Every two weeks, Beverly Brafford jumps into her Cadillac Allante and heads to the mall--30 miles from her San Gabriel Valley home.
"It takes 35 to 40 minutes . . . but it's worth the travel," Brafford, of West Covina, said of her jaunts to the stylish and expensive South Coast Plaza in Costa Mesa. "They have more selections, better stores . . . better quality."
For another San Gabriel Valley resident, Onnie Oriente, low prices are the object. But Oriente, 22, of Rowland Heights, also finds herself heading outside the region for shopping.
"The prices here are outrageous," she said, window-shopping recently at City of Industry's Puente Hills Mall, where she gets fashion ideas before doing her real shopping at a discount Contempo outlet about 35 miles away in San Bernardino County.
Retailing consultants believe there is a moral to this tale of two mall shoppers. They say the vast San Gabriel Valley--encompassing 29 cities and spanning 250 square miles from Pasadena to Pomona--is home to a number of undistinguished shopping centers out of step with their rapidly changing communities.
That's not to say residents have nowhere to spend their money. In West Covina, there's The Plaza, newly revamped with a glistening food court and skylights. In Arcadia, there's Santa Anita Fashion Park--giant sandcastle, man-made waterfall and all. There's Plaza Pasadena. Puente Hills Mall. Eastland Shopping Center.
And as proof of the viability of malls in the San Gabriel Valley, executives say sales this year have increased in spite of the weakening economy and a soft retail market.
Yet some of Southern California's biggest, most successful, and thus most recession-proof shopping malls lie just outside the region--the Glendale Galleria, for example, and Montclair Plaza in rapidly developing San Bernardino County--both close enough so that travel time for valley residents is minimized.
These mega-malls suck tax dollars out of the region, making it difficult for cities such as Pasadena and Arcadia to lure new department stores--such as Nordstrom--to their own less glamorous mid-sized malls.
"There is tremendous leakage from the valley," said Alex Espalin, a management consultant for the accounting firm Peat Marwick Main & Co.'s real estate group. "People are spending their money outside of the valley."
As super-regional malls grew even larger and racked up profits throughout the 1980s, their mid-sized counterparts, anticipating an exodus of local shoppers, rushed to play catch-up.
West Covina Fashion Plaza spent $17 million to elevate its roof, install skylights, add a food court and change its name to The Plaza at West Covina. Santa Anita Fashion Park, meanwhile, hauled in several cubic tons of dirt for a sand sculpture project. Puente Hills Mall added escalators in its four courts, and will replace its fountain with a carousel.
It is difficult to measure the amount of business the Galleria and Montclair Plaza steal from malls within the San Gabriel Valley.
But sales figures show that, without a doubt, no shopping center in the San Gabriel Valley comes close to those two malls.
In 1989, Galleria stores rang up almost $383 million in sales, the second-highest total in Los Angeles County, behind Del Amo Fashion Center in Torrance. Montclair Plaza sold almost $332 million worth of merchandise.
On the other hand, Puente Hills Mall, which is larger than Montclair Plaza, sold only about $179 million. Santa Anita Fashion Park in Arcadia, often called one of the San Gabriel Valley's better malls, did even worse, with 1989 sales of almost $155 million.
when sales are measured by square footage, to take into account vast differences in mall sizes, Montclair Plaza and the Galleria dwarf all the others. Montebello Town Center--which also draws heavily from the San Gabriel Valley, does fairly well in sales per foot.
Why the spending vacuum in one of Los Angeles County's most heavily populated areas? Experts in the retail industry have a variety of explanations, some of them contradictory, for why many San Gabriel Valley shoppers tend to shun their hometown malls.
Richard Giss, a retail consultant at the accounting firm Deloitte & Touche and a resident of San Marino, sums up the San Gabriel Valley's shopping mall problem in two sentences:
"My wife and others from San Marino go to South Coast Plaza for the whole weekend," Giss said. "They get a hotel, stay one night, shop two days."
For top-of-the-line shoppers in the San Gabriel Valley's wealthy pockets, local malls just don't cut it, Giss said. Closer to home, Santa Anita Fashion Park in Arcadia, he said, is "dependable, but not exciting," and he called the Plaza Pasadena a "trinket" mall.
Nevertheless, San Gabriel Valley retailers are in a bind because there are not enough well-to-do shoppers here to support a South Coast Plaza or a Beverly Center on their home turf, Giss said.