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VENTURA COUNTY BUSINESS

Malls Shop Around Ideas to Attract Customers

Commerce: Retailers compete for holiday dollars by opening new stores and attractions.

September 28, 1999|JENNIFER PENDLETON | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

SHERMAN OAKS — The economy is booming and consumer confidence is high, signs that bode well for a strong holiday retail season.

But at San Fernando Valley-area malls, retailers are taking little for granted. Malls are facing increasing competition from new "big box" retail developments and the Internet. And shoppers themselves are more demanding.

"The traditional mall, the long strip anchored by a couple of department stores with few specialty stores, still exists, but we haven't seen much growth there," noted Ira Kalish, director of global retail intelligence at PricewaterhouseCoopers. "And we'll continue to see a contraction."

Mall retailers concede that they must offer more to attract holiday shopping dollars.

"Ten years ago, customers were very loyal to one shopping center and that was their mall," said Ruth Otto Tewalt, vice president and general manager of Fashion Square Sherman Oaks. "I don't think anyone shops that way anymore."

On Nov. 1, Fashion Square plans to launch a marketing campaign to promote itself as a mecca for serious, well-heeled shoppers over age 25 who want quality merchandise.

An unspoken message of the campaign, Tewalt added, is to help distinguish Fashion Square from that other mall in Sherman Oaks--the Galleria--which had a reputation as a teenage hangout before it closed earlier this year.

"It's the proximity of the centers and the proximity of the names," she said. "There's always been confusion."

As they head into the all-important holiday season, other Valley-area malls are also planning special promotions or tinkering with their mix of stores. Here's a sampling:

Valencia Town Center: On Nov. 20, Valencia Town Center will herald the holiday season's start with the second annual "Santa's Arrival Parade," an extravaganza the mall hopes will become a tradition.

"It's sort of akin to the Hollywood Parade on a smaller scale," said Kathleen Gill, the mall's senior marketing manager.

Gill said traffic at the 790,000-square-foot regional shopping mall has been helped by additions to the neighboring entertainment complex, Town Center Drive. Those include an Imax theater and a Twin Palms restaurant.

"People in general are looking to be entertained," Gill said. "That includes shopping, dining, going to the movies, or just walking down the street and enjoying the atmosphere."

By year's end, Gill is expecting 1999 same-store sales at Valencia Town Center, plus Town Center Drive, to rise 6% to 8%. She attributes the projected growth to the buoyant economy, the mix of merchants and to the Santa Clarita Valley's fast-growing population.

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Northridge Fashion Center: The Valley's only super-regional mall, with more than 1.5 million square feet and 150 retail tenants, is putting its focus on the relatively new retail development at its north end--outside the enclosed mall proper.

The area where the Broadway department store once stood--it was severely damaged in the 1994 Northridge quake--is now an open-air retail promenade, a trend the public has embraced by frequenting such areas as the Third Street Promenade in Santa Monica, Old Pasadena and CityWalk in Universal City.

The north end has had a Pacific Theatres 10-screen cinema for nearly a year, but this year, a number of new and unusual merchants have opened up, such as Zany Brainy, a children's educational toy store. Macaroni Grill, an upscale Italian restaurant, will open in a few months.

"In the Valley, there really isn't anything like it out here," said Joey Char, Northridge Fashion Center's marketing director.

To help draw customers to the north end, as well as the rest of the mall, Northridge Fashion Center has been holding a farmer's market on Wednesday nights--complete with pony rides, live music and entertainment, and fresh produce. The event draws 3,000 to 5,000 people a week, Char said, adding: "It's given us such a strong buzz in the community."

Northridge Fashion Center expects 16 million customer visits to the mall this year, up 5% over 1998, on the strength of the economy and the presence of many new tenants, such as Ann Taylor Loft, Old Navy, Forever 21, L'Patricia, Metropolis, and Mr. Rags.

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Fashion Square: The Sherman Oaks mall recently added Sephora, a cosmetics and fragrance specialty store, and Abercrombie & Fitch, a spiffy merchant of casual clothes, will join the lineup soon. Also new this year are Ann Taylor and Restoration Hardware.

Overall, Fashion Square's sales are up 9% year-to-date, the third consecutive year of gains, a jump that Tewalt attributes to the new mix of merchandise.

The Bloomingdale's department store at Fashion Square does not perform as well as its counterpart in Century City, but the store is achieving corporate goals, according to Anne Keating, Bloomingdale's senior vice president of public relations in New York.

"The store is on plan, and we are committed to it," she said.

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