Beyond Retail

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.