Been to the mall lately?
If not, it's a sure thing that it's changed since your last visit. Regency Mall is missing some of its long-time retailers -- as are hundreds of malls around the country -- and has been scrambling to fill the vacated spaces.
An even dozen new stores are either just open, about to open momentarily or hurriedly remodeling space, planning to be in business by "black Friday," the day after Thanksgiving, the day retailers' fiscal year traditionally turns from the red to the black. Some will be permanent mall residents; others are just here for the holidays. And another 80 temporary users will be operating kiosks in the mall's promenade, joining the existing cellphone, gold chain, eyeglass and beauty products stands already there.
Last year, Regency manager Curt Pruit proudly pointed to a 96% occupancy rate for the holiday season, even as he looked forward to Burlington Coat Factory finally filling the entire 80,000 sq. ft. space that at the time was half-filled by Steve and Barry's (the former home of Bergner's, then Prange, then Younkers).
Well, Burlington is open. The store "had the highest-grossing opening day of all 18 Burlington Coat Factories opened that day," Sept. 4, according to Pruitt. And Steve and Barry's has moved to another spot in the mall. But a lot has changed. Steve and Barry's in July was said to be on the brink of bankruptcy; in fact, its store has confusing 100 Store Closing Event/Must Make Room for New Inventory posters surrounding its main entrance. By Pruitt's calculations, the mall is now 91% full, and he spends much of his time scrambling to fill space with long-term leases, as well as temporary ones, with local retailers or regional ones.
What's happening here is happening all over. Pruitt says 18 retail chains have closed recently, or are in trouble, "and we have eight of them." Three that have already closed are Linens and Things, Wilson's Leather and D.E.M.O. Steve and Barry's future is questionable, and Mrs. Fields' cookie store is also endangered (although the local franchisee is guaranteeing the lease).
Stories in the financial press have pointed to problems at such mall stalwarts as Zales, Foot Locker, Ann Taylor, Sharper Image, Levitz furniture, Bombay furniture, Fortunoff, Lane Bryant, Fashion Bug and Domain -- among others, and those stories were written before the current Wall Street meltdown which further turned off the loan spigot. Just yesterday, the Wall Street Journal reported that Circuit City -- not a mall store but free-standing across Green Bay Road -- is considering closing 150 of its 714 U.S. stores to raise cash.
- USA Halloween now occupies the Linens and Things store ... well, for another few weeks.
- Giant Bookstore will open in November, and is here at least through February. It won't strictly compete with the existing Waldenbooks at the other end of the mall, which focuses on best-sellers.
- Jim Lobbs' Piano Store will be near Steve and Barry's. He's a returning retailer for the holidays, having done well here last year.
- Justice for Girls bought Limited Too, and sells apparel for 'tween girls. It also hosts young girls' birthday parties.
- Gourmet Coffee, relocated to make room for Steve and Barry's, is ready to reopen.
- Gold's Fruit Smoothies took the place of McSnack, a five-year experiment that McDonald's discontinued.
- Central Bark, a doggie daycare and spa (honest, I don't make this stuff up), will open Nov. 17 in an outlot store north of Boston Store that used to be an automobile tire and battery store.
- AiNi, is an Asian boutique and clothing store.
- Chinese Massage will be providing accupressure and massage services in the mall promenade.
- Kenosha Visiting Nurses are giving flu shots.
- Walden Calendar is opening both a store at one end of the mall and a kiosk at the other.
- Dollar Premium, a dollar-store, is opening this week, perhaps today.
Pruitt has a more ambitious, longer-term goal. Having managed Regency for 21 years, he's now hopeful of getting mall owner CBL Properties -- which owns and manages 86 enclosed malls including the 100-acre Regency site, which includes Target -- to "explore where we're taking Regency Mall." Pruitt points to the success of some upscale stores here -- Talbots, JoS. A. Bank, Victoria's Secret and Limited -- and says he'd like "to get more retailers that cater to that audience, the higher end customers who must go to other shopping centers for their other needs. We get good sales from these stores, but we don't have complementary products." Regency Mall's JC Penney, he says, is the biggest jewelry retailer in the state -- which supports his contention "that we have quality customers here."
Pruitt says he needs to teach other higher end stores about Regency's average customer -- who has about $68,000 average income. "Retailers have a different perception of the Racine market," he says. He'd like to attract Williams Sonoma, for example; or Coldwater Creek. "I know the market would support them," he says.
Think that's ambitious? Pruitt has another idea that will knock your socks off: He'd like to open a year-round water park in the "cavernous" Linens and Things space now seasonally occupied by USA Halloween's costumes and scary decorations ($199 talking ghouls!). "We are literally looking for non-traditional retailers," he says. "We want to create a mall with a distinct personality, which would be a win-win for everyone."
Regency Mall is one of the largest employers in Racine. While mall management itself only employs 30 - 40 people to handle security, maintenance and landscaping, the 100+ mall stores employ upwards of 3,000.
And what kind of a holiday season will merchants -- mall and otherwise -- have this year? It's anybody's guess, but the experts are pessimistic, given the country's economic woes, people's worries about the status of their jobs and retirement funds. This forecast expects the worst Christmas since 1991. On the other hand, the Journal Times talked to a handful of local retailers last week, who were cautiously optimistic.