmonton Mall becoming the place to be for locals and tourists alike. In their heyday, the Oilers even held the occasional practice at the mall’s ice rink.
“(What) if the Oilers hadn’t have been so dynastic?” Dutczak asks.
“(It was about) everything being in the right place at the right time.”
Heather Thomson, the executive director at the University of Alberta’s School of Retailing, suggests the way West Edmonton Mall merged shopping and entertainment experiences in its infancy was a business strategy that was ahead of its time.
She notes that while many of the mall’s attractions generated revenue on their own, each attraction or amenity also served as “a leader to get people to come into stores.”
“It’s exciting — 40 years in Edmonton. It’s been a landmark for not just the city but for the province and for the country,” she says while reflecting on the shopping centre’s milestone anniversary.
Jim Taylor served as a city councillor in Alberta’s capital from 1995 to 2001 before becoming the executive director of the city’s Downtown Business Association — a post he held for 14 years.
While he says the rise of shopping malls in the 1970s had a profound and disruptive effect on other retail businesses in the city, there is no denying what an enormous success the mall was with its visitors.
“What the Ghermezians were doing was creating one of the greatest tourist attractions in Alberta — and it was — and it still is,” he says.
“It was an incredible addition to our city, to our economy.”
Sights set on international tourists
Knack says the store he worked at in the mall years ago was near some of the shopping centre’s most spectacular amenities. The energy and excitement visitors brought with them was infectious.
“I met people literally from across the world,” he says.
“We actually have a large number of hotels in the west end, more than we do in other parts of the city,” he adds. “A lot of that is due to having West Edmonton Mall and connecting people to that attraction.”
Taylor says he believes the Ghermezian family’s original vision for the mall was to offer a combination of spectacle and high-end shops that would lure in international travellers who tend to spend more money than domestic tourists.
“Their plan was that the West Edmonton Mall would be a high-end, high-fashion place that people would come from all over to shop in,” he says, adding that he believes the mall has evolved to cater more to Albertans.
“They thought people would fly in and come as a three- and four-day trip just to come to the mall… and it probably worked at the beginning, but in the end, they didn’t.”
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Taylor says he believes the mall is still very successful in the present, just “with a whole different demographic than they planned to have there.”
“There’s no doubt that it was a great benefit for the economy of Edmonton,” he adds.
Thomson adds that she believes the mall continues to be a destination for travellers.
“If we live in the Capital Region, we don’t see it as a weekend destination, but many people do,” she says. “(People) make a weekend out of it or a week out of it.”
Taylor says in 2020, before the COVID-19 pandemic hit Alberta, he and his wife decided to try to beat the winter doldrums by booking a hotel room at the mall for a weekend staycation.
He had not been to the shopping centre in years and says he came away with the impression that while the mall may not bring in international tourists like it once did, it still sees many out-of-town visitors, particularly from rural Alberta.
Knack also says he gets the sense that while the mall continues to bring in tourists, many are from northern Alberta or various parts of northern Canada and that the shopping centre still provides a unique experience that draws in travellers.
Nostalgia and ‘the cheese factor’
Dutczak also believes the perception of the mall has changed for some people over the years, but that does not mean it is not still successful or a source of curiosity for people.
“Part of me used to feel that it really lost what made it special,” he says of changes made to the mall over the years, like the makeover of Bourbon Street, a New Orleans-inspired section of the mall that was meant to resemble a street in that city’s French Quarter lined with restaurants and bars. The area still houses numerous eateries and lounges but is now called BRBN St. and no longer tied together with a theme.
“I love the cheese factor… When I would see some of that go away, I tended to get into this mindset that it is losing part of its magic.”
But Dutczak, who details the changes the mall has undergone in detail on his YouTube channel, notes that while something may get lost every time the mall is updated, it often gains something as well — citing the example of Galaxyland, the mall’s amusement park that recently underwent a Hasbro-themed rebrand, offering a host of new rides.
He says with West Edmonton Mall being 40 years old now, every generation of Edmontonians will have their own version of nostalgia when it comes to the shopping centre.
“It’s going to resonate the same for everyone,” he says.
“Every generation builds their own magic and their own memories with their own experiences.”
What Dutczak misses most of the things that are no longer at the mall are the “legitimate deep-sea tested submarines” that allowed visitors to go aboard and see various sea animals, including sharks, in the indoor lake.
“It was a really brilliant and excellent attraction,” he says. “It was really awe-inspiring seeing people on this submarine… it was a mix of education and entertainment.”
Dutczak says while he understands such an experience may not have been sustainable to continue, it was another example of the ambitious vision the mall’s owners had for the shopping centre.
West Edmonton Mall finding ways to ensure its appeal stands test of time
West Edmonton Mall says on average, 30 million people walk through its doors annually. According to a 2019 report from the Retail Council of Canada, that number means its visitor count trails only CF Toronto Eaton Centre among Canadian shopping centres and makes it the third-busiest in North America.
The report notes that “Canadian shopping centre landlords are adding entertainment centres to existing properties to further drive traffic, recognizing the success of centres such as West Edmonton Mall.”
Thomson says the benefits the mall has reaped from mixing leisure with consumer spending has also positioned it to better handle the increasing competition malls have faced from the rise of e-commerce over the past decade or so.
“Generally speaking, malls that are prepared to invest so their customers will have a great experience actually will do OK in the future,” she says.
“The other ones won’t survive.”
The challenges facing North American shopping malls in recent years have been well-documented. A report released by Coresight Research last year forecasted that about 25 per cent of the 1,000 or so malls in the U.S. will close over the next three to five years, a decline being hastened by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Between 2018 and 2019, even before the pandemic, foot traffic at Canada’s top malls — as measured by revenue per square foot — declined by 22 per cent, according to research conducted by Deloitte Canada.
While many malls are struggling, Patterson says West Edmonton Mall’s emphasis on entertainment has given it an edge over its competitors.
“The Ghermezians, as the owners, understand the importance of having a mix of entertainment and retail better than others,” he says. “One of the constants of West Edmonton Mall has always been change.
“It’s constantly evolving… They always make it something new.”
Knack also says he believes the mall’s demonstrated willingness “to pivot at different times” has helped it to stay relevant decades after it first opened.
“(West Edmonton Mall’s owners) are willing to keep their eye on trends,” he says, noting that includes its approach to offering attractions and the type of stores it draws in.
“They recognized at a certain point that the large retail store was running through tough times so they started pivoting to more boutique stores… They recognize there’s value in those big brand-name tenants.”
Patterson says the addition of more luxury retailers at West Edmonton Mall has been a significant development, noting Gucci and Saint Laurent stores at the shopping centre are those brands’ only standalone shops in Alberta.
He points out some of the mall’s luxury retailers have better sales figures there than at their other locations.
“West Edmonton Mall has also proven to be a sales generator for these retailers,” Patterson says, adding that the way the mall has clustered such high-end brands has worked well for both the stores and the landlord. “The mall has been quite successful over the years overall.”
Thomson says she believes West Edmonton Mall has benefited from what she sees as more luxury brands breaking away from department stores and “starting to take back their identity and have their own standalone stores.”
She says luxury retailers usually have something in mind when they look to open a new store and that Triple Five Group has catered to those wants.
“West Edmonton Mall has done a great job in investing in their physical aesthetic over the past decade,” Thomson explains.
“This is another non-negotiable if they want to remain viable… adding more natural light, making sure the flooring is nice… We’ve seen a really big investment (in that).”
She adds while it’s encouraging the mall “can command such high-end luxurious goods and retailers,” she would stop short on necessarily calling it a trend.
“They are continuing to invest in the property,” Patterson says of the mall’s owners. “They’re always looking for the next thing, so I think that … West Edmonton Mall is going to have longevity.”
What does the future hold?
Patterson believes many Edmontonians continue to look at WEM with a sense of pride and thinks its owners will continue to find ways to capitalize on the property and maintain its niche in the city.
“I don’t think a competitor is going to come into the Edmonton market and obliterate the West Edmonton Mall,” he says, noting that a number of shopping centres in Alberta’s capital are seeing success with a different model than that of Triple Five Group.
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“As long as we have a physical world, West Edmonton Mall is going to be successful,” Patterson says while speaking about what the future may hold for the shopping centre 40 years after it opened.
“West Edmonton Mall will continue to be successful in the Edmonton market for another 40 years at least.”
David Ghermezian, the president of mall owner Triple Five Group, declined to be interviewed for this article.
— With files from Erica Alini, Global News