Chicago-based mall owner files for bankruptcy protection

 
 
  • Lincolnshire Commons is one of six area shopping centers owned by General Growth Properties, which filed for bankruptcy today.

    Lincolnshire Commons is one of six area shopping centers owned by General Growth Properties, which filed for bankruptcy today. Paul Valade | Staff Photographer

  • Golf Mills Shopping Center in Niles is one of six area shopping centers owned by General Growth Properties, which filed for bankruptcy today.

    Golf Mills Shopping Center in Niles is one of six area shopping centers owned by General Growth Properties, which filed for bankruptcy today. Joe Lewnard | Staff Photographer

Published: 4/16/2009 7:05 AM | Updated: 4/16/2009 7:28 PM

When Kevin Quirk lost his job as a logistics manager nearly five months ago, his family's shopping patterns changed. He cut spending in all areas.

"We've curtailed everything. It's across the board. If it's not essential, we're steering clear from it," said the Libertyville resident.

His motto is, "everything in moderation" when it comes to opening his wallet.

While not as drastic, James Vogel of Libertyville also has changed the way he shops.

"I don't buy anything in Cook County. I refuse to pay the extra sales tax," Vogel said.

Across the suburbs, consumers are altering the way they spend, and that's leading to changes in the way troubled malls operate.

General Growth Properties Inc., the nation's second-largest mall operator, is the most recent to feel the credit crunch. The company filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection Thursday involving about half its company's 200 malls, including Lincolnshire Commons in Lincolnshire and Spring Hill Mall in West Dundee. Not part of the filing were other General Growth-owned malls in the Chicago area - Northbrook Court in Northbrook, Oakbrook Center in Oak Brook, Golf Mill Shopping Center in Niles and Water Tower Place in Chicago.

The company reported it had about $29.6 billion in assets and more than $27 billion in liabilities as of Dec. 31.

Mall operators and economists note that consumer spending habits are just one factor behind General Growth's problems. Analysts have expected the filing since the fall, citing a tremendous debt load the company racked up as part of an aggressive growth strategy before the bottom fell out of the economy.

The filing allows the company to hold off creditors and operate normally while it develops a financial reorganization plan. All of General Growth's malls will remain open during this process, and shoppers won't notice any change, company officials say.

"The good news is that this is one of the rare times we're seeing Chapter 11 that doesn't lead to liquidation," said Paula Rosenblum, managing partner at Retail Systems Research.

It's the malls, of course, that are seeing the changes - in shoppers' habits. And in this General Growth is not alone. But retail experts like Rosenblum are quick to point out that the picture at the mall has many facets. Among the most noteworthy, they say, is that, locally at least, there's no real problem with traffic at the malls; the issue is spending.

Many malls are finding that people are still window shopping and enjoying the social aspects of the shopping experience. This is often the case for moms with young children, the experts say.

"People are scared. All consumers hear is bad news," said John Melaniphy, president of Melaniphy & Associates, a retail analyst firm in Chicago.

Everyone seems to have friends or family members who have lost their job or taken a pay cut, Melaniphy said, adding that when consumers feel more comfortable, they'll start opening their pocketbooks.

Woodfield General Manager Marc Strich noted that the number of people shopping at the Schaumburg mall is down only slightly over last year. Sales at the stores, however, "have not kept up with the traffic," he said.

"The discretionary purchases are on hold right now," Strich added.

Jewelry is one category that has been hit the hardest, but Strich, too, believes the signs suggest positive changes are ahead.

"We're seeing some improvement in consumer confidence," he said.