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Christiana Fashion Center bringing new faces to First State retail hub

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Tom Byrne/Delaware Public Media
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After years of delays, Christiana Fashion Center is opening its doors, bringing new-to-the-market retailers to an open-air lifestyle center that ultimately will blend shopping with dining and entertainment.

With The Container Store, Saks Off 5th and other marque draws, the fashion center solidifies Christiana’s stature as a regional shopping mecca that already includes the iconic Christiana Mall and two big box centers. The first store, the outdoorsy haven REI, opens Sept. 25.

“Retailers want to be where other successful retailers are,” says Jim Oeste, vice president of retail at Allied Properties, developer of the fashion center. “We fully expect this will be a destination for consumers from Philadelphia down and Maryland up who come for an entire day.”

While construction of the fashion center was hampered by legal hurdles, major construction at the Interstate 95 and Route 1 interchange and a brutal winter, it is opening in the sunniest climate for retailers in nearly a decade.

Retail sales have not fallen for six consecutive months, as lower gasoline prices drive spending. Excluding gas, sales are up 4.4 percent compared to the same time a year ago, according to statistics from the U.S. Department of Commerce.

REI is the nation’s largest consumer co-op, where outdoor enthusiasts pay a one-time fee of $20 to shop at any of the chains’ 120-plus stores. There already are more than 3,000 members in the Christiana area, who previously had to hike more than 40 miles to Plymouth Meeting, Pa., or Marlton, N.J., to buy camping, climbing and cycling gear.

Three of REI’s competitors—Cabela’s, Dick’s Sporting Goods and Eastern Mountain Sports—already have locations in the area, Cabela’s and Dick’s at Christiana Mall and EMS at Center Pointe Plaza in Newark.

Expect other fashion center retailers to open their doors in short order. Nordstrom Rack debuts Oct. 1. The discount spinoff is located a scarf toss away from the luxury fashion retailer Nordstrom at Christiana Mall. Siting Rack stores in close proximity to brand stores is a pattern Nordstrom has repeated in other locations, including Cherry Hill, N.J., and King of Prussia, Pa.

Saks Off 5th premiers on Oct. 4, with Ulta Beauty opening on Oct. 23. DSW Shoes kicks off on Nov. 19. Jared The Galleria also will open that month. The jeweler hasn’t picked a day but Oeste said the store will be open in plenty of time for holiday shopping.

In all, Allied has permission to develop up to 915,000 square feet in the lifestyle center. Ted’s Montana Grill is expected to start serving bison burgers late next year after construction of a 200,000 square-foot second phase of the shopping center – 25 retail spaces – is complete.

“It’s new to the market, owned partially by Ted Turner, who owns a bison ranch in Montana,” Oeste says.

Tax-free shopping is a major component in Christiana’s allure for consumers. The Apple Store at the mall is the highest-volume store in the nation. With sales tax of 6 percent in Pennsylvania and Maryland and 7 percent in New Jersey, Oeste expects shoppers will make the trip to save on big-ticket items.

Danielle Baron, regional director of The Container Store, says tax-free status is not part of the chain’s equation is choosing locations but there are other attractions in Delaware.

“We are looking for A-plus locations that have a high density of our customer base, people who were traveling to King of Prussia, traveling to Cherry Hill to shop at our stores,” she says. “We also were looking for that synergy with other brands that our customers love.”

With a near cult-like following, The Container Store will occupy the most visible site in the center, an end location that can be viewed from the mall as well as adjacent big box centers.

In addition to its celebrated ELFA open closet system, Gift Wrap Wonderland and array of hampers, hangers and office organizers, the new store will be the first in the region to offer design and installation of TCS, the chain’s luxury closets option.

“Custom cabinetry, built-ins, exclusive lighting, options for jewelry and handbags.”

Baron says team members getting the store ready are frequently approached by would-be shoppers as they head to their hotel.

“People see us in our dress code and tell us they are so excited about the store.”

With a total 6 million square feet of retail in three states including Concord Mall, Allied already had relationships with DSW, Ulta and other merchants in its shopping centers. The developer went courting to woo The Container Store.

“We knew The Container Store has been looking for an area location for some time,” Oeste says. “I know the brokers who represent them and we got together.”

Allied is in talks with other merchants but he won’t say who until tenants are signed. Crate and Barrel, an upscale furniture and accessories store, is frequently sited in the same centers as The Container Store.

“I can say that we are looking to include more fashion and an entertainment component,” he says.

Expect more new-to-the-market retailers to open in time for the holidays in other centers on the Christiana front.

Christiana Mall, a regional super center with more than 1 million square feet, is refining its mix, adding five new merchants. They are: apparel stores Eddie Bauer and Villa; cosmetic and skin care retailers Deja Vu BioXAge and Kiehls; and The Art of Shaving, an upscale men’s grooming center.

So why the retail optimism? A recent report by Deloitte points to growing stability in jobs and housing.

“An improving labor market, increasing home values and relief at the pump gave more Americans reason to believe the economic recovery was gaining real traction this year,” Daniel Bachman, Deloitte’s senior U.S. economist, says in a statement. “Those recurring improvements helped buoy sentiment and spending over the past several months.”

Still, Deloitte forecasts only a modest uptick of 3.5 percent in holiday sales, compared to 5.2 percent last year due to stagnant wages.

“The increase may be smaller than last year due to the lingering effects of flat personal income growth in the first quarter,” Bachman said.

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