Beyond Retail

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

An update on F/NR and Beyond Retail

I thought it was about time for an update over here as I've updated the main pages, and it was also about time to move the large derriere a bit lower on the page. But I wanted to answer the question that I've received in a number of e-mails.

As you may have noticed, site updates are a lot less frequent then they once were. There are several reasons for this.
  1. The Natick Collection is open. What was the biggest event to hit MetroWest retail happened September 7, 2007. Since then, there really hasn't been a lot of news other than store openings. Now, with word that the mall isn't seeing the success that was anticipated largely due to the state of the economy, there's probably going to be a stalemate of retail openings at the mall and across MetroWest as retailers wait it out.
  2. I am no longer a year-round MetroWest resident. While I am here during the summer, I am a college student halfway across the country, which makes it harder - though not impossible - to stay connected to what's happening along Route 9, Route 30, and Speen Street. So I do ask, if you catch anything suspicious going on, please send an e-mail my way. I'm sure the readers of the site would really appreciate it.
Don't worry, the website isn't going anywhere. And since this is the summer, I do hope to keep the news section more updated for now. And if breaking news tips ever arrive in my e-mail, I will make it a priority to post them - things like the abrupt Sam's Club closure, which Framingham/Natick Retail had details on before the mainstream media. But for the more typical mall updates, they might not be posted that day. Thanks to everyone for your understanding, and please do keep checking back for updates.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Is "Affordable Luxury" On The Way Out?

Umm... it could be. And that's not good for the Collection.

Chicago-based online fashion mag and blog Second City Style (which, I must note, I was reading for non-fashion related reasons) picked up on a story in Monday's New York Times. Entitled "Thinking Twice About That $400 Handbag," it discusses the current state of affordable luxury, and it doesn't seem to be too pretty.

During the just-concluded holiday shopping season, with plummeting home prices, rising energy costs, and a seemingly unstable economy, there weren't as many items purchased that fall into the "affordable luxury" category. According to the article, Tiffany & Co., Nordstrom, and Coach (all of which just so happen to operate in the new addition) are experiencing slowing sales and dipping stock prices.

I 've tried to explain the concept of "affordable luxury" to some people in the past and got pretty much laughed at. My description of it in the entry Malls vs. Wal-Mart: Why The Natick Collection Can Win wasn't really a whole lot better. The typical response is, "Who would ever spend $200 for a pair of jeans?" But they do. In droves.

To explain it better, the article summarizes the thoughts of retail experts Michael Silverstein and Neil Fiske. Here's basically what they said:
They posited that Americans with household incomes of $50,000 and above tend to “trade up” to high-end products in categories like kitchen appliances or bedding that are emotionally important to them, while perhaps pinching pennies elsewhere to compensate.

Dozens of chains rode this masstige wave, and earned billions in the process. Coach persuaded women to buy $400 handbags when a $60 version from Macy’s could have sufficed. Williams-Sonoma trained shoppers to covet a $35 stainless-steel hand-crank can opener, even though Wal-Mart sells a high-quality electric model for less than half the price. And 7 for All Mankind convinced people that they wanted a $200 pair of jeans made from the same material in a $30 pair of Wranglers.

Yes, it's yet another reference to 7 For All Mankind (from here on out referred to as "Seven") jeans. The bread-and-butter of "accessible luxury," they have become a fashion staple on affluent high school and college campuses. Easily identifiable by the presence of either an "A", a number "7", or a squiggly-line on the rear pockets, they have become the ultimate success story of the category. In Greater Boston and Chicagoland, Beyond Retail readers likely come across several pairs every day without realizing it.

*NOTE: Beyond Retail does not advocate looking at people's butts in an effort to determine the truth of the above statement, even if it is an effort to determine local retailing trends.*

If Sevens and other "accessible luxury" standards disappear, it's going to be hell for many retailers. Nordstrom will have no reason for existing. And what will the company's customers do? Do they immediately flip to buying $25 Lee or Levi's jeans from Sears instead?

Seven, which relatively recently became part of the VF Corporation's portfolio, has found themselves in a tight place (pun intended) if this economic state is for real. Do they set their jeans to have a mean price point of $100, likely reducing the quality of the product but retaining their clientele? Or do they retain the current pricing (which currently goes as high as $349) and acknowledge that their customers will likely end up purchasing fewer pairs of jeans if any at all, while having no strong product to compete at the lower $100 price level and letting a new competitor fill that gap.

And back to the local scene: what does this economic turn mean for the Natick Collection? It's really not good. The mall was designed around the "affordable luxury" customer, and if they're not going to be able to shop there, who will? Luckily, the Collection should be shielded from this collapse, at least initially. While there could very well be an exodus from the F wing for the mall's crossover customers from Natick and Framingham, the proximity of the Collection to some of the most affluent and "old money" neighborhoods in the state in communities including Weston, Dover, and Wayland should secure itself for the time being. As long as those communities don't fall apart overnight, the mall's clientele will still be around.

But perhaps JasmineSola closed just in time. We'll find out soon enough.

Sunday, January 13, 2008

It's time for an update... even if it's a review of the North Face store

Since I've deprived the website of content for quite some time, I figured I had to put something up, despite how lame it might be.

"I felt European. And also like a yuppie. I so wish I had a fleece North Face vest on." - Chicago radio host Steve Dahl

"You can borrow mine next time." - Dahl newsman Buzz Kilman

So was the dialogue that ran through my head when walking into the store at the Natick Collection. Given the huge logo, it's sort of hard to miss. Unfortunately, despite a very promising corporate website, the inventory in the actual store is quite lacking. One of the jackets I went in to take a look at were available only in a few women's sizes, and the other was available only in a small green and an extra extra large brown color.

What the store did lack in inventory, though, it made up for in customer service. While there only seemed to be two salespeople, which seemed to be too few for a relatively sizable store, they knew the merchandise and the lifestyles of their customers: both of which should really be found in any retail store. This, however, led to a bit of interesting dialogue.

"So, are you looking for something breathable for skiing or snowboarding in, or something more for biking, or running?" - store salesperson

"Umm... just walking in a really windy area." - me

The store's soundtrack was also pretty good; I heard "Fantasy" by Mariah Carey, "Satellite" by Guster, and "Do You Believe in Love" by Huey Lewis & the News. I'd be interested to find out how their sales are during the summer. While the store wasn't entirely jackets, most of it was. So, do enough people buy coats in the summer to keep the lights on?

Sunday, September 23, 2007

More on Life Without a Car

Really, MetroWest isn't that bad.

Earlier today, I went to Vernon Hills, Illinois; which is the big retail area around here. Basically, my plan for the day was to pick up some bottled water. Public transportation stops at the local mall (Westfield Hawthorn) and at SuperTarget, which is across the street.

The bus schedule sucks, so I was dropped off at the mall at about 4:30pm; after convincing the driver to stop at the regularly scheduled stop of Target, he agreed to pick me up there at the regularly scheduled time of 6:15pm.

I got off at the mall with the intent, of course, of burning as much time as possible so that I wouldn't have to spend two hours at Target. Normally, that would be at least possible, but keep in mind, everything purchased at Target would need to come back with me on the bus. And the state of Illinois has a really funny law: at crosswalks, pedestrians DO NOT have the right of way. This may puzzle you as it continues to puzzle me. What the hell, many Boston area natives out here have been asking themselves. "If I can't cross until there is no traffic, then what even is the point of having a crosswalk?"

At the mall, I looped around the Macy's anchor and crossed a sea of parking. As the mall physically (but not asthetically) dates to 1973, the spaces are all lined diagonally, meaning that everyone parks extremely poorly. At the end of the sea, I needed to cross with about the same width and traffic volume (and purpose) as the road behind Toys 'R' Us, TJ Maxx, Macy's Furniture Gallery, etc. Except, unlike at Shoppers World, this road had no crosswalk.

Finally getting across that and hiking up a hill, I arrived at a Dominick's supermarket. Realizing that...

1) I really wanted to kill some time
2) Someday it might be a good idea would be a good idea to get a Dominick's card

Well, now was the time. I went into the store, which must be one of the dumpiest Dominick's in the chain... the company's stores in nearby Northbrook and Lake Bluff are much clean, modern, and at least acceptable... this place has 10' ceilings! On my way to the customer service desk, I passed a huge display for Aquafina water... my favorite brand, and hell, it was 2/9! How could I pass up such a deal... oh yeah, I would have needed to carry two 24-packs of water across a road scarier than Route 9. So instead, I promptly signed up for the "Dominick's Fresh Values Card", and got out of there.

(actually, the most interesting discovery at Dominick's was a guy standing in front of the store playing the trumpet. He was wearing the Dominick's jacket, and didn't appear to be seeking tips. Does Dominick's provide entertainment for shoppers, or was he just practicing in between stocking the produce section?)

My next crossing was at a four-way intersection (luckily, with crosswalks) which for no reason had a stop light. I needed to make two crossings, although this intersection was so dead that I could have walked diagonally across the middle of it.

That was easily the easiest stretch. Now, I was upon the road worse than Route 9... Route 60. Framingham has a ton of lights, so the max. speed that anyone is going on 9 is 50-55mph. This road has almost no lights, so cars easily go 65-70mph, until they reach that rare stoplight. Once I reached it, I pressed the button and finally got the walk sign to head across. But I was no more than 1/3 of the way across before the white walking person became a red person. This has to be the most poorly timed crosswalk I have ever seen.

Nearly roadkill, I arrived on the other side unbruised. But that wasn't my final cross. By this point, I thought that maybe my previous exploration in Vernon Hills was just really odd in not encountering crosswalks. Now, I was about to cross a small parkway. Certainly, the somewhat substantial intersection I was approaching, which had the Target entrance to my right, would have a crosswalk? Nope. I crossed the road pretty easily; luckily my time playing Frogger many years ago paid off. Then I crossed a much more pleasant sea of parking and was finally at Target.

What's interesting is that the entire infrastructure of Vernon Hills is relatively recent. While Route 9 dates to the Worcester Turnpike of 1810, the entire area I walked around today was not even part of the Village of Vernon Hills until 1973, and most of the development has taken place in the last 10 years. While the newer roadways did boast, wow, sidewalks, the lack of crosswalks just makes absolutely no sense. Did they just forget? Or did someone decide not to spend the little money required to paint two lines and and install a button. In fact, with all of the construction, couldn't the bill for painting the lines and installing the button have been billed to a new retail development anyway?

My point: In "Framinghatick", pedestrian advocates seem to almost want leather couches as benches and 10-foot barriers between the traffic and the sidewalk so that you can feel like you are at Garden in the Woods. In Vernon Hills, I can't even cross the freakin' street. Sometimes, you just have to be satisfied with acceptable conditions.

Thursday, September 06, 2007

Malls vs. Wal-Mart: Why the Natick Collection Can Win

I've been writing in this blog quite a bit lately, maybe it's because the grand opening of the Natick Collection's expansion is so close or because I'm in a completely new place far away and in a land where opinions and retail are a bit different. But on the eve of what is possibly the second most important event in MetroWest retail (preceded, of course, by the grand opening of Shopper's World in 1951), I thought I'd take this moment to tell a short story.

After visiting a Target here in the Midwest (which had only two differences, really; an entire aisle of alcoholic beverages and a cow humidifier that they would get their ass kicked for if they tried selling anywhere else), a colleague and I ended up at a pretty typical shopping mall, four-anchors, middle market, really nothing to write home about.

After visiting a Banana Republic outpost, and regrettably, Abercrombie & Fitch, he mentioned, "Do you know what these stores all have that Target doesn't? Quality."

Luckily for general manager Frank Lazorchak and the entire crew in Natick, quality is on the Natick Collection's side. Take some of the most internationally-known names, put them in a funky looking corridor, and hope that people show up. Right now, it looks like they will.

But look even to the bigger picture. Lifestyle centers, which act basically as fake downtown areas often combining office and retail, are by far the most popular retail concept right now. But look further into these, and you'll see that the more obscure mall tenants like EBGames, Auntie Anne's, and CVS aren't making their way into these complexes. The goods purchased as these merchants can just as well be picked up with half a million other items, at, say, Target. Instead, it is the retailers that are well known for quality, service, and prestige that are evolving to the other side. Victoria's Secret, The Gap, Williams-Sonoma. When you think quality bakeware, it's unlikely that anyone thinks Target. And in a world that is quickly falling in love with the concept of "affordable luxury", nearly all of the tenants in a lifestyle center follow with this ideal.

Same with the Natick Collection. You might not be able to stock your closet full of $185 Seven For All Mankind jeans from Nordstrom, but it's somewhat realistic that a middle or upper-middle class person can find the extra money lying around to splurge on a product that isn't necessarily outrageously overpriced, but rather is known for high quality, high style, and as an advantage, is the same pair of jeans that your favorite celebrity has been seen wearing all around Los Angeles. You might not be able to match it with Dolce & Gabbana sunglasses from Neiman Marcus and a diamond ring from Tiffany & Co., but you've assembled at least part of the outfit. It's something that you can be proud to wear around.

And that might be more what the Natick Collection ends up being like. General Growth boasted that Natick bordered some of the most affluent communities in the state, but that doesn't mean that these people are planning to go, in the words of Providence's own Blu Cantell, "to Neiman Marcus on a shopping spree." Some have considered that while the former Natick Mall had some of the highest sales per sq. ft. in the region, the expansion goes for an entirely different customer base and sales will need to start from scratch. But on the other hand, affordable luxury takes many of the mall's existing customers and pushes them up just a little on the status ladder. In the end, it may very well be affordable luxury, combined with a few really rich people who are too lazy to go into Boston, that propel the Natick Collection to the top.

Just checking the Natick Collection's website a few moments ago, the new store listing has been put up with new maps of the property. It was the summer of 2002 when General Growth first threw around the idea of expanding the property with the Natick Planning Board. In 2004, they got serious, and in May, we learned that Nordstrom would finally arrive in Massachusetts. Shortly after, Neiman Marcus was announced. Delays and appeals held off the actual start of construction, but on August 30, 2005, the ground was finally broken. It's been known as Natick Mall 2, the New Natick Mall, Natick, Natick Mall again, and finally the Natick Collection's 2007 expansion. Tomorrow it opens, and a door closes on what was the project that really got this website started.

Thanks to everyone along the way who sent along tips and such, especially the readers... one sticks out in my mind as the person who harassed the Burberry store in Boston, letting F/NR list the company as a likely tenant nearly a year before it became official. Thanks to the folks at the mall PR agencies, most recently Kortenhaus but a huge thanks to Ruth Davis and the entire team at RDW Group, who were incredible at getting me the press releases before any newspapers could put them out. For what reason they were replaced midway through the project I will never know.

And lastly, but fittingly, best of luck to General Growth with the new property. From talking with Frank Lazorchak during the media tour last December, it became obvious to me that he would see the project through to success. There really is no better guy to be running the Natick Collection.

In just over 24 hours, the doors of the Natick Collection expansion will open to the public for the first time. The entire New England retail community is watching. Let's make this happen. Good luck to everyone at GGP, and to everyone who has made an impact on this site during the project, thanks for the support.

Monday, September 03, 2007

Back at ya, pedestrian advocates!

Where I am currently living has a very limited selection of retail. Extremely limited. The city put up a fight in the early 1990s when Burger King wanted to come to town, more recently it was Costco that got the thumbs-down. More annoyingly, I'm without a car here.

It's been relatively warm during the past week in Chicagoland, and I ended up going through an entire case of water in that time. Luckily, there is a grocery store about a mile (actually, 1.3 miles) from where I am, and I was able to get a lift over there. Once I got there, I contemplated how easy it would be to transport two-24 packs of water. They didn't seem too heavy in the store, but I didn't want to push it, so I just went for one box. Since Illinois does not have a bottle deposit, and the Ice Mountain brand was on sale, it was a reasonable $4.50. Everything seemed good so far, and as I walked toward the doors at the grocery store, a blast of air conditioning made it seem like it would be a perfect walk back.

By the time the grocery store was out of sight, the box of water began to change shape, and the temperature was not a comfy 60 degrees but rather 83 degrees of dry heat. The community that I am in is actually very well designed for pedestrians, but that didn't make the walk any more enjoyable. Dog walkers and stroller-pushers looked at me like I was an idiot, and who knows what any of the passing cars were thinking. By the time I turned onto a side street, the box was not only embarrassing but was also becoming quite painful. Eventually I got back, but only with the personal assurance that I would never do that again.

Now, for the connection:

At no time in this story did I have any problems with actually getting from the store to my residence. As I mentioned, the city was clearly listening to the pedestrian advocates of the world when they were laying out sidewalks. The problem lies entirely in what I was trying to pick up: a box of water. It really isn't all that feasible for John or Jane Doe to commute to a grocery store by foot, purchase everything that they need, and then take it back home. Nor is it really all that feasible to purchase a ladder at Lowe's and then walk to your car at Stop & Shop, even if Lowe's was forced to put in a nice walkway with benches. It also is not all that feasible that anyone would buy a 7 foot by 2 foot by 6 inch (unconstructed) BILLY bookshelf at the proposed Somerville IKEA, then drag it down the street to an MBTA Orange Line stop, get on the train with it, get off the train with it, and walk home.

The problem with many proponents of a society without automobiles is that they forget what people are actually doing at the proposed developments. Walking to an establishment such as an office, a restaurant, or a 7-Eleven, is perfectly acceptable and should be encouraged. Additionally, if a supermarket were to open at either the Cloverleaf Mall or Sam's Club sites, it would also be expected that residents of the adjacent condo complexes be able to access the store without needing to hop in their cars. But when IKEA and Lowe's are forced to throw tens if not hundreds of thousands of dollars into walkways that will NEVER be used, one must ask whether pacification of the advocates is really necessary.

The Woes of Non-Customization

So, I was just looking over the press release for the grand opening of Nordstrom.

"In addition to complimentary consultations and demonstrations, enjoy cosmetics samples* and a live radio remote show with station 107.9 WXKS-FM."

"Hell, yea," I thought. I love 107.9 WXKS-FM. That's one of my favorite radio stations! Oh... no wait, what is 107.9 WXKS-FM?

Turns out the live "radio remote show" is going to be done by a radio station better known to everyone as "Kiss 108". Of course, that's the radio station that has the "Matthew in the Morning" radio show, co-hosted by William Costa who has that show "Television Diner" on New England Cable News. The station plays a lot of my personal favorite artists, including Shawn Carter, Shaffer Smith, Jay Jenkins and Robyn Fenty....

What about... "In addition to complimentary consultations and demonstrations, enjoy cosmetics samples* and a live radio remote show with station Kiss 108."

Ahhh... much better.

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

When was the mall built?

From, the website of ADD, Inc. (one of the Nouvelle architects)

PHILADELPHIA, PA (16 April 2007) - Tamara M. Roy, AIA, presented the design and planning behind ADD Inc's new 215-unit residential project, Nouvelle, at the American Planning Association's annual conference in an exhibit session, "New Communities, Revitalization and Redevelopment".
In her talk about "What Women Want", Ms. Roy discussed how female preferences have influenced the urban, architectural, graphic, and landscape design of Nouvelle, which is attached to the Natick Mall (now called 'The Natick Collection'). The 20-year old New England Mall is undergoing a metamorphosis, adding housing and 1.5 acres of roof gardens, underground parking and an outdoor Main Street.
Nouvelle is attracting attention as an innovative, smart-growth housing prototype that provides shopping, eating, and socializing within walking distance, a rarity in many suburbs.

Wait, what was that age again?

The 20-year old New England Mall

The mall first opened in 1966 (41 years ago). It was demolished and rebuilt in 1994 (13 years ago). Where the 20 comes from is anyone's guess.