Fall 2010
Molding Specialty Leasing in Canada

Vaughan Mills shopping center’s specialty leasing program is diverse and meticulously maintained. This is due to the experience and high standards of Mary Cipriano, manager of specialty leasing and partnerships for Vaughan Mills in Vaughan, Ontario, Canada.

Vaughan Mills shopping center’s specialty leasing program is diverse and meticulously maintained. This is due to the experience and high standards of Mary Cipriano, manager of specialty leasing and partnerships for Vaughan Mills in Vaughan, Ontario, Canada.

Nearly fifteen years ago, Mary Cipriano accepted a job with Cadillac Fairview Corporation as marketing director for the Don Mills Shopping Centre in Toronto. Initially, specialty leasing was only part of the marketing director’s responsibilities, but within a couple of years, due its growth and the introduction of a pilot program, Cipriano would focus on specialty retail alone. “Since specialty leasing was growing, it had to be managed more specifically,” says Cipriano of her assignment at the center, which is now called the Shops at Don Mills.

Foray into specialty retail

The fit couldn’t have been better. Retail has always been one of Cipriano’s great loves. Before joining Cadillac Fairview, Cipriano had her own spa business, Features, in the Market Lane Shopping Center in Vaughan, Ontario. The spa included both services and retail offerings and Cipriano ran it for 15 years before she decided to move on. “I had expanded three times. It was either expand again or do something different with the skills I have,” she says.

The work at Features helped Cipriano see things from the retailer’s point of view, a skill that has been of great use to her. Especially when launching the specialty retail pilot program at the center, she says she gravitated towards it naturally. “I had really good insight. I leaned there [versus marketing] because I completely understood what a retailer needed to do,” she says.

The pilot project worked, but there was a learning curve. “In its early stages, the specialty leasing program was in constant development. As it went along, we continued to fine tune. We always looked to make it better, and take it to the next level,” she says.

Canada welcomes its first Mills

In 2004, Ivanhoe Cambridge presented Cipriano with an opportunity she couldn’t refuse: to be in charge of specialty leasing for Vaughan Mills, a property not yet completely built. “It was the first Mills-type concept in Canada, the first enclosed super-regional outlet mall, which was [a first for] the Canadian market,” she says.

The ownership of the property was a 50/50 split with Ivanhoe Cambridge and USA-based The Mills Corporation. “In the beginning, The Mills managed the shopping center, but the leasing was done by Ivanhoe Cambridge. The unique part was that when we opened, we had both landlords under one roof working closely and effectively together,” she says. In 2006, Ivanhoe Cambridge purchased The Mills Corporation’s 50% share of the center, and became sole owner.

As with other Mills-type properties, the center contains a variety of different “neighborhoods” with specific architectural details. For instance in the “Lakes” neighborhood, the carts are aqua blue with royal blue shelves.

“I was hired as part of the opening team. We were working with site plans. The building was still a shell . . . It was very [challenging] to work off of something that wasn’t 3-D, or tangible yet,” says Cipriano.

Vaughan Mills was to be the largest cart program in Canada with a total of 40 carts. And on opening day, November 4, 2004, all 40 were leased.

Vaughan Mills, like other Mills-type properties, was created with a unifying theme—Discover Ontario. Reflective of its theme, many of the tenants in the specialty leasing program—such as Kurtz Culinary Gourmet Foods, a temporary kiosk—showcase products from Ontario. “Kurtz Culinary Gourmet Foods is a long standing family-owned company in the Niagara Region of Ontario—wine country—that is recognized for the jams and jellies grown on their lands,” says Cipriano. Today, Vaughan Mills has an expansive reach beyond its primary and secondary market as a tourist draw, says Cipriano.

The Mills program

Cipriano is responsible for the leasing and day-to-day management of 40 carts, 12 kiosks and 4 inlines. Out of the original 40 carts the center opened with, 18 concepts remain the same. While some uses are duplicated, they each have their own niche. For instance, “We had six jewelry carts when we opened, but each was unique. There was an amber cart, antique/vintage cart, silver-plated, semi-precious, and so on,” she says.

Cipriano’s program includes many uncommon uses, such as Auto Shift, a retailer that sells Ducati and Ferrari outerwear. Merchandise includes high-quality polo shirts, key chains, jackets, and miniature cars.

Another operator, Zipz Shooz, sells children’s, tweens’ ladies’ and men’s high top and regular casual shoes in a variety of styles from basic to super trendy. “Customers purchase the sole of the flat runner/shoe, and then choose from the large selection of styles for the top portion which then ‘zips’ together for your own personal, unique look,” Cipriano explains.

Merchandising magic

As for merchandising expectations, Cipriano’s bar is high. “We’re a flagship property. We’re one of the top three super-regional centers in Ontario. You have to have a good concept and look professional. You have to look as good as the stores in the shopping center, if not better. Customers see you first,” says Cipriano.

Every retailer is required to use a merchandiser. “This has evolved here. I would see a drawing from the merchandiser and [the tenant] would go to work and the end result would be different than what the drawing reflected. To fix that, we insist there is a design meeting with me, the tenant and the merchandiser. All of us have a drawing for reference. It sets the tone for how serious it is for everyone’s success,” she says. The discussions concentrate on tenant needs, their budget and what needs to happen for them to be “wow” presentation-wise. “The results are seen in the sales. It’s a win-win situation,” she says.

Today Vaughan Mills’ retailers are building more custom display units than they used to, showing their commitment to their business, says Cipriano. “Effective merchandising and customizing positively impacts their bottom line. New prospects are encouraged to look at current cart displays and see the traffic they generate,” she says.

With high standards and coaching, some retailers move on to permanent stores. Take Pink Paw, a retailer that sold dog clothing on opening day. Cipriano suggested the concept, the owner did some research, got the products (doggie faux fur coats, beds, booties, etc.) manufactured from China and became a success story. “We did a pilot with them in an empty store. They invested in the store, and it was the cutest place in the world. It became permanent shortly thereafter,” says Cipriano.

Due diligence

A specialty leasing program, especially one of high caliber, requires constant maintenance. “You manage your program every day. You walk the center every day. It should probably be done twice a day,” says Cipriano. Cipriano’s co-pilot, acting specialty leasing coordinator, Debbie Nagata, is key to the program’s success. “I couldn’t do my job without her,” says Cipriano.

It isn’t any wonder the bottom line reflects Cipriano’s hard work, creative thinking and professionalism. “Due to the success of the shopping centre, occupancy for our MRU program has grown each year, with an average 95% occupancy rate in 2009,” says Cipriano. “We have quite the waiting list for all programs, most especially for MRU’s and kiosk concepts,” she adds.

Not everyone will make it in. It’s all in the fit, she says, and what better fit for the Vaughan Mills’ specialty leasing program than Cipriano herself. You can tell she is committed to the profession.

“Specialty leasing is a unique, ever-evolving discipline and this makes it exciting and alluring,” Cipriano says.

Emily Lambert

Lambert, a senior writer for SRR, resides in Philadelphia. She can be reached at emilylambert@comcast.net.
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