Store Wars has come to Orange County.
The battle for retail dollars may well outdraw anything ever filmed by George Lucas. The consumer spectacle includes glitzy renovations at MainPlace/Santa Ana, Brea Mall, Fashion Island and a soon-to-be-announced face lift at Westminster Mall.
But it remains to be seen whether expensive special effects will translate into bigger profits for Orange County's malls, which are gearing up to compete head-on for shoppers.
The day before the official opening of the redone MainPlace/Santa Ana last Saturday, South Coast Plaza, the county's premier retail center, ran full-page ads heralding the boutiques and designer shops that can be found only at its Costa Mesa complex. The week before, another chichi competitor--Newport Center Fashion Island--ran its own two-page, color newspaper ads on four days.
The ads are just one slice of promotional campaigns that also include major renovations, all in recognition of the fact that Orange County's older malls must keep up with the times to remain competitive and continue drawing their share of Orange County's $13.7 billion in annual retail sales--fifth among all counties in the United States.
"They all have to put their best foot forward. The market is only so big," said Robert A. Peterson, a vice president with Coldwell Banker in Anaheim.
Clearly, the mall to beat is South Coast Plaza. The numbers bore that out even before last year's multimillion-dollar expansion and remodeling. With an estimated 20,000 shoppers flocking to the center each day, South Coast Plaza's visitor count rivals that of Orange County's other major attraction, Disneyland.
The 2.9-million-square-foot complex projects sales this year of about $735 million, the highest in the state among shopping centers and other retail districts.
Somewhat paradoxically, South Coast is owned by developer C.J. Segerstrom & Sons, which is headed by managing partner Henry T. Segerstrom. Segerstrom is also a sizable joint-venture partner in JMB/Federated's MainPlace/Santa Ana--a mere 12 miles away from the Costa Mesa megamall.
Segerstrom insists that Orange County is big enough for both malls. "Can you have two children?" he asked rhetorically.
"Certain numbers (of shoppers) will be loyal to both centers--not just one. The diversity between (South Coast Plaza and MainPlace) will enrich and enhance the shopper's experience."
Segerstrom cited a population base of "probably over 1 million people who didn't have a close-by center" and who now can shop at MainPlace. That's small, contrasted with South Coast's market draw of 8 million shoppers, but it's enough to boost sales at the expanded MainPlace above projected levels, Segerstrom said.
Segerstrom dodged questions about whether South Coast's newspaper ad was placed in response to the opening of MainPlace/Santa Ana, saying only, "I'm sure our marketing people are astute enough to know when there's more competition in the market."
Maura Eggan, South Coast marketing director, added: "We're in competition with everybody. . . . It's not as if we're the only game in town."
Ideally, people will shop at both malls because of the diversity in their appearance and what they offer. Or so the thinking goes.
In contrast with South Coast's expansive halls of enclosed marble and granite, the 1.2-million-square-foot MainPlace has an airy look, with a skylit ceiling of exposed steel grid work bathed in sunlight and framed by rows of lampposts and shrubbery.
While South Coast boasts a large collection of one-of-a-kind, fine designer stores, MainPlace offers movie theaters, a 25,000-square-foot Roger's Garden nursery and home accessory store, and Christian Farmers Market.
Its ambiance and retail mix should rank MainPlace among the top 25% of U.S. shopping centers based on sales, predicted John P. Boorn, chairman of Cincinnati-based JMB/Federated Realty Associates.
"Between the two centers, the whole of Orange County is certainly covered."
Competitors--and some industry experts--disagree. And each competitor can cite its own special niche for Orange County shoppers.
"One reason why everybody is remodeling is to protect market share and remain as competitive as possible," said Kathleen Flood, marketing manager at Fashion Island.
The Newport Beach mall, which is in the midst of a five-year renovation, will spend $130 million if plans are approved to add a theater complex and adjacent food court. But in addition to flashy new looks, Fashion Island touts its location overlooking the ocean and its own unique stores such as Brooks Brothers and Neiman-Marcus.
The renovation is expected to more than double the number of Fashion Island stores to 200 and boost annual sales to at least $350 million.
Meanwhile, Brea Mall's planned $125-million remodeling will add two major stores and make Brea one of Orange County's biggest shopping centers. The four-year plan will give Brea a bright new California mission look that could increase total sales from third to second in the county.