The new Ollie's Bargain Outlet opening tomorrow in Matthews is just the latest instance of a curious and fairly recent trend that likely isn't unique to Charlotte: New retailers filling in big-box (or, at least medium-box) space left vacant by bankruptcies a year or so ago, when the exits of Circuit City, Linens-n-Things, Goody's and Steve & Barry's left about 25 big ol' voids in shopping centers across the region.
Now, at least six of those spaces have either welcomed a new tenant or soon will. The new Ollie's, for instance, is in the former Linens-n-Things at Matthews Corners, 2308 Matthews Township Parkway, near Independence Boulevard. Another branch of Pennsylvania-based Ollie's will contribute to the pattern, too, opening in April in the former Goody's in Mooresville. Other recent examples include the new Big Lots in the former Circuit City on University City Boulevard and the Nordstrom Rack slated to open in 2011 in the former Circuit City at Carolina Pavilion on South Boulevard, near Interstate 485. (Ollie's also moved into the old Goody's shown above, on U.S. 70 in Hickory.)
You'll notice that most of the incoming retailers have something in common beyond the type of space they're occupying: They're discount stores, about the only kind of retail chain growing in the current environment. Fueled by bargain-hungry shoppers, such stores are taking advantage of the depressed real estate market to grab locations that weren't available before, and you can see the effects across the local landscape. Though they almost certainly aren't paying as much in rent as the previous tenants did, the new arrivals still bring benefits to the shopping centers, giving consumers more options and helping landlords by paying rent and attracting traffic that will spill over to neighboring tenants.
At least in one case, though, a move to fill a vacant big box simply perpetuated the retail hopscotch that's left gaps across the region for years: Best Buy last month closed its store on J.W. Clay Boulevard in University City to move to a much more visible location at Concord Mills, leaving behind an empty space just down the plaza from, yes, another empty space, a former Walmart that shut down when a new supercenter opened on North Tryon Street last June.
On a related note: It appears that a new tenant is also headed for the former Toys R Us at 6070 E. Independence Boulevard, next to an old Circuit City that's now a carpet store. Kaplan College, which offers career-oriented associate degree and diploma programs targeted at nontraditional students who need a flexible schedule, is currently overhauling the building and plans to open in the space in the late spring or early summer, spokeswoman Abby Hunt said. It's part of the Kaplan company also widely known for its test preparation offerings, but those won't be available at the roughly 30,000-square-foot Independence Boulevard site, she said. It will be the first Kaplan College in North Carolina; there are about 70 nationwide. The Toys R Us closed in early 2006, and the year before played a role in a bizarre crime story that illustrates another potential use for empty big boxes: A prison escapee was discovered living in the then-vacant Circuit City next door, living off of items he stole from the Toys R Us.
Speaking of Ollie's: The Matthews branch of the closeout chain opens at 10 a.m. Wednesday. CEO Mark Butler will be there, and Hall of Fame pitcher (and N.C. native) Gaylord Perry will be signing autographs and meeting with fans. Beginning at 8:30, 250 tickets will be given out on a first-come, first-served basis for the Perry meet-and-greet; ticket holders will also receive a limited-edition Perry card and can get their photo taken with Perry inside the store after the grand opening ceremony. The store opening will also feature live music and refreshments.