While a horse stable popping up at your mall might sound like a stretch, the demise and disappearance of bricks-and-mortar institutions like Sears Canada is forcing landlords to offer more creative “experiences” to lure consumers.

“In the age of e-commerce, people are seeking more experiences and shopping centres will be reinventing themselves,” Craig Patterson, retail analyst and founder of Retail Insider, told BNN in an email.

“Top mall landlords are really putting on their A-game in Canada trying to make their malls as interesting as possible.”

The looming liquidation of 131 Sears locations under various banners means more vacant retail space across the country, just as landlords were largely putting the hasty retreat of Target behind them.

If the traditional mall excursion was mostly about shopping, with a short break for a food court fuel-up, the new thinking casts malls as entertainment centres.

Patterson, who is also a consultant at the Retail Council of Canada, says landlords trying to fill cavernous spaces need to ask themselves, “What are the best shopping centres doing?”

The industry has been looking to China’s mega-malls for inspiration. One of them, in Haikou, “has a horse-riding stable” on the roof aimed at teens.

“There, shopping centres are becoming their city centres,” said Patterson.

While Canada’s largest retail landlord says a “horse stable is a stretch,” RioCan rooftops are being eyed for other money-making endeavours.

“I have had proposals for a soccer field on top, not to mention solar installations,” Ed Sonshine, chief executive officer of RioCan REIT, told BNN in an email.

Although the large, flat roofs of malls present certain structural issues, “we are always thinking about ways to generate more revenue from a property while simultaneously bringing more shoppers,” said Sonshine.

Further following China’s lead, more space is being dedicated to upscale food offerings and attractions in North American malls.

Last month, Cadillac Fairview announced a partnership with the Canadian Olympic Committee that will see, among other things, athletes performing feats of sporting prowess in malls across the country.

“More and more, the broad mix you offer in a mall is becoming much more important,” John Sullivan, president and CEO of Cadillac Fairview, told BNN in an interview when the partnership was announced.

Another trend Canadian shoppers can expect to see more of is temporary retail – better known as the pop-up store. Last week it was the hottest new running shoe in that space, today it’s designer hoodies. Next week – who knows?

While the industry is optimistic these strategies will drive traffic in major urban centres, there are concerns smaller markets that count on anchor tenants like Sears and Target will have a much tougher time.

“The small market suburban Canadian mall is in trouble, and has been since Target replaced Zellers,” James Smerdon, Vice-President and Director of Retail Consulting at Colliers International Consulting, told BNN in email.

“Urban malls in major markets are thriving and will continue to do so… because what they are selling you can’t buy online.”

Again, it comes back to the “entertainment of the shopping experience.”

“Major market malls like Eaton Centre, Yorkdale, Rideau, Chinook, and Pacific Centre sell the experience of shopping - browsing, touching, and jostling through crowds,” said Smerdon.

“Online retail will never offer the entertainment of the shopping experience, and malls cannot compete with the selection online.”

Smerdon says the only question mark in the battle between online and bricks and mortar is price.

“I think stores’ sale racks have lower prices, but someone looking for a very specific item might have more luck online.”