Beyond Retail

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.

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