What’s next for Connecticut malls as shoppers turn to plazas?

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The contrast was evident at midday on a weekday last week, as cars swarmed the Brass Mill Commons parking lot just off Interstate 84 in Waterbury, against a plain of asphalt visible next to the larger Brass Mall. Mill Center.

A similar scene unfolded that afternoon in Waterford, where the Crystal Mall was lightly trafficked, in stark contrast to the bustling Waterford Commons, a short walk from the Hartford Turnpike.

As the mall industry gathered in Las Vegas last week, for many it is clear that the plazas have become the preferred mall retail destination for shoppers, in the wake of the pandemic. of COVID-19 that has forced many to load the wagon to move to the suburban towns that have fueled America’s mall boom.

In limited experimentation – and the large experiment at The SoNo Collection mall in South Norwalk, which began opening stores during the 2019 holiday season – malls tested new concepts to see what which could set buyers back.

Downtown Stamford opens food hall concept by celebrity chef Todd English; Danbury Fair has secured approval to construct two freestanding buildings on its property for Shake Shack and Longhorn Steakhouse; and early construction continues on apartments at the entrance to Westfield Trumbull on the Bridgeport line.

Outside of Connecticut, mall owners are taking bigger bets, with everything from a ski slope at the American Dream mall in New Jersey that opened weeks after The SoNo Collection, to a casino that took over a large Bon-Ton store in a CBL Properties mall outside of Pittsburgh.

But the mall owner Trumbull probably won’t be around to see if the residential gamble pays off. Unibail-Rodamco-Westfield is selling its US portfolio to focus on bolstering its business holdings in Europe, following Brookfield Properties selling Brass Mill Center and Simon Property Group pulling out of the Crystal Mall.

Halo effect?

Connecticut today has 17 malls, destination malls, and outlet malls. The Connecticut Post Mall is the oldest having opened in 1960, with the SoNo collection becoming the newest when it opened in 2019.

In a “state of the industry” report released last week ahead of its annual meeting, the International Council of Shopping Centers highlighted the successes of shopping center turnarounds nationwide. ICSC says this has been driven both by owners expanding entertainment options, as well as retailers clinging to the “halo effect” of digital commerce through apps that enhance experiences in stores. stores or that offer discounts.

But the merging of physical and digital hasn’t worked for all retailers, including everyone’s big disruptor, Amazon. The e-commerce giant has decided its 4-star Amazon stores aren’t worth it, unplugging the chain that had stocked the best items from its websites this spring. Amazon’s 4-star closures included an isolated Connecticut location at The SoNo Collection mall in South Norwalk.

If there is one recipe that seems to work, it is that of air and light. Locked down for months during the pandemic, shoppers are relishing the opportunity to get out. In a study last week of the performance of outdoor malls versus malls, CBRE economists called malls a “hidden gem” — and not just those anchored by grocery stores that regularly attract foot traffic. .

Retail chains long associated with malls are benefiting from the success of smaller plazas, including parent company Journeys and Journeys Kidz which has 13 stores in Connecticut, including at the Brass Mill Center, which the retail giant Brookfield Properties retail real estate recently sold for $44 million.

“Journeys’ consumer research told us that one-third of its target consumers visit local non-mall malls two to three times a month and experience the convenience of shopping closer to home, combined with enhanced omnichannel services, such as easier curbside pickup,” said Mimi Vaughn, CEO of parent company Genesco, speaking on a mid-May conference call. have piloted a number of these non-mall locations, which are larger than our mall stores and can carry a full assortment of adult and children’s products Satisfied with the overall sales and results, we have signed over 25 locations additional ones that we will be opening this year and early next year.

Lifestyle changes

None of Brass Mill Commons’ more than twelve spaces are available at the moment – the Strip plaza is rented at full capacity, including a trio of stand-alone restaurants in Chili’s, McDonald’s and TGI Fridays. In the main building, a few of the remaining tenants are chains that have both malls and plazas in Connecticut, including Buffalo Wild Wings, Dick’s Sporting Goods, and Ulta Beauty.

Dick’s continued to bet on Connecticut during the pre-pandemic ‘retail apocalypse’, retaining a Sports Authority location in Norwalk after acquiring the bankrupt chain, then expanding a store in Danbury Fair by taking over half of a closed Forever 21 store next door.

While Dick’s sales fell in the first three months of this year from the boom in the first quarter of 2021, when people bought outdoor gear in droves with pandemic stimulus money, store revenue was more than 40% higher than the first quarter of 2019 before the pandemic. . And sales have increased from the 2021 holiday season, which CEO Lauren Hobart sees as a major achievement for the store’s outlook.

“The change in consumer behavior over the past two years is indeed structural,” Hobart said on a conference call Wednesday. “Consumers have made lasting changes to their lifestyle.”

When The SoNo Collection opened in 2019, Bloomingdale’s and Nordstrom were quick to jump on both anchor pads. Department stores passed up two earlier opportunities to enter the Danbury Fair mall, when Filene’s closed in 2006 and Sears nearly a decade later. Several other retail and restaurant chains have chosen The SoNo Collection for their first Connecticut locations, including 4-star Amazon, Camp, H&M Home, Pinstripes and Yard House.

But despite several significant vacancies, Danbury Fair has managed to attract new tenants for some storefronts and has been bustling on many weekdays in spring 2022 – and crowded for hours at various times on weekends. Lenders recently bet on the long-term viability of Danbury Fair by granting a new mortgage to owner Macerich.

But across the state in Waterford, Simon Property Group has seen vacancies rise at the Crystal Mall after reporting last year that it planned to sell the property to lenders rather than repay a secured loan by the shopping center – despite promising prospects for economic growth via the Electric Boat submarine yard and the construction of the waterfront.

During his own conference call with investors this month, CEO David Simon told investors that his company remains open to enclosed malls and outdoor malls, believing that either location could be positioned for success.

“Good commercial real estate can take many different forms,” Simon said.

Includes earlier reports by Paul Schott and Luther Turmelle.

[email protected]; 203-842-2545; @casoulman

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