Spring 2004 Retailing in the Great Outdoors
Ask specialty retailers what their biggest challenge is, and you’ll get answers like product mix, or hiring, or profits. But chances are, you won’t hear them say something like “getting rained on.” Unless, of course, they operate in one of today’s popular outdoor centers.
If you’ve confined yourself to the cocoon of the common area, the idea of selling in the great outdoors may come as a bit of a shock, what with contending with sun, rain, wind and even snow. Who’d be crazy enough to try that? Well, you might be surprised at how many do. And one day, you may be one of them.
Talk to the retail owners, managers and employees who brave the elements to sell their wares, and you’ll discover that the grass looks a good deal greener on the outside. With clever designs from cart manufacturers and popular events that draw crowds, outdoor retail is a viable, important and increasingly popular option that specialty retailers shouldn’t overlook. Today’s outdoor shopping centers are upscale destinations that cater to hordes of tourists and locals who come to stroll through the open spaces, take in some fresh air and, more important, buy. Now is the time to explore the great outdoors as a retail venue and see what it has to offer.
Some say an outdoor center doesn’t get much better than The Grove, especially if they live in Los Angeles. The Grove’s amenities, like a working double-decker trolley to shuttle visitors from one end of the center to the other, and attractions that include a dancing fountain—not to mention the movie stars who shop there (word has it that spotting celebs happens all the time). As for retail tenants, put it this way: not only is the store selection top-drawer, but more than nine retailers have chosen The Grove for their flagship locations. The outdoor specialty leasing program is equally impressive. “It’s always leased,” says Amy Blair, president of Specialty Leasing Concepts (Los Angeles) and manager of The Grove’s cart program. “There’s a waiting list” to get into the cart program, she says. With an estimated 14 million tourists a year, it’s not surprising.
Back on the other coast, there’s no shortage of tourists in the Miami area, either, especially those escaping the frigid north. “[Customers are] automatically feeling tropical because it’s winter and [they] have shorts on,” says Gerry Radtke, general manager of CocoWalk in Coconut Grove, just one block in from the beach. This is good news for specialty retailers who stock things Florida vacationers are looking for, like sunglasses, beachwear and tropical clothing.
A major advantage to retailing outside, says Tracy James, general manager of The Gateway in Salt Lake City, is that “the atmosphere and setting are positive.” It’s true: the setting of an outdoor center is like no other, whether it’s near the beach, in the mountains or in the city. Customers are outside, and with birds singing and sun shining, a carefree spirit emerges. Hopefully, so does spending.
“[Customers] are a little more relaxed. They’re more likely to stop and look around,” says Cornelia Ryan, co-owner of Outer Limitz at Stony Point Fashion Park (Richmond, VA). Stony Point’s tranquil park-like setting naurally puts visitors at ease, getting them in the mood to relax, stroll, and spend. You can play chess with 3′-high chess pieces. You can even bring your dog. About two dozen stores, including Saks Fifth Avenue, are dog-friendly, says marketing director Deirdre Goodrich. You don’t find this policy in an indoor mall. “My husband and I knew people by their dogs. It adds unique character to Stony Point,” says Ryan.
Looks like rain
Of course, there is the flip side: stormy weather. It can dampen more than just the spirits of retailers and shoppers. Case in point: Stony Point Fashion Park’s grand opening this past September. Enter Hurricane Isabel. The center still managed to open, despite numerous atypical grand-opening-day setbacks, like the loss of power they and 80 percent of Richmond suffered that afternoon. Damp, dark but undaunted, the carts and kiosks were down for only one day and back in the groove the next.
But it doesn’t have to be as dramatic as rain. Even a steady drizzle can cause a fizzle. “This year was difficult because the weather was bad,” says Michael Benjamin, owner of Omsun Temporary Tattoos at South Street Seaport in New York City. Even so, he closed his doors only three or four days the entire season. But what’s worse than shutting down, he says, “is when it’s raining and we’re open—and not doing business.”
It’s not unusual for a center’s management to ask specialty retailers to outlast rainy weather if it looks as if the rain might be short-lived. That’s the practice at The Gateway. “If a storm comes, I ask [retailers] to hang out until it passes,” says James. But a passing storm, a lazy drizzle or a 24-hour soaker can mean unmade sales and unmet goals. Retailers should go in knowing their business will be subject to the elements, Blair says. So if the unpredictable isn’t your strong suit, you might be more comfortable playing at another table.
Not that developers don’t take Mother Nature into account in setting their rents and fees. They do. “We’ve built and structured our rent to take into account rain and snow,” says James. Blair, too, has factored the weather into the 11 programs she manages, but she notes that there are exceptions to the rule in extreme conditions.
Once you’ve weathered rain and snow, you’ve conquered it all, right? Not quite. Sun can be as big a problem as rain, especially if you’re retailing in the south or the southwest. “Arizonians are in air-conditioning all day” during the summer, says Blair. “But in the evening, they love to come out.” Desert Ridge Marketplace in Phoenix caters to them by opening their 10-cart program after the sun goes down: from May through September, the carts are shuttered until 4 p.m., when they open for evening shopping. To cool things down, misting machines throughout the center provide relief. “Misters cool the ambient temperature… about 10 degrees,” says Jim Brennan, general manager.
You can’t beat Mother Nature, but you can soften her. And that’s what cart manufacturers are doing. They’ve come up with myriad ways to shelter customers and employees from rain, sun and cold. To begin with, an outdoor cart is structured differently from its indoor counterpart. Indoor carts are built to let the elements in (like the sprinkler system if there’s a fire), whereas outdoor units are built to keep the elements out. “The biggest difference is, [the outdoor cart] has to be weatherproof,” says Sharon Loeff, director of sales and design for Creations at Dallas, an RMU designer and manufacturer. Weatherproofing makes the cart’s roof one of the most important structures. Creations’ RMUs are made of metal and are powder-coated for durability.
For colder climates, “heaters are installed under the [cart's] awnings to keep both customers and employees warm,” says Loeff. When the weather turns unseasonably hot, fans replace the heaters. Installing large awnings or secondary awnings for extra shade is another way to beat the heat.
Designer and manufacturer TL Horton Design (Grapevine, TX) also takes measures to combat the elements. And they’ve thought of something customers like to do after-hours in an outdoor center: walk and window shop. Thanks to an ingenious cart design element, shoppers can peer into four well-lit, front-facing glass cases. Which means they might spot an irresistible something they’ll come back to buy the next day.
Out in the open
You know the “location” mantra, but it takes on a whole new meaning outdoors. “You’re right out there in the middle of everything… You get a lot of exposure on an outdoor cart,” says Rosemary Bowles, owner of Down from the Attic (Rockville, VA). Stephanie Fink, South Street Seaport’s marketing director, has the same take. “From a visual standpoint, you [and your cart] can’t be missed,” she says. “Customers don’t have to pull open a storefront’s double glass doors or walk through an anchor store before they encounter your cart” and your merchandise. “It’s not like [a mall] where they go down a corridor and don’t see you.” This way, “you get the first impulse buy,” not the in-line.
If you’re there during a planned event, even better. “One of the big bonuses” of being outside, says Benjamin, are events such as the annual Music Festival and Children’s Day, New York City’s largest free, family-friendly festival. And from Memorial Day through Labor Day, visitors to South Street Seaport find street performers—jugglers, magicians, mimes, puppeteers, balloon artists and more—adding to the festival feel.
According to Blair, “Everyone loves to be outside.” Although not quite everyone wants to be there day in and day out, most indoor types tend not to give it a thought. But maybe you should. If you know what outdoor shoppers in a certain locale want to buy… if you think it might be pretty good to spend each day in the great outdoors… and if you know that having to shut down for a passing shower (or even a hurricane on opening day!) won’t hurt your business plan or your temperament, then it might be time to take it outside.
Coconut Grove, FL
CocoWalk in trendy, artistic Coconut Grove attracts tourists and locals alike. This urban entertainment/retail destination boasts 200,000 s/f on four levels with numerous places to dine and shop. CocoWalk’s year-round program, which started five years ago, has eight carts. Customers pass these strategically located units as they enter the center’s U-shaped courtyard. Merchandise includes tropical clothing and jewelry, plus those beach must-haves, sunglasses.
Desert Ridge Marketplace
This 1.2 million-s/f center is a cross between a shopping center and a strip center. In addition to 70 specialty shops and numerous restaurants, anchors include Kohl’s, Barnes & Noble, and AMC Theaters. Four strip centers surround the district where the RMUs are located. “The district was built geared to Generation Y customers,” says Jim Brennan, general manager. This year-round cart program includes sunglasses, handbag and jewelry retailers. “The program has become so successful, we’re going to need additional locations,” Brennan says. To beat the scorching 112-degree highs in the summer, carts keep evening-only hours. In winter, when temps hit lows around 45, portable patio heaters warm things up.
Salt Lake City, UT
The Gateway’s grand opening was grand indeed—it coincided with the 2002 Winter Olympic Games. This 550,000-s/f center is built around the historic Union Pacific Depot, which was built in 1908. The Delta Center (home of the Utah Jazz) and Salt Lake City’s new light-rail system are neighbors that attract more than five million visitors a year.
The Gateway’s outdoor cart program is a year-round success. Even with an average yearly snowfall of 54″ the carts stay in the game. With heated sidewalks in more than half the area, cauldrons strategically located throughout, and the carts themselves equipped with heaters at both ends, specialty retailers do just fine. “We opened November 1st of 2001, and I’ve had several tenants that have been here from that grand-opening day,” says Tracy James, general manager. The program quickly grew from six carts to 12, and this summer will add several more.
Los Angeles, CA
J. Crew, Apple Computers and Gap are just a few of the stores with flagship locations in this 575,000-s/f outdoor retail/entertainment center. The Grove is located in one of the most densely populated and affluent areas in the US: More than three million people live within a 10-mile radius, and the average household income is $100,000. Beverly Hills, home of some of the richest and most famous, is a just three minutes away.
The Grove’s specialty-retail program is open year-round. (As the song goes, “It never rains in California… “) Each of the 20 carts features unique items ranging from tony pet accessories to one-of-a-kind timepieces. It should come as no surprise that The Grove’s program is in great demand.
South Street Seaport
New York, NY
Want foot traffic? Say no more. More than 10 million people visit the Seaport Marketplace every year. Located in the financial district of lower Manhattan right by the Brooklyn Bridge, South Street Seaport consists of 250,000 s/f with more than 100 retailers and 35 restaurants and food outlets. The specialty retail program runs from mid-April to mid-October. Currently it consists of eight carts located on the pier side, but will expand to include four new carts in the historic district this spring. “We plan to merchandise and lease the new carts to [retailers with] upscale, interactive, trendy products [that] complement the historic district’s customer base,” says marketing director Melanie Fink.
Stony Point Fashion Park
Stony Point Fashion Park opened its doors this past fall. (In the hurricane.) This 690,000-s/f center has Dillard’s, Saks Fifth Avenue, and Galyan’s as anchors, and caters to tourists (Richmond is rich in Civil War history) as well as residents. The specialty-leasing program here is seasonal (April 1-October 31), with eight carts that line the promenade between Saks and Dillard’s. During its first year, specialty retail tenants sold toys, personalized piggy banks, upscale merchandise for cats and dogs, novelty desk clocks, spa products, remote-control race cars, Virginia-related items, and sunglasses.
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