When it comes to comedy, so the saying goes, it’s all in the timing.
But there’s nothing particularly funny about the timing of The SoNo Collection. Opening to much fanfare in October – only to shut down five months later as part of Gov. Ned Lamont’s Covid-19 response – the 717,000-square-foot Norwalk mall has weathered that crisis and emerged even stronger, according to its general manager, Matt Seebeck.
“We’ve been doing really great” since reopening on May 20, Seebeck told the Business Journal. “We’re pleased with the progress that’s going on here, and we’re very pleased with how the greater southwestern Connecticut region is doing.”
Taking the “safety first” angle that is de rigueur for businesses in the Covid era, Seebeck praised the state government’s response to the pandemic. For the past several weeks, Connecticut has seen its infection rate hovering around the 1.0 mark.
“It’s a testament to the hard work of the public health and public safety offices that people feel comfortable enough to come back to stores,” Seebeck said. Adding that The SoNo Collection has seen “week over week growth” when it comes to foot traffic, he declined to give specific data.
Owned by Brookfield Property Partners and managed by Brookfield Properties, the mall opened at a time when the so-called brick-and-mortar “retail apocalypse” had yet to feel the Covid brunt. According to research firm Reis, shopping center vacancies at the end of 2019 were their highest in 20 years, at 9.7%.
And with the advent of the coronavirus, the retail picture has hardly improved, with dozens of long-lived retailers declaring bankruptcy and/or store closings. Those include SoNo residents Abercrombie & Fitch, H&M, Victoria’s Secret, Chico’s (in Canada only) and mall anchors Bloomingdale’s and Nordstrom, although the Norwalk stores remain open – at least for now.
Seebeck said that the mall, which has taken a “rolling opening” strategy since its debut, today has about a 10% vacancy, but that Brookfield is “very excited that some really great stores are coming here soon.” He declined to identify which stores those are.
All the stores that closed because of Covid have now reopened, he added, with the latest including The Body Shop, Sunglass Hut and Arhaus Furniture.
Rigorous sanitation and social distancing efforts are in place, Seebeck said, including signs in common areas, reminders of each store’s reduced capacity, and security officers on patrol to offer face masks to customers who may have forgotten about that particular mandate.
The mall’s housekeeping team is also out in force, he said, constantly cleaning common touch areas and working overnight shifts to provide more comprehensive deep-cleaning services.
Partly as a result, “Our retailers are telling us there’s been quite a bit of pent-up demand” for in-person shopping, Seebeck said. “Obviously there’s been a lot of people working from home and doing some online shopping, but if you have an electronic device that fails for some reason, you probably weren’t able to get it fixed the same day.
“We’ve certainly seen pent-up demand for electronic services” at such outlets as Amazon 4-Star and Apple, he said.
The mall also features a rotating selection of local artists’ paintings, as well as free giveaways throughout August via its “Summer of Surprises” program. Other events – meditation, yoga, even bingo – are designed to encourage consumers to return, Seebeck noted.
“Obviously consumer confidence is really important to get folks back in,” he said. “And we’ve always been committed to safety as our number one goal.”
And as the coronavirus situation evolves, The SoNo Collection will follow suit, he said.
“We have the flexibility to change with the way people shop, and we will continue to do that.”
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