The surprising news is less that Atomic Tattoos and Body Piercing will open a shop in Westfield Brandon later this month. It's that Brandon is the third enclosed mall in the Tampa Bay area to sign tattoo salons that once were taboo.
The recession has hit retailing particularly hard, so malls are waving in stores they once spurned.
"As soon as it became evident malls were willing to have tattoo artists, we wanted to get there before somebody else did," said Steve Cannon, 39, who signs his artistry as two-E "Steeve" to stand out and is working on another mall deal in Clearwater.
Once ear-piercing was about all malls offered in the way of body art and as close as they got to medical procedures. Now tattoo boutiques charge $50 a pop to permanently color a dime-sized star on your wrist or thousands to make a canvas of your entire back. At WestShore Plaza, White Now offers on-site teeth whitening while another kiosk does eyebrow weaving. At International Plaza, the new Venus Mini Med Spa is getting $200 in the average transaction for Botox or collagen injections or Latisse to grow eyelashes.
Venus turned to malls after people balked at signing up for appointments at a standard spa. They hired nurse practitioners to write prescriptions, cater to walk-ins and charge 30 percent less than doctor clinics.
"Women choose treatments on price, the salon experience and convenience," said Bill Clarke, Venus managing partner. "We get Botox parties where two friends watch and learn. So far, 71 percent of our customers never had a treatment."
The mall trend is driven by recession desperation as stores close and rents tied to a percentage of sales decrease. Opening to new businesses eager to pay a premium for exposure to 20,000 daily shoppers helped keep the local mall vacancy rate at 3.9 percent. That's half the overall shopping center vacancy rate.
"But malls are competing for a smaller pool of tenants," said Adrian Ponsen, real estate economist with CoStar's Property and Portfolio Research unit. "With 10 million square feet of new retail space built in the bay area since 2003, they must differentiate."
"We're stepping outside the box to find new customers," said Laurie Goldman, the Westfield Brandon manager who signed Fighters Warehouse, which sells martial arts gear.
It's not the first time malls have evolved. Malls like WestShore had supermarkets until learning grocery shoppers don't linger. In the 1970s, lawyers rented mall space until comics made fun of "mall lawyers."
By the late 1990s, fine dining became part of a mall formula that had boasted a food court and Ruby Tuesday as its most sophisticated culinary offerings.
The next chapter of this evolution appears headed in a new direction.
Largo-based Atomic, which generated $3.2 million in revenue from 13 salonlike locations in 2008, cleaned up for the mall. The company hired a department store designer and poured $110,000 into custom cabinets for an industrial chic space complete with exposed duct work and polished concrete floor.
Inside, six tattoo artists work hidden from passing shoppers, and they won't do any body piercing below the waist. The store will sell popular script T-shirts and accessories celebrating the tattoo lifestyle.
A third of adults younger than 40 have a tattoo. But the 16 percent of all adults who sport one slipped to 14 percent in 2008, according to Harris Interactive. And people ages 18 to 24, known mall rats, are least likely (9 percent).
Clay Montgomery, Atomic's 37-year-old co-owner, sees tattoos as mainstream enough for the mall.
"TV shows like Miami Ink brought tattoo artists right into the home," he said. "It's taken the mystery out of what we do and shown how people behave during the experience."
Mark Albright can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8252.