Justine Griffin / Herald Tribune – The Mall at University Town Center will be more than a luxury hub for Southwest Florida’s most rabid shoppers, it also will serve as a “temperature taker” for the retail industry.
Some national retail chains opening new stores in the $315 million project will do so for the first time since the sharp bite of the Great Recession.
Among them are Apple, Crate & Barrel and even Saks Fifth Avenue, which is relocating from Sarasota’s Southgate Mall on Tamiami Trail.
“Because it’s a new mall, it’s easy for a retailer to introduce a prototype there — it’s a rare opportunity,” said Faith Hope Consolo, chairwoman of The Retail Group at New York-based Douglas Elliman Real Estate. “It will have the newest presentation each retailer has to offer.”
The 880,000-square-foot, two-story mall at University Parkway and Interstate 75 is itself an unusual retail Petri dish: It is the only enclosed mall scheduled to open in the United States this year.
When the mall opens in October, retailers will introduce new store formats and technology there that has been developed since the Great Recession, but not yet implemented.
Even Apple — despite explosive success with a variety of computer products — has not opened a new store in Florida since 2008. Of the 23 stores the California company opened last year, 19 were in other countries.
Other rarefied retailers will have the opportunity to experiment with formats in the new mall.
“The fact that Crate & Barrel is opening a new store in this mall is a big deal,” said Jeff Green, a Phoenix-based retail analyst. “They have been opening very few stores over the years.”
The upscale housewares, home accessories and furniture merchandise chain will have a two-story storefront in the new mall. Last year, the company opened one permanent store at the Oakridge Mall in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada. Pop-up Crate & Barrel stores opened in Nashville, Tennessee; Las Vegas; Des Moines, Iowa; and Albany, New York, from October to November 2013.
“The Sarasota store will showcase our full collection of housewares and furniture on two levels, approximately 18,000 selling square feet in all,” company spokeswoman Vicki Lang said. “Our International Plaza store (in Tampa) also offers our full collection on two levels, but has a slightly larger footprint. The Crate and Barrel store at Mall at Millennia (in Orlando) offers our Housewares collection only.”
The Illinois-based company, which has five stores in Florida, “will have the room to do more in their store, since it’s two stories,” said Green, the Phoenix analyst.
H&M, a Swedish men’s and women’s clothier, also will have a two-story storefront.
Both brands are new to Southwest Florida.
Lululemon athletica, a high-end yoga apparel and accessories brand, will transition from a showroom that has limited hours and space to a full-line store in the new Sarasota County mall.
The Canadian retailer is known for hosting yoga classes and demonstrations inside stores or in open areas around malls and for featuring local yoga studios and instructors.
Department store chains also have scaled back their openings in recent years in the wake of the deep economic downturn.
Macy’s opened just three U.S. stores in 2012: Victorville, California; Gurnee, Illinois; and a men’s store in Las Vegas. This year, the chain will open in Sarasota County, Las Vegas and New York.
Luxury retailers Saks Fifth Avenue and Nordstrom have aggressively expanded their outlet brands, but the number of new full-line department stores has tapered significantly.
This year, Saks plans to open seven new Off Saks outlets nationwide but only the single department store for Sarasota County in the U.S.
Last year, Saks also closed its Tampa store in Westshore Mall, so the new 80,000-square-foot, two-story site in Sarasota County — double the size of Saks’ current store in Westfield Group’s Southgate Mall — will serve as the only full-line store in the Tampa Bay market.
It will be unique in that it will offer expanded sections for both women’s and men’s apparel, and be the second Saks store in the U.S. to open the company’s new restaurant line, Sophie’s. The upscale eatery will be inside the department store.
Digital testing site
The Mall at University Town Center also will serve as a laboratory of sorts as one of the most technologically advanced retail spots in the nation, according to executives at Taubman Centers, the co-developer of the new mall with Manatee County’s Benderson Development Co.
Taubman plans to use the mall as a testing ground for new digital, interactive tools aimed at combating online shopping and “showrooming,” where people use brick-and-mortar stores to try out products before buying them online.
Michigan-based Taubman, which also operates International Plaza and the Mall at Millenia, plans to use smartphone apps and free Wi-Fi networks to send push notifications to mall shoppers, offering them special discounts developed in conjunction with retailers.
Eventually the technology developed for the Mall at University Town Center will be implemented at Taubman’s other centers.
“Taubman is working with retailers on programs now that will change the way malls and retailers hook up with customers,” Green said. “The organization will be more at the mall level, which we haven’t seen much of before.”