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Cabarrus Magazine

Concord Mills: Securing its Foundation

Nov 01, 2016 08:30AM ● By Jason Huddle

Concord Mills: Securing Its Foundation

When Concord Mills opened in September 1999, it took Cabarrus County – and North Carolina – by storm.

At nearly 1.4 million square feet, the shopping mecca houses some 200 retailers and services under one roof. And it’s currently undergoing “plastic surgery” across the board.

In 2005, Concord Mills saw 17.6 million people walk through its neighborhood doors, making it the no. 1 visitor destination in the state that year – a feat that has repeated itself since. Out-of-state charter buses are not uncommon sights in a parking lot that is about to get a little more crowded with the additions of standalones Bonefish Grill, Outback Steakhouse and Chipotle Mexican Grill near the entrance to Neighborhood 2.

Ray Soporowski is a vice-president/general manager for Simon Property Group, owner of Concord Mills. “One complaint we’ve had is that we don’t have any sit-down dining. Now we have Bonefish Grill and Outback Steakhouse opening the first week of November; Chipotle opens the first week of December,” he says.

Situated just outside the actual mall building, valet parking will be offered for mall customers. And while additional parking spaces are not planned for the mall, Soporowski suggests that shoppers utilize the less-used spaces in the back lots or in the overflow lot near AMC Concord Mills 24.

Traffic going in and out of the mall property has long been an issue that’s now headed toward a resolution. A flyover entry bridge has received approval and funding from the N.C. Department of Transportation (NCDOT). This $7.9-million project is designed to lessen the traffic back-ups that shoppers experience at the mall’s most-used entrance closest to I-85.

A two-lane bridge will be built at Exit 49 and carry traffic straight through that entrance without encountering other road traffic or a traffic signal. It’s hoped the project will commence in the fall of 2018; it’s expected to last nearly a year and will close that particular access to the mall entirely during construction.

Once parked and inside the mall, it’s apparent that the exterior of Concord Mills isn’t the only segment being touched by improvements. Since last May, the interior has been undergoing its first major facelift since the center’s opening 17 years ago. But why now? This is a state-of-the-art superstructure.

PSFK is a New York-based firm that reports product and service trends. It sees a real shift in the American shopping mall, where about 15 percent of traditional malls are closing their doors, unsuccessful in fulfilling the demands of the consumer or competing with online sales, or both.

In 2015, online shopping increased by 14.6 percent – reaching $335 billion – and that number is predicted to continue rising. Forrester Research Inc. conducted a study that says, in the next four years, e-commerce is expected to reach $523 billion.

“More importantly for retailers, however, is the expected increase in the number of shoppers

browsing and buying on their smartphones and tablets in the coming years,” according to “Forrester projects an additional 26 million shoppers will be both browsing and buying from retail sites by the end of this decade, reaching 270 million as bigger smartphones and faster wireless networks make it easier for consumers to use the Internet to shop on their phones. Forrester says 244 million consumers browsed or bought online in 2015.

This trend could weigh heavily on department stores that typically serve as mall anchors and have been particularly hard hit, with sales falling 24 percent since 2006. “Retailers like Sears, JC Penney and Macy’s have been closing hundreds of locations over the last several years, leaving dead or dying shopping malls in their wake as they try to remain profitable amid the growing threat of e-commerce,” according to a study by Green Street Advisors.

If these stores are to remain profitable they have to pare back on locations. The Wall Street Journal reported that, in order to see the sales they experienced a decade ago, Sears would have to close the doors to about 300 stores (actually closing 78); JC Penney, 320 stores (actually closing seven); Nordstrom, 30 stores; and Macy’s, 70 stores (actually closing 40). Note, these particular closings have occurred or are occurring in 2016.

“The mall shopping value to a consumer is largely swayed by what’s located within them; the mall is not just for buying clothing and eating at traditional food establishments anymore,” PSFK says. “It is actually evolving into something much more dynamic. We are beginning to find communal areas, space services, premium food, temporary stores and even morning fitness classes.”

Utilizing different leasing options affords the temporary store. According to PSFK, test markets have been experimenting with a “mall within a mall” approach, where a sort-of pop-up store houses multiple shop-in-shops that are regularly changed out over the course of a year. This concept additionally allows a mall to offer event-based selling programs geared toward sales promotions that may only last, say, a weekend. The space’s identity then changes spontaneously to what mall operators see shoppers gravitating toward.

So while some might not consider 17 years a milestone that dictates new paint and flooring for Concord Mills, updating the overall shopper experience in conjunction with technology is permeating its walls in the form of lighting, enhanced Wi-fi, addressing shoppers’ hand-held devices, etc.

“There will be all-new LED lighting, which is a lot brighter, and soft   seating in four major areas. These areas will have inlaid carpet, new furniture and new charging stations built into the furniture. There will also be charging stations in the food court built into the furniture,” Soporowski says.

The new soft-seating lounges will be located in the Fashion Court near Michael Kors, Runway Court near SEA LIFE Aquarium and in the Style Court near T.J. Maxx.

 “We’re also relocating the digital directory boards; there are overheads in the common area. You punch in a tenant, and the boards show you where you are and tell you how to get where you want to go. We also have some digital screens in the food court that we’ll relocate into walls. We’ll still have Mills TV and courts with laser shows,” Soporowski adds.

Shoppers will also notice a softer, neutral color palette; painted-out ceilings; more skylights; ceramic tile at all the entryways; carpeted areas from the Off Broadway Shoes ramp to Bed Bath & Beyond; and banquettes and family seating in the dining pavilion.

“And we’re redoing the Garden Court as well. So we’re touching every court and every inch of the mall. We’re getting rid of the whimsical theme,” Soporowski says.

One exception to that is the carousel. It will remain in the dining pavilion, but upgrading the ride was started last month. Even the pushcarts will be new: shorter and more streamlined with LED lighting.

“I think the thing we always try to do is react to our customers’ requests. Michael Kors, Coach – those are the next level and we certainly try to target those types of retailers and put them in the right location (within the mall). What’s going to become available    that makes sense,” Soporowski explains. “In the fourth quarter, we’re going to open H&M. This one is almost 24,000 square feet.

“We (malls, shopping centers) all have design criteria for new tenants. As a tenant comes in, there’s a new design criteria. There will be no more rolling grills (gates at entry). Guess has bigger – 12-foot – glass windows and entry doors. We re-did Foot Locker, relocated Champs to a larger space, and now Francesca’s and Vera Bradley are open.”

Referring to the mall’s construction, Soporowski says, “We’re on schedule. We’re actually doing pretty well and have made some significant changes over the past few weeks. All construction is done at night, from 9pm to 6am. We’ve tried to limit disruption to our tenants and get things cleaned up before they open.”

People do still like shopping in a brick-and-mortar store. The Science Project is a New York-based agency offering customer and brand advertising strategies; Dave Skaff is its cofounder. “By opening a local store, brands have a constant presence that can activate and create value in an entire region if they market properly,” he says. “Offering emotional, convenient, entertaining and integrated experiences will ensure shoppers will visit, spend time and purchase. This has become the new advertising in many ways.”

And, yes, today’s shoppers want speed and convenience, and they want it now. But there’s something to be said about malls and their retailers not becoming controlled by technology.

PSFK says, “They should look to what they know best – customer satisfaction and efficiency – and overlay retail foundations with technology that meets shopper needs as quickly and seamlessly as possible.”

“You offer shoppers the amenities and full shopping experience, but you also have the convenience of sitting down, relaxing and charging your iPad,” Soporowski adds. “We’re going to have a much better look and feel, and we’re looking at other tenants that are the next level. We’ve been here for 17 years and now we’ve sort of rounded it out – we’re truly a family destination. I have been here from   the beginning, so it’s near and dear to my heart.”

Article By: Kim Cassell

Renderings Courtesy: Simon property Group

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