Over the past several years, there has been a persistent story of doom and gloom about the so-called Retail Apocalypse, with its spin-off tale, Death of the Mall, a close second. Forever 21 announced it had filed for bankruptcy earlier this fall, another seeming sign of the end of days of retail. But in Connecticut, some malls are surviving and even thriving, and it’s not thanks to fast-fashion retailers like Forever 21.
“Our CEO has said, ‘The bazaar was here in 600 B.C., and it will be here in 6,000 A.D.,’ ” says Matt Seebeck, senior general manager of the new SoNo Collection in Norwalk. “We built this shopping center to evolve with the way people shop, and people are engaging with great gathering places.”
Seebeck says creating mixed-use destinations has been a focus for Brookfield Properties, which opened SoNo Collection in mid-October. (In early November, Brookfield announced that it sold its majority stake in the new mall for $419 million to an unidentified investment group). SoNo, expected to have between 80 and 100 stores including Nordstrom and Bloomingdale’s, isn’t alone in this approach. Diversification beyond retail has positioned Urban Class A malls (those with the highest sales per square foot) to succeed in this new retail climate beyond their more-affordable counterparts.
It’s not just because luxury consumers have more money to spend. In fact, Bob Phibbs, CEO of New York-based consulting firm The Retail Doctor, says consumers with household incomes over $100,000 are actually the least likely to go to brick-and-mortar stores today. “The biggest thing about top-tier malls is that they understand that retail exists to answer the customer’s question, ‘What’s new?’ ” he notes. “They keep updating to make things look bright and new, and they’re providing ways for people to sit and gather.”
Brookfield Properties chose South Norwalk thanks to its proximity to I-95 and Route 7 in the densely wealthy Fairfield County. “There was a market hole, and Nordstrom and Bloomingdale’s agreed,” Seebeck says. “It’s easy on and off the highway. We know their customer lives here, and they want to shop it. We have that ideal location in Norwalk.”
Nordstrom is an important anchor for SoNo Collection, with the only other location in the state nearly 70 miles to the north at the Westfarms Mall in West Hartford. While many department stores are shuttering locations, Nordstrom is growing nationwide, and Phibbs attributes this to the investments the retailer has made in its stores. “Nordstrom is giving a lot more space for people to look around in their stores, and they’re merchandising expensive pieces with lower-priced items so it’s not so compartmentalized,” he says, adding, “They understand their shopper — buy online, pick up in store.”
And it’s not just top-tier retailers that have seen big payouts, Phibbs explains. Walmart and Target also invested in their brick-and-mortar stores, and they’ve recently seen their best quarter yet, he says. What’s important is that retailers, and malls in particular, adapt to the new way that customers shop. Today, malls need to be destinations in and of themselves — centers for entertainment, service and shopping.
One of New England’s largest shopping centers, Danbury Fair Mall, recognized this shift and adapted accordingly. “Retail is evolving,” says Danbury Fair senior marketing manager Melissa Eigen. “We’ve opened more restaurants and entertainment venues, but this year alone, we opened two big clothing retailers. Our market wants to come out, experience and shop. People want to spend time with their families.”
In the past two years, Danbury Fair underwent an interior upgrade to help its primary demographic of moms, children and families to stay at the mall longer. Along with a fresh coat of paint, the mall added seating areas as well as gaming spaces with foosball and shuffleboard. A large family restroom was installed next to a revamped play area, and the food court was completely redone. “You think of a static space with tables and chairs,” Eigen says. “We added couches so you can relax and take a break in the food court. Everywhere in our center is equipped with strong Wi-Fi, and we have charging stations in every seating area.”
This experiential approach has bolstered Danbury’s traditional retail component, as well. This year, Soft Surroundings and H&M both opened in the mall, and Eigen reports it has been struggling to find space for new retailers. “The retail landscape is definitely changing,” she adds. “We see people with bags in their hands, but it’s about upgrading for today’s customer. We have an indoor bungee jumping area and virtual reality on the upper level near Primark, and we’re continuing to add more.”
The experiential trend has been spreading throughout the state. In July, interactive aquarium SeaQuest opened a 17,000-square-foot location in the Westfield Trumbull Mall. Despite initial negative publicity surrounding animal cruelty concerns, which SeaQuest has disputed, Westfield officials report the location has been a hit. “Since opening in July, customer response for SeaQuest Interactive Aquarium has been great,” says marketing director for Westfield Trumbull and Meriden, Katherine Bolas. “Families enjoy coming out for a full day together. You can shop, grab a bite to eat, and enjoy a unique and interactive experience together at SeaQuest.”
And success is not exclusive to Fairfield County. Real estate investment trust Taubman’s Westfarms Mall in Hartford County continues strong with a unique retail mix. “Westfarms offers over 40 retailers that are unique or exclusive to the market,” says Maria Mainville, director of strategic communications. “In the fashion and accessories category, we offer the only Tory Burch, Kate Spade, Michael Kors, Coach, Tiffany and Co., and Vineyard Vines within 40-plus miles of the Hartford market. And in the fashion and fitness space, we offer the only Lululemon and The North Face in the state, and the only Athleta and Peleton within 40-plus miles of the Hartford market.”
That robust mix is paired with a location convenient to I-84, I-91 and Route 9 as well as exclusive experiences. For example, local NBC lifestyle program CT Live! airs from Westfarms every weekday morning. “Shoppers are welcome to watch the live broadcast each day overlooking the Center Court from in front of the upper-level Macy’s men’s store,” Mainville says.
And in Middlesex County, Clinton Crossing Premium Outlets has opened new retailers New Balance and Fanatics by Lids in the past year. For the holidays, director of marketing Kathleen Mones announced UGG Outlet will return and a new Puma location will open by the end of the year.
The state’s largest mall, Connecticut Post Mall in Milford, is on the upswing as well, after opening new anchors like Boscov’s and Dave & Busters in the past few years. “As the only supercenter in the Greater New Haven region, it is imperative for us to have something for everyone,” says marketing director Kelly Frantz. “With a mix of both national and local retailers — including family-owned department stores like Boscov’s, entertainment destinations such as Dave & Busters and Cinemark, and great dining options including Bar Louie and the new Guacamole’s — there is something to fit everyone’s tastes.”
Franz reports the mall is expecting a growth in sales for the coming holiday season and is prepared to uphold the high standard now expected from mixed-used malls. “We are currently seeing a global shift in the way people shop and what they’re looking for in a physical retail environment,” she says. “What consumers want now is a dynamic, very personal experience that combines shopping, dining, entertainment and engaging events to create a destination people will visit again and again because they want to spend time together — not simply because they need a new pair of shoes.”
The SoNo saga
Call it an advance Black Friday sale — Gold Coast style. Just a few weeks after the mid-October opening of The SoNo Collection in South Norwalk, developer Brookfield Properties announced it had already sold its majority stake in the new mall, listing a total transaction price of $419 million. Brookfield had scrambled to hit its target opening date, with crews working around the clock in the closing weeks. By the time November rolled around, The SoNo Collection had already lost its status as America’s newest mall, displaced by the far larger American Dream mall a little over an hour down Interstate 95 in East Rutherford, New Jersey. While the Jersey mall is pinning its hopes on attractions like an amusement park and an indoor ski slope, The SoNo Collection is focusing on a high-end experience. — Alexander Soule
Developer: Brookfield Properties (via 2018 acquisition of GGP)
Location: Interstate 95 Exit 15, South Norwalk
Opening date: Concourses and a small number of stores including Nordstrom opened on Oct. 11, 2019, with remaining stores opening throughout the holiday season and into the spring of 2020
Size: 700,000 square feet
Tenant count: 80-100 depending on storefront designs
Lease commitments: 90 percent, on par with the U.S. average for regional malls as of June
Anchor stores: Bloomingdale’s, Nordstrom
Only-one-in-Connecticut stores: Altar’d State, Aria Couture, Amazon 4 Star, Bloomingdale’s, Camp, Casper, EQ3, Racefaster
Signature restaurants: Sally’s Apizza, Bazille, Jacob’s Pickles, Made in China, Pinstripes, Yard House, Yong Kang Street Dumpling