Story and photograph Copyright Westfair Communications
It is hardly news that brick-and-mortar retail is under fire, with thousands of store closures having an understandable knock-on effect for shopping malls.
But the major malls in Fairfield County are painting a rosy picture, while the great unknown — Norwalk’s $450 million, 717,000-square-foot SoNo Collection — readies itself for an October opening.
“We’ve been the prominent shopping and dining destination in Stamford for the past 37 years and we are proud to continue serving the community,” said Dan Stolzenbach, general manager of the 853,000-square-foot Stamford Town Center.
“We’re doing very well this year,” said Maura Ruby, senior property manager at the Danbury Fair Mall, which at nearly 1.3 million square feet is the county’s largest. “We’ve undertaken a lot of renovations and we are very excited to open the H&M (Aug. 22), which will showcase the newest prototype store buildout.”
Katherine Bolas, marketing director for the 1.13 million-square-foot Westfield Trumbull, also spoke glowingly of new store openings, while Brookfield Properties, which owns the SoNo Collection, maintains that it is roughly 80% leased. One of its anchor tenants, Nordstrom, will have a grand opening event on Oct. 11, at which time several other retailers are also expected to open, although Brookfield would not confirm which or how many will do so on that date.
For all the positive talk, research indicates that, at least on the national level, malls are in trouble. A 2017 Credit Suisse analysis predicted up to 25% of the nation’s shopping centers, or roughly 275 malls, could shutter by 2022, due mainly to all the store closures.
Last month Coresight Research reported that, year to date, 7,062 stores had shuttered, compared with 5,864 closures for the entirety of 2018. It predicted a total of 12,000 could close by year’s end.
Many of the recent closures have been mall mainstays, such as Payless, Gymboree and Charlotte Russe — all of which have exited Stamford Town Center this year, along with J. Crew, Armani Exchange, Ann Taylor, The Walking Co., Pottery Barn, Williams Sonoma and Chico’s.
Nevertheless, Stolzenbach said, a number of new tenants have come in this year, including men’s retailer Zane, Fun Palace, Boost Mobile, The Fix and Concept Design.
“And I’m pleased to say there are more on the way,” he said.
As has been the trend nationwide, Stamford is doubling down on events to help draw traffic, including the Summer Enrichment Series, a weekly children-oriented array of events focused on science, nature, music and health; live music every Friday evening; the second annual Stamford Innovation Week in September; and its inaugural Fall Festival, which will feature various activities, Stolzenbach said.
At Danbury Fair, in addition to the return of H&M — which exited the mall in May 2013 — via a 21,563-square-foot store, a new Macy’s Backstage debuted on Aug. 10. That store, which also has a presence at Stamford Town Center, features 12,000 square feet of discounted merchandise derived from the main store. Stores like Lord & Taylor, Dick’s Sporting Goods, Primark, L.L. Bean — and even Williams Sonoma, which has struggled elsewhere — are all solid performers. Newcomer Soft Surroundings, a women’s apparel and accessories chain, is off to a good start, Ruby said.
She noted that the mall’s location near the New York state border is particularly advantageous, estimating that as much as 40% of its traffic comes from the Empire State.
Business at the Westfield Trumbull has also been fairly steady, Bolas said.
“We’re excited to be opening local operators Karobean Kitchen and BBQ Seafood Boil at our food court in the coming weeks, and have welcomed new tenants in the past year, including ULTA, Journeys Kidz, Hannoush Jewelers and SeaQuest,” she noted.
The last — a controversial interactive aquarium that has repeatedly raised the ire of animal activists over purported shortcomings in the care of its captive creatures — “has been great,” said Trumbull’s Economic & Community Development Director Rina Bakalar. “Visitorship has been strong, they’re very charitable and I think the other tenants there will see the benefit of having them in the mall, even with the controversy.”
The main story at the mall remains Westfield’s proposal to add 260 apartments on its property, something that has caused no small level of consternation among residents and the town government. As previously reported, the corporation has yet to file a formal application for that move, though Bolas said, “it remains part of the long-term vision for the property.”
As for SoNo, its tenants so far include Apple, shoe chain Journeys, furniture company EQ3, beauty supply shop L’Occitane, Abercrombie Kids and Kay Jewelers. Anchors Nordstrom and Bloomingdale’s represent a combined 300,000 square feet, nearly half of the total footprint, according to Brookfield Properties.
Norwalk is something of an exception to a general rule at Nordstrom, which has been closing on average two full-line stores annually for the past few years. Its only other new venture will be in Manhattan.