An unusually high number of teen fights at shopping centers across the U.S. over the Christmas weekend is prompting some mall operators to re-examine security policies and consider controversial restrictions on when and how teens may shop.
Security task force members from malls across the U.S. conducted a conference call Tuesday to discuss strategies for preventing mayhem, which may include more mall security or even bans on teens coming to malls alone, after multiple reports of teen fights over the four-day holiday, said Stephanie Cegielski, vice president of public relations for the International Council of Shopping Centers.
The need for more restrictions is “becoming somewhat more of a reality,” Cegielski said.
Still, mall operators worry expanding or initiating new limits could hinder retailers’ efforts to woo consumers away from internet shopping carts and back to the malls.
“There are a lot of properties that are hesitant to do it,” Cegielski said. “We’re all cognizant of what online shopping is doing and they want to keep people coming in. They don’t want to stifle that foot traffic at all.”
In Aurora, Ill., eight teens have been charged after what police described as a “large disturbance” that temporarily closed Fox Valley Mall Monday night. On Dec. 24, another fight broke out at the mall that did not appear to be related, according to a statement from Dan Ferrelli, an Aurora Police Department spokesman.
And on Christmas Eve in Gurnee, Ill., two small groups started fighting each other at Gurnee Mills. All the suspects were identified through security video, but no arrests have been made yet, authorities said.
While security task force members for the ICSC noted that Dec. 26 historically prompts an increase in fights, this year’s incidents seemed more prevalent perhaps because Christmas fell on a Sunday, offering teens and other shoppers one extra day to run into trouble, Cegielski said.
The incidents are prompting some mall operators to beef up security in anticipation of the upcoming long New Year’s weekend. Others are debating the need for parental guidance policies _ rules that require children under the age of 18 to be accompanied by a parent. About 100 shopping centers already have some kind of teen restrictions, the ICSC said.
Aurora police were called by mall security after they saw a large group of teens gathering in the mall’s food court. Officers, including a police sergeant working extra duty, and mall security told the teens to disperse, and shortly afterward a large fight broke out followed by several smaller fights, Ferrelli said.
The crowd refused to obey police and security staff orders, and some teens threw drinks and other items, Ferrelli said. More than 1,000 patrons were in the common area and others were shopping throughout the mall, so police decided to evacuate and close the mall for about an hour while they “contained and controlled the situation,” he said.
The police sergeant and a mall security employee were both “battered” while trying to break up the larger fight, Ferrelli said. Aurora police Lt. Rick Robertson said Monday night a sergeant was punched in the face. There were no injuries to mall patrons, and no one involved in the fights needed immediate medical attention, he said.
Aurora police are investigating any connection the Fox Valley Mall fights might have had to the disturbances in other cities, as well as the role social media might have played in organizing the Fox Valley incident.
Fox Valley Mall manager J. Scott Samson said in a statement that mall officials were cooperating with local authorities, but he could not comment on the investigation.
“While we are not able to speak about specific security measures, please know that we work close(ly) with local and national law enforcement on all matters relating to mall safety,” he said. “Our holiday events and hours will continue as scheduled.”
If the Aurora mall does ultimately change its rules to restrict teen shoppers, it will join 105 shopping centers of the 1,222 malls in the U.S. that currently have teen policies. The policies, which date back to the early 2000s, offer varying degrees of restrictions, according to data provided by the ICSC.
The North Riverside Park Mall near Chicago implemented a “youth escort policy” several years ago designed to keep shoppers safe. At times, it requires teens and children under 18 to be escorted by an adult at least 21 years old. Each adult can escort up to three people, general manager Harvey Ahitow said.
The mall enforces the policy typically on Friday and Saturday nights and specific days such as Dec. 26 and Halloween night but may choose to enforce it on other days based on how busy the mall is, Ahitow said. The escort requirement typically lasts from 4 p.m. to closing.
“The shopping center was overrun with youths, especially on Friday and Saturday nights,” Ahitow said. “And that’s when we decided we needed to do something to maintain a safe shopping environment, and it’s been very effective.”
At Chicago-based General Growth Properties, some centers have a Parental Guidance Required program that requires teens be accompanied by an adult during certain hours. Where and when those programs are put in place are determined by each property, and many centers have had the program in place for years, according to Kevin Berry, senior vice president of investor and public relations.
For malls that don’t have teen restrictions, the decision to add them can be agonizing for retail management, who view teen consumers as not only important because of their disposable income, but for their years of spending to come, said Alexander Chernev, professor of marketing at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management.
“From their perspective, you don’t want to impose any curfews and you’d like customers to have access to you as much as possible,” Chernev said. “I don’t think there’s a universal prescription for this.”
Cegielski said mall operators have worked hard in recent years to keep shoppers coming back by evolving into entertainment centers with miniature golf, movie theaters and other attractions beyond stores. In turn, management must be very mindful of restrictions put on its properties to ensure consumers aren’t deprived of a community experience. In some communities, bans on teens may also be perceived as racial profiling, she said.
Still, the wave of fights over the weekend has left some mall operators with a sense that more restrictions on teens are inevitable.
“I think we’re definitely going to start seeing more,” Cegielski said of the teen restrictions. “It could be a very selective couple of days a year, but there’s a high likelihood.”