Chris Ressa does not put a lot of stock in the word “experiential.” Though it’s become a companion to the word “retail” in the real estate industry, DLC Management Corp.’s senior VP of leasing finds it not up to the task of describing what’s too often missing at shopping venues.
“It’s too specific. It describes one thing, and not all that is really needed. I prefer the word ‘different,’ because that’s what brings people to your center,” Ressa posited. “Is there something available there — be it a trampoline park or a restaurant or a single item in a single store — that they cannot get anywhere else? That’s what building traffic is about.”
To his point: No matter if a center is open-air, enclosed, or a simple neighborhood strip center, product differentiation rules the day. Open-air centers come in many sizes and varieties, so Chain Store Age took a look at what’s new at three different properties run by three forward-thinking developers: Retail Properties of America Inc., Mid-America Asset Management, and DLC.
Last year, DLC did, indeed, sign Launch Trampoline Park to a lease at the Court at Deptford, looking for it to inject a shot of different into a fairly average power center in Deptford Township, N.J. Since purchasing the 361,000-sq.-ft. center in 2014, DLC put a full-bore renovation and remerchandising program into effect that not only reimagined what new types of formats and restaurants could build traffic, but also what traditional retail mix could increase sales. In 2015, a 60,000-sq.-ft. Burlington Coat Factory opened at the center and Party City relocated to a larger 17,000-sq.-ft. space next to Dress Barn. The Court at Deptford’s newest anchor, Hobby Lobby, opened its doors last year.
“DLC is always looking for opportunities with properties that we see as undervalued,” Ressa said. “Deptford is in the Philadelphia MSA [metropolitan statistical area]. It’s a really soaring trade area — very dense with high income — and the center has great access between two busy roads. It was a power center that was in transition.”
After allocating the 60,000 square feet to Burlington, DLC was left with an L-shaped box that Launch Trampoline fit into like a jigsaw puzzle piece. “We wanted them because of what they brought to the party,” Ressa said. “We came in and reconfigured the center in a way that made sense for the community today.”
Growing, upscale communities need their Party City’s and Hobby Lobby’s, but they also need their Ann Taylors and Sur La Tables. In Naperville, Ill., an ever-burgeoning western suburb of Chicago, RPAI used open-air retail development to, in effect, add a High Street annex to an already popular downtown.
Main Street Promenade is a 182,000-sq.-ft. mixed-use development that has melded with downtown Naperville and made a significant contribution to its roster of more than 100 national brand and boutique stores and 40-plus dining establishments. A population of 215,000 sporting $130,000 average household incomes within a five-mile radius supports such a retail collection. Main Street Promenade’s 103,000 sq. ft. of street-front retail sports the old-fashioned, hanging signs of J. Crew, Hugo’s Frog Bar & Fish House, Anthropologie, White House Black Market and the aforementioned Ann Taylor and Sur La Table.
“Naperville is a great submarket, one of a handful of suburban downtowns that actually work,” said the president of RPAI’s Eastern Division, Matthew Beverly, who as VP of investments guided its acquisition of Main Street Promenade. “It fits with our stated strategy. We don’t chase tenants or configuration. We look for the best real estate in the best submarkets.”
In terms of demographic and sociographic effects, Beverly sees two scenarios informing RPAI on just what defines a desirable submarket for the kind of retail center it provides. One is a busy and time-strapped society that is learning the advantages of live-work-play environments putting nearly all they need within easy reach. The other is dual-income households that have abandoned the traditional nuclear family dinner and TV hour and go out to eat on a regular basis, often following the evening meal with a little strolling and window shopping.
The latter is surely the dynamic that has most contributed to the long-term success of Geneva Commons, a 15-year-old Mid-America-run complex in Geneva, Ill., not far from Naperville. Unlike Main Street Promenade, which is fused to its downtown, the nearly half-million-sq.-ft. Geneva property sits a little west of downtown. And while it retains Geneva’s upscale retail flavor, it augments it with national brands such as Barnes & Noble, Crate & Barrel, H&M and Victoria’s Secret. It’s also made itself its own brand of civic center.
“I think people see it as an extension of downtown, but what draws them is convenience. You can park right in front of the store you want to go to,” said Cathy Charhut, Geneva Commons’ one and only asset manager. She helped open the property in 2002, was retained to run it when Mid-America Asset Management took over its operations in 2005, and has never left.
Geneva Town Center has long fulfilled the “be different” edict with the symbiotic retail relationship it has developed with its downtown. But in achieving that position, it’s also been a standout in the field of experiential retail.
For several years, Geneva Commons has sponsored a concert series that features local talent every Wednesday and Sunday in June. It’s become a traditional summer happening in the region, drawing thousands of people who set up lawn chairs and blankets for picnicking. At Christmas, the center does a tree lighting ceremony with horse-drawn carriage rides and pictures with Santa. Mid-America is now making improvements to common areas that will make possible a series of outdoor movie nights this coming summer.
It recently installed a 20-ft.-by-14-ft. high-definition screen that will show movies, but also serve as an advertising vehicle for the center and its tenants. Two smaller screens will be added on either side of the center’s bell tower to accommodate as many moviegoers as possible. Also coming to Geneva Commons this year is more comfortable seating, a fire feature, and two interactive art sculptures.
“We’re always trying to attract the high-end tenant with the newest and hippest item, and we were inspired by The Bean sculpture in Chicago’s Millennium Park,” said Charhut. “We don’t know what the sculptures will be yet, but we’ve sent out a call to artists for proposals.”
But different doesn’t have to be a hundred-thousand-dollars’ worth of interactive sculpture. It can be something as simple as the blow-dry bar that DLC will soon be adding at The Court at Deptford.
“It will be the only one in Deptford, and it will bring in the female shopper,” Ressa said. “We’re a consumer-based economy, and if we offer people something different, we’ll be successful. It’s why, in the age of online shopping, QVC is still very successful. I was watching the other night and bought a baseboard cleaner they were showing. Why? Because it was something unavailable anywhere else.”