Justine Griffin / Herald-Tribune – I’ve been writing about the retail industry in Florida for close to five years now.
Being a Florida native, I also spent a good deal of my youth ambling around the malls of my hometown with friends and family. It seems that shopping centers have changed more drastically than my loyalty to store brands over the years.
Each week, I get a dozen or so emails from readers who really care about the shopping centers in this town.
Some are avid boutique-goers and love the mix of new brands and longstanding stores in downtown Sarasota or St. Armands Circle. Others enjoy the convenience of Westfield Group’s Sarasota Square and Southgate malls.
And there are those who just couldn’t wait for the Mall at University Town Center to open.
But after covering Black Friday after Black Friday through the years, I saw a trend in 2014 that I hadn’t seen in years past — there seemed to be fewer people shopping in malls.
Which brings up the question: Is Southwest Florida big enough to support three shopping malls?
More than two dozen enclosed malls have been shuttered across the country since 2010, and about 60 more are teetering, according to Green Street Advisors, a real estate advisory firm.
“Mall sales will rise as population grows in the region,” said Jeff Green, a retail analyst from Phoenix who follows the Southwest Florida retail scene (and is no relation to Green Street). “There is plenty of awareness of the malls in the area, so it comes down to whether there’s enough demand there to support the number of retailers in the market already.”
A contributing factor to the decline in brick and mortar is, of course, the growing digital shopping sector. More people are buying online than ever before.
But retail sales across the country are holding steady.
Nearly 80 percent of the 1,200- plus malls in the United States report less than 10 percent vacancy rates, according to CoStar Group, a real estate trade group.
Obviously, retail continues to evolve.
Sure, the $315 million Mall at University Town Center was busy when it opened Oct. 16, and the many times I’ve been to the new luxury mall at University Parkway and Interstate 75, shoppers are browsing in the two-story aisles. But often more of them seem to have come for dinner than for shopping.
Some managers at the new mall have reported disappointing sales. On Thanksgiving night, when the mall opened at 6 p.m. like all the other shopping centers, less than half of its stores bothered to take part. Few people showed up to shop there, or at the Best Buy across the street.
Meanwhile, Southgate Mall continues to work to redefine itself amid brand defections and closings.
With Saks Fifth Avenue,Gap, Banana Republic, Mayors Jewelers, Williams-Sonoma and Dillard’s gone, the center sometimes feels like a ghost town.
Hopefully Cobb Cinebistro, which is to open a luxury dine-in theater in the former Saks space this year — and other offerings planned by the mall’s owners but yet to be revealed — will liven things up a bit.
On Monday, there were some additional retail departures from local malls: Wet Seal, a discount apparel brand known for selling women’s fashions, closed its Sarasota Square Mall and DeSoto Square Mall stores. The company, which is on the verge of bankruptcy, will not open another store in the area.
Wet Seal’s departure followed Pita Pit, which closed its restaurant near the Sarasota Square food court late last year and the Gulf Gate Library, which moved out of its temporary site at the mall into a new building on Curtiss Avenue.
Other stores are arriving.
Last year, Westfield Group announced that H&M, another discount apparel retailer, will open a 21,000-square-foot store inside the south Sarasota County mall. Old Navy and rue21 are expected to open there in 2015.
But one thing is clear: People just don’t shop like they used to.
We run into the mall when we need something. We use apps and the Web to compare prices.
We’re looking for deals and discounts rather than just browsing the aisles.
This year should be an interesting — and telling — time for retail in Southwest Florida.