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Christiana Fashion Center growing in face of retail store closures

Delaware Public Media
The Christiana Fashion Center continues to grow, adding stores, restaurants and more

For Dori Schuster, shopping is one part necessity, one part recreation, and one part social opportunity.

With multiple super centers, the Christiana retail hub fills all three requirements. In Delaware, Schuster, of Cherry Hill, New Jersey, finds tax-free bargains for her family. She enjoys a break at restaurants. And Christiana is midway between her home and her parents’ house in Maryland, an ideal spot to get together.

In an era of crumbling brick-and-mortar sales, shopping centers are wooing customers with experiences that can’t be obtained with a mouse click. The Christiana Fashion Center’s destinations also include Massage Envy, where clients can get a facial or a hot stone massage. Shoppers can grab a bite at quick-casual restaurants, including Shake Shack, Zoës Kitchen, Qdoba and others. The latest addition, Main Events, is a 51,000 square-foot entertainment center.

Schuster often combines a trip to the Fashion Center with stops at Christiana Mall and Costco.

“Clothing, groceries, one-stop shopping all in one is a dream come true,” she says.

She is looking forward to bringing her 9-year-old stepson Sam to Main Event, which offers 22 bowling lanes, zip-lining, laser tag, billiards and more than 125 arcade games. There’s also a restaurant and full-service bar offering draft beers, wine and signature cocktails.

Founded in 1998, Main Event is a subsidiary of Australia's Ardent Leisure Group and operates 38 entertainment venues across the country. The fashion center location is Texas-based Main Event’s first foray into the Northeast.

Steven Tolliver, district manager, said Main Event was impressed by the fashion center’s upscale demographic, with an average household income of $83,312 in a 10-mile radius. Greater Newark offers a talented and abundant labor pool, as well. More than 2,500 job seekers applied for 200 positions.

Credit Delaware Public Media
The Main Event entertainment venue opened in early March and had over 2,500 applicants for 250 jobs.

The company also perceived a gap in the market where it could prosper with minimal competition. There are no comparable entertainment venues in Delaware. Rival Dave and Buster’s nearest locations are in Philadelphia and Exton, Pennsylvania.

On a recent afternoon, Main Event was humming as kids lined up to play such games as Deal or No Deal and The Walking Dead. Teenagers snapped selfies to post on the scoreboard at the bowling alley. Young singles congregated around the billiards tables. Grandparents munched pizza and sipped Yards on draft at the bar.

Amy Dollard of Chichester, Pennsylvania, brought her 11-year-old daughter Chloe to Main Event to play ski ball and arcade games. They took a break, tucking into skillet mac and cheese, one of the venue’s signature dishes, before heading to the zip-line.

Previously, Chloe and her mom went to Dave and Buster’s on the Philly waterfront to play arcade games.

“I like this Delaware location better,” Dollard says. “It’s newer, more cheerful and there is big parking lot instead of a scary parking garage. And the food is amazingly good.”

Credit Delaware Public Media
The Main Events features 22 bowling lanes, zip-lining, laser tag, billiards and more than 125 arcade games.

The location is Main Event’s first foray into the Northeast, a new prototype that offers upgraded lighting and flooring and big-screen TVs for watching sports. The center’s VIP opening on March 4 was by far the company’s largest turnout to date, attracting more than 1,000 guests. Main Event opened to the public on March 6, the day before a winter storm swept the area.

Tolliver said the snow did not white out business.

“We expected that sales would be slow but we were pleasantly surprised,” he says.

Main Event’s target patrons are “college students, young adults, professionals and couples having date night.” It’s also a destination for kid’s parties.

Experienced-based venues provide an opportunity for shopping centers to diversify their mix and fill space in a retail market that remains challenging as shoppers shift toward buying online. CoStar Group Inc., a commercial real estate information firm, says regional and super-regional malls now devote 9 percent of their occupied space to entertainment and dining tenants. Japan-based Round One now operates 19 amusement centers in the U.S. — all based in malls — and has several more in development.

Main Event recently retrofitted a shuttered Sears at Columbia Mall in Maryland.

“We are always looking for great locations and new opportunities,” Tolliver said.

Wilmington-based Allied Properties, whose portfolio includes both the Fashion Center and Concord Mall in North Wilmington, has announced plans to makeover the mall, built in 1968, whose vacancies have increased in recent years. Steve Oeste, Allied’s vice president of retail, hasn’t named specific destinations, but says Allied is looking to offer shoppers more options, including entertainment.

"People are always looking for fun ways to spend their free time," he says.

Christiana Mall, with one of the highest sales per square foot in the nation, boasts near 100-percent occupancy. But its owner, Growth Properties, has redeveloped 80 vacant anchor stores at other malls over the past five years. Of those, only 17 are still traditional department stores. The rest were reinterpreted, either divided into smaller boutiques and restaurants or turned into grocery stores and entertainment concepts.

Despite its name, The Fashion Center focuses on more than clothing and accessories. It’s anchored by The Container Store, a big box storage specialty retailer that has a cult-like following and is the first in the market. REI outfits the outdoorsy set with bikes, kayaks and camping gear. Ulta sells beauty products. Homegoods offers furniture, kitchen goods and household items.

The Shake Shack and Ted’s Montana Grill, a restaurant that features bison dishes, also are the first in the area.

Sales at restaurants and bars have grown at twice the rate of other retail spending, according to research from the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis. The Fashion Center is continuing to add restaurants, with the soon-to-open MidiCi, which translates from Italian to “you tell me.” It’s a fast-fine concept bistro, which combines upscale elements with quick service. Customers order pizzas at the counter and choose ingredients as the pie moves toward the oven. MidiCi also will serve appetizers, Italian desserts and cocktails, wine and beer.

The center also includes Jared’s jewelry store, a beacon for tax-free shoppers. Shuster notes that she and her husband bought their wedding rings there.

“If there is something we need and we are shopping in Delaware I wind up spending a little more than I usually do because I don’t want to miss out on that opportunity for tax-free shopping,” she says.

Alexa, tell us what’s new on the retail front

In 2018, expect to see a series of changes in a rapidly evolving retail space. Here are trends to watch:

  • More store closings.  As Toys R Us, Sears, Kmart, Macy’s and other major players struggle, expect to see more storefronts go dark. According to data compiled by Business Insider, that includes 600 Walgreens and more than 500 stores operated by the Ascena Retail Group, which includes Ann Taylor, Loft and Dress Barn. Teavana, Vitamin World, Gymboree and others also plan closures.

  • More mobile payments. In a fast-paced world, more consumers will opt for Apple Pay, Amazon Pay and Walmart Pay. Stores will have fewer checkout counters and fewer people staffing them.

  • Brick-and-mortar experiences. Merchants will attract consumers to stores with value-added experiences, such as educational play for children, and showrooming that inspires customers to integrate products into their lives. Sephora has launched a series of successful workshops on beauty tips. Nordstrom Local, a prototype in Los Angeles, does not carry merchandise. The focus is on bolstering the brand and forging a relationship with customers with such services as styling, tailoring, manicures, and a beverage bar. Nordstrom Local also accepts returns on online purchases.

  • Voice-activated shopping. Alexa, add milk to the shopping list. Instead of scribbling a list or clicking to make purchases, more consumers will rely on Voice-AI devices to compile orders.

  • Consumers rediscover QR codes. QR codes will become the dominant mode for accessing deals, researching products in-store and capitalizing on loyalty programs. Juniper Research, a digital market forecaster, predicts QR code redemptions will increase by 500 percent from 2018 to 2022, with 5 billion QR code coupons redeemed via more than 1 billion mobile devices.

  • More modes of communication. Expect fewer emails from retailers and a growth in more direct modes of communication, such as Snapchat, WeChat, Facebook Messenger and WhatsApp.

  • More customer generated content (CGC). Fellow shoppers will become an even greater influence on what consumers choose as they rely on reviews, images and ratings shared via social media and other channels, says TurnTo Networks, which develops shopping assistance tools for online retailers.

  • Online grocery shopping. Amazon, Walmart and Target are all competing for food dollars with services that allow consumers to order food online to be delivered directly to their homes. Traditional grocers, including ShopRite and Acme, have not been couch potatoes, either. They are stepping up with online ordering, giving consumers the option of in-store pickup or home delivery.

  • More private labels. Last year, Amazon and Target launched successful private labels. As more retailers get onboard, they will be looking for ways to give their labels cache, often by collaborating with high-profile designers. Expect the emphasis to be on style and quality, rather than just price.

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