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MAJOR MALL OPERATOR TO CLOSE 72 SHOPPING CENTERS ON THANKSGIVING

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Chattanooga, Tennessee–based CBL & Associates (CBL), which owns or has a hand in 89 regional malls and open-air shopping centers, will close the doors at nearly all of its properties until 6 a.m. Black Friday.  At its enclosed malls, the only tenants allowed to open are department stores, movie theaters, restaurants or others that have an exterior entrance. All access to the centers’ common areas will be restricted. CBL’s open-air centers will also be closed; however since all of those tenants have exterior entrances, they will have the option to stay open. The closings will allow about 1,500 mall employees and between 750 and 2,000 retail workers per property to celebrate the holiday.  CBL’s announcement comes one week after the Mall of America said it would close on Thanksgiving.

“We think that for our employees and for the store employees, they deserve the day off and to be able to spend the day with their families,” CBL CEO Stephen Lebovitz told CNBC in an exclusive interview. “Thanksgiving is a special holiday, and it’s unfair for them not to be able to enjoy it like everyone else can.”  Openings at CBL’s properties had been creeping earlier every year, as retailers tried to get a jump on their online competitors and other brick-and-mortar players. In 2012, select CBL centers opened for the first time at midnight on Black Friday. The next year, all of its centers opened at 8 p.m. on Thanksgiving. And in 2015, its properties started welcoming shoppers at 6 p.m. on Turkey Day. Though a handful of stores opted to stay closed on Thanksgiving, the majority of the malls’ tenants were open for business, Lebovitz said.

However, as consumer outrage began to grow, CBL started contemplating a different approach. The company first suggested closing its properties for the holiday last year, but several retailers pushed back, Lebovitz said. Now, as tenants have started to realize that Thanksgiving Day openings simply spread out their sales — and were not accretive to their top lines — they’ve become more receptive to the initiative.  They’ve meanwhile gotten more adept online, allowing them to better compete with online-only players, Lebovitz said.  “It’s not putting them at a disadvantage,” he said.

Though CBL’s decision will provide it some incremental savings, that wasn’t behind its decision, Lebvoitz said. Instead, as most of its malls are located in smaller Southern cities, where they’re often the only player in the market, it was driven by the chain’s ties to the community.  Lebovitz also hopes that closing on Thanksgiving will spark a chain reaction and bring excitement back to Black Friday. Revitalizing that iconic shopping event should help brick-and-mortar players showcase their edge over their online counterparts: the social experience.

“Black Friday historically has been such a great shopping day,” Lebovitz said. “It’s lost its luster because we’ve diluted it. … We want to bring back Black Friday and make it fun.”

Mall of America, which first opened its retail component on Thanksgiving 2012, said last week that it would close its doors on the holiday. That includes shutting down its indoor theme park and movie theaters for the first time in its 24-year history. While that promises to give back the holiday to the property’s roughly 15,000 employees, its more than 520 tenants have the choice to stay open.  Mall of America spokesman Dan Jasper told CNBC the property is just starting to have conversations with retailers regarding whether they’ll stay open. While he expects to have a better sense of the outcome toward the end of October, when most retailers set their holiday hours, “the initial reaction from the vast majority of our tenants has been overwhelmingly positive and supportive,” Jasper said.

Major mall tenants including Macy’s (M) and J.C. Penney (JCP), which both opened on Thanksgiving last year, have not yet released their holiday hours. Other retailers including Staples (SPLS) and GameStop (GME) have already said they will once again be closed for the holiday.