Sunday, July 30, 2000

'De-malling' of America: Convenience winning out

By Lisa Biank Fasig
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Say “open-air mall” and today's consumer is most likely to picture the tree-lined developments emerging in Norwood, West Chester Township or Columbus.

        In Eastgate, one retail property wants them to think of Bigg's.

        Bigg's Place, a 16-year-old mall easily lost among a thicket of retail off Eastgate Boulevard, began its own conversion from a traditional to an outdoor mall in January.

        The mall's operators said they approved the transformation to revive flagging visitor numbers and to stay competitive in a win-or-let-win retail environment.

        And Bigg's Place is not alone. In these hectic times of dual-income households and long workdays, malls across the country are reaching for the open-air approach.

        “We found that most malls of this size were seeing customer-flow problems, we were starting to see that,” said Barney Estes, property manager at Bigg's Place. “This was the best concept we could find, the de-malling concept.”

        In Greater Cincinnati, Beechmont Mall and City Centre Mall in downtown Middletown are converting from traditional enclosed malls to open-air centers in an attempt to revive the centers.

        Nationwide, 799 malls were converted in some fashion in 1999, vs. 703 shopping centers built, said Malachy Kavanagh, spokesman for the International Council of Shopping Centers.

        Not all conversions involved turning the mall inside out, but there are reasons for doing so, Mr. Kavanagh said. All malls must adapt to survive; the village mall concept is simply the latest wrinkle in an evolving industry.

        “When they open it up, they can attract tenants that would normally not operate in an enclosed environment,” Mr. Kavanagh said. “A lot of retailers want their stores to be visible from the road.”

        This is the case with Bigg's Place, which is clustering its indoor tenants to the front and center of the mall, making way for large tenants such as Hobby Lobby to anchor the ends. A new facade and main entrance is being finished, wherein all tenants will be visible and accessible from outside.

        Laila Khoury, manager of the Gold Star Chili at Bigg's Place, said business has improved by more than 50 percent since the restaurant relocated from inside to the front of the mall.

        “We have more exits for the customers, two doors,” she said, referring to the outdoor and mall entrances. “It is more easy for the customer to see us.”

        But retail players have warned open-air malls are not a panacea. At a retail convention in May, Scott Olivet, senior vice president of real estate for Gap Inc., told developers an open-center that fails to match the immediate market faces more risk than a traditional mall.

        So, while some open-air malls adhere to a formula of putting traditional, high-end mall tenants curbside, Beechmont Mall and Bigg's Place will consist of retail ers that complement their anchors.

        Beechmont, with Kmart and Lazarus, has signed Bed, Bath & Beyond; DSW shoe store; Media Play; Eddie Bauer Outlet; and Old Navy.

        Bigg's Place includes Famous Footwear, Rainbow Apparel and Super Saver Cinema.

        Colleen Quinn, an associate of of CB Richard Ellis, leasing agents for Bigg's Place, said the center answers the demands of a put-upon society.

        “The things consumers are looking for today are convenience,” she said. “The ability to pull up curbside and get in and out in a convenient fashion.”


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