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by Jaclyn Trop

Troy, Michigan — The Somerset Collection, Metro Detroit’s one-stop destination for world-class retailers such as Louis Vuitton, Gucci and Burberry, is still going strong after 40 years, even as other malls suffer in a lingering recession.

The center, celebrating its anniversary this month, is an example of retail done right despite disastrous times for Michigan, experts say.

“They’re really the definition of high-end retailing,” said Paul Bensman, a Southfield-based retail consultant. “They’ve created such a collection that no one in Michigan can compete with them.”

Somerset, which grew around a free-standing Saks Fifth Avenue, is home to three high-end department stores — and Macy’s — in two multilevel malls. More than half of its shops are exclusive to Michigan. As shopping centers across the nation struggle with declining sales, store closings and plummeting market values, Somerset has weathered the recession, boasting a vacancy rate that is “almost nil” — 2 percent — said Nate Forbes, managing partner of the mall’s Southfield-based owner, The Forbes Co.

“It’s amazing,” he said. “You read all the national reports on Michigan, and Somerset has been very resilient.”

The private company, which owns three luxury malls in Florida, doesn’t disclose sales numbers, but Forbes said Somerset is “at the higher end of the industry figures.”

For four decades, Somerset has played a leading role in Metro Detroit retailing, due in part to its location. It’s within a 20-minute drive of nearly 1.2 million Oakland County residents, who boast an average household income of $91,271, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
But the center owes its good fortune to more than demographics.

Exclusive retailers, destination restaurants and highbrow architecture combine to make Somerset a success, Forbes said. Of its four anchors, two (Neiman Marcus and Saks Fifth Avenue) are unique to Michigan and another, Nordstrom, first planted its flag at Somerset before opening at Twelve Oaks and Partridge Creek several years later.

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