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NEW YORK (Reuters) - Macerich Co (MAC.N) isn't usually in the business of hosting religious processions in its mall parking lots.
But when it allowed a Good Friday event featuring a costumed Jesus, prisoners and Roman guards at a Phoenix mall last year, hundreds of shoppers turned out from the heavily Hispanic community, where re-enactments of the Stations of the Cross are a major occasion.
The response proved to Macerich that its program to attract the surrounding population to its malls was working.
A small but growing number of real estate owners and developers are tapping into the same demographic change U.S. politicians have begun to recognize.
Two ethnic groups - Hispanics and Asian-Americans - are expected to see their population and buying power soar in the coming years. And several demographic experts project that non-Hispanic whites will be a minority nationally by 2040 or 2050.
If mall and shopping center owners fail to adapt to the changing demographic make-up of the country, they risk seeing their properties become mausoleums of a less-diverse American past.
"It's a bunch of guys trying to build for a (white) world that's no longer growing. But there are those individuals out there that are seeing the growth in different ways. They're picking it apart and making some big money off of it," said James Chung, president of strategy and research firm Reach Advisors.
Many developers focusing on ethnic shoppers have come to the rescue of dying malls and shopping centers throughout the United States.
In California, Primestor Development is transforming the 850,000-square-foot Baldwin Hill Crenshaw Plaza in Los Angeles into an Hispanic-focused mall, plowing in up to $40 million for renovations. Further south in Irvine, Diamond Development Group has created Diamond Jamboree, with small service-oriented tenants, such as doctors' offices, anchored by an Asian food market. In Atlanta, a vacant 220,000-square-foot furniture store has been converted into Global Mall, the largest U.S. mall targeting consumers whose roots are in southern India.
Macerich is in the forefront of large, publicly traded mall owners courting the growing numbers of ethnic shoppers. Two years ago it teamed up with Legaspi Co, a consultant and operator of Hispanic-oriented malls, to help Desert Sky Mall. Occupancy at the Phoenix mall had fallen to 77 percent from over 90 percent as the demographic make-up of its trade area shifted.
Several changes were made, including converting a vacant Mervyns store into a mercado - Spanish for market - with scores of small shops and stands. Occupancy at the mall is now back up to 90 percent.
With the success of Desert Sky, Macerich and Legaspi Co President José de Jesús Legaspi created Vanguardia, a program that includes marketing and renovations to transform malls before their occupancy suffers.
"We aren't about to let good real estate go that way," Macerich Executive Vice President Eric Salo said.
José de Jesús Legaspi started more than 30 years ago helping retailers reach Hispanic shoppers. His company operates or has a stake in four malls and is eyeing a 700,000-square-foot mall in Oklahoma City.
Transforming struggling malls has a lot to do with marketing, including using bilingual staff, sending out direct mail in both English and Spanish, and hosting events like Mexican Independence Day.
When building its Asian-focused, grocery-anchored shopping centers, Diamond Development followed the engineering workforce, which includes a heavy concentration of Asians. It found that restaurants were in demand, and leases had to include clauses prohibiting restaurants from copying each other's specialties.
But it takes more than adding a dim sum restaurant or chimichangas to the food court to attract the growing U.S. Hispanic and Asian populations.
Primestor, which has built or redeveloped more than 80 Hispanic-focused malls, shopping centers and strip malls, uses research from Pew Hispanic Center and the U.S. Census, and conducts town hall meetings to discover the types of retailers an area lacks and to gauge demand.
"We're not in the build-it-and-they-will-come mentality," said Arturo Sneider, Primestor's chief executive. "We're in the build-it-improve-it-because-they're-already-here mentality."
Developers of malls and shopping centers aimed at Hispanic Americans say they often change the facilities' physical appearance, transforming dull, fortress-like malls into festive, colorful shopping centers. Because Latino families tend to be larger, developers broaden the corridors and make common areas bigger; because such families tend to be younger, there is more demand for shoe and clothing stores - for growing children.
Third-generation Hispanic Americans add another consideration. Like the American mainstream, they want the latest consumer electronics and tend to like restaurants, such as Chipotle Mexican Grill, that are popular with their mainstream peers, Sneider said.
But what works for some ethnic groups doesn't necessarily work for others. Seoul Plaza, a Korean marketplace billed as a "mall within a mall" in Baltimore's Security Square Mall, did not fare well in competition with other Asian markets in the area. Many stores closed, and the plaza has been up for sale since 2010.
In targeting Asian-American shoppers, merchants selling soft goods such as clothing and toys tend to find the going tough, said Steve Zuckerman, project manager at Diamond Development.
"The reason for that is there's really no such thing as a Chinese necktie," Zuckerman said. "A Chinese guy, if he wants to save money, he's going to go to Ross, Walmart. If he wants to spend money, he'll go to Bloomingdale's or Nordstrom."
The Macerich-Legaspi Vanguardia program has been implemented at six of Macerich's 59 malls, and aspects of it have been employed to some degree at a few others.
"There's been enough financial success here that we're going to continue to invest in this," Macerich's Salo said. "It's good business."
Reporting By Ilaina Jonas; Editing by Ben Berkowitz and John Wallace