On a recent return trip from the Sacramento area on Interstate 80, I needed to add about 20 miles of range to my electric vehicle (EV) to make sure I reached home with plenty of range to spare.
I most likely would’ve made it home without adding any additional range, but the Tesla navigation routed me to a Supercharger location at the Vacaville outlet malls. After plugging in, my wife and I visited a few clothing stores, the restrooms, and then spent about 15 minutes at a cookware/kitchenware store.
As we were paying for a couple of discounted pots and pans and chatting with the cashier, she shared that, like us, a lot of the store’s customers come in after stopping off to charge up their Tesla vehicles. That experience is only anecdotal evidence, but it’s one of the examples of why and how outlet malls can play a key role in helping to build out EV charging infrastructure along interstate highways in the US.
Why Factory Outlet Malls?
Similar to the reasons I outlined in “Could Walmart, Costco, & Kroger Become Some of the Largest EV Charging Centers in the US?,” outlet malls are an ideal solution for EV charging but for different use cases than big-box retailers. Where big-box retailers can help solve the urban and suburban charging challenge for people living in multifamily housing and low-income communities, outlet malls can help solve the long-distance trip charging challenge.
Factory outlet malls in the US are a great match for EV owners driving on long-distance trips for several reasons, including:
◊ There are at last count 217 outlet malls in North America, according to Value Retail News.
◊ While a recent trend is to open outlet malls closer or even within urban locations, the vast majority are still located along major interstate highways and freeways, often between two large cities. (They were historically located in these areas because of the lower cost of real estate and also so that the outlet stores would be less competitive with a retailer’s regular, non-outlet stores.)
◊ Outlet malls often have longer shopping dwell time than regular malls and stores.
◊ They have restroom facilities.
◊ Most have food service options ranging from coffee shops to fast/quick-service, and some have sit-down restaurants.
◊ They tend to have fairly easy on- and off-highway access and are typically located right next to highways.
◊ They are often well marketed and promoted, including billboards along highways; ads in travel, city, and regional magazines/guides; and highly visible signage for drivers passing by.
What’s In It for the Outlet Mall Developers and Their Tenants?
Up until recently, outlet malls had been less impacted by the decline in retail shoppers, but a few factors are now also slowing expansion by these outlet center developers and traffic to their locations. Two key factors include:
◊ Retailers such as TJ Maxx and Nordstrom, with its Nordstrom Rack outlet store, continue to expand within urban and suburban centers, attracting “closer to home” shoppers.
◊ The continued growth in online shopping with aggressive pricing and free shipping, as well as retailers opening online outlet stores, reduces the need for consumers to jump in their cars and head many miles away for outlet store prices.
For outlet mall developers, EV drivers needing a charge are a great fit for several reasons:
◊ Dwell Time: EV drivers on long trips and with 30–60 or more minutes of charge time need to do things while their vehicles charge. This dwell time means the EV driver is likely to visit several stores and possibly visit a restaurant located on the property.
◊ Bio Breaks/Stretching: Clean restrooms are a no-brainer need for a long-distance trip. But a bio and stretching break only takes a few minutes of that charge time period. Outlet malls provide a “discovery” type experience that is a great way for families to stretch their legs and go their separate ways to stores of their choices.
◊ Need for Food and Refreshments: After 3–4 hours on the road, drivers and passengers usually will want to stop off and get a bite to eat, or at minimum a cup of coffee or cold drink. Outlet malls offer a growing range of quick- and full-service restaurants.
◊ Upscale Shoppers: At least for the next several years, EV owners will tend to have higher incomes than average car owners, and so are highly desirable shoppers.
Outlet Mall Owners Already Embracing EV Charging
Two developers — Simon Property Group (Premium Outlets) and Tanger Factory Outlet Centers — own 128 outlet malls, or 60% of the 212 outlet malls in the US. Adding the next 2 largest owners in this sector — Craig Realty Group and Horizon Group Properties — means that 4 developers account for 71% of the outlet malls in the US.
The fact that the largest 2 developers have a significant percentage of outlet malls with charging stations is a great sign. According to Simon’s website, they have a total of 170 chargers, with 69 Level 2, 44 DC fast chargers, one Level 1, and 56 Tesla* chargers. (*This is not broken down by Superchargers versus Destination Chargers.)
This concentration is potentially significant because it means if all 4 of these developers eventually support EV charging in a significant way, roughly 7 of 10 of outlet malls in the US would help enable charging along interstate highways.
I reached out to all 4 outlet mall developers for feedback on their experience with EV charging, but only heard back from Horizon Group Properties, which said that it had no chargers at any of its malls at this time.
Hurdles to Investing in EV Charging Stations at Malls
I was disappointed that none of the outlet mall developers provided comments or their experiences for this article, but I was able to get insights and best practice tips from executives at charging network companies ChargePoint and Blink.
Mike DiNucci, SVP of Sales at ChargePoint, shared that outlet mall and other mall developers/owners they have worked with tend to fall into two camps: Those that believe that adding chargers is the “right thing to do” from an image and sustainability perspective; and those that want hard return on investment (ROI) numbers before they will invest in installing EV chargers at their malls.
DiNucci cited a meeting with Steve Tanger, CEO of Tanger Outlets, the second largest outlet mall developer, who told both ChargePoint and his management team that “this is an initiative we want to be involved in from a sustainability perspective, this is something we believe in strongly and we want to convey this to the market. This is the right thing to do.”
According to Mike Calise, CEO at Blink Network, which works with Simon, Tanger, and Craig Realty Group, “The biggest challenge getting outlet malls to add EV charging stations is the location of the necessary electrical infrastructure. Existing outlet malls may not have electrical infrastructure in their surface parking lots, the placement of the infrastructure may not be near the recommended location for the EV chargers, and it could be cost prohibitive to add the necessary infrastructure.”
DiNucci concurred with infrastructure being a hurdle, but added that, “This is only a problem when the mall owners/developers look at EV chargers as a cost, rather than being part of the company’s commitment to sustainability and improving the company’s image in the marketplace.”
For Steve Tanger, CEO of Tanger Outlets, it (adding chargers) wasn’t about dwell time and increasing revenue. “He wanted Tanger to be seen as a ‘clean brand’ and very supportive of this new revolution in transportation,” says DiNucci.
Outlet Mall Charger Best Practices & Lessons Learned
“As a trend, we believe that outlet mall developers tend to wait and add charging stations based on usage/demand and their expansion plans,” according to Calise.
DiNucci shared that Tanger “dipped their toe in the water before doing a wide-scale roll out.”
Tanger started off with 1 pilot mall about an hour outside of Atlanta and then monitored its usage before eventually expanding to 25 more locations. Using reporting tools like those offered by ChargePoint enables mall owners/developers to log in and check on dwell time, energy consumption, most popular charge times, zip codes, and where the drivers have come from and more.
This access to detailed data enables mall developers to know when it is time to add more chargers at malls that already have chargers. DiNuzzi shared that many of the retail/mall developers ask for heat maps of EV purchase and charging data in the markets where they have malls so they can prioritize expansion and know when it is time to add chargers at a specific location.
One of the trends and best practices that DiNucci sees is mall developers doing a “make ready,” running conduit to the next 5 to 10 parking spaces. “They won’t put a charging station on top of it, they will just sub it out and pave over that spot. They are buying 4 charging stations but they are running the wiring for 20 stations, and those will get phased in over the next few years,” DiNucci adds.
Calise said that they’ve learned that for outlet malls, a best practice is to position the EV chargers close to the mall, but specifically near the food court or a restaurant. “This placement assists not only with the electrical infrastructure concern, but also with marketing the EV chargers as well,” he added.
DiNucci shared that most malls and retailers provide EV charging to the public for free, though a few charge. Where they are using fees is to curb abuse of the free chargers, such as people who park their cars overnight or for several hours without moving them.
“With the pricing rules in our charging application, malls and retailers can choose to give customers, for example, 1 hour of charging for free and $2.50/hour after that,” says DiNucci.
A final tip from Calise for a mall developer, or any business with EV charging spaces, is that they need to address how the location will manage internal-combustion engine vehicles parking in the spaces associated with the EV chargers.
“While EV drivers may report these types of incidents to the EV charging service provider, it requires the assistance of the property to determine and manage what signage and procedures will be followed,” Calise added.
While outlet malls are not on every corner of America, they are often situated in critical locations for drivers of electric vehicles — along major interstate highways in the United States, Canada, and other countries. Look for forward-thinking mall developers and owners to embrace adding more EV charging stations to gain additional desirable customers for their retail tenants and improve their image in the marketplace.
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