Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Are big-box vacancies filling in?

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.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Nordstrom Rack coming to Charlotte

Nordstrom will open its first local Nordstrom Rack off-price store next year in the former Circuit City space at Carolina Pavilion, on South Boulevard at Interstate 485. The 43,000-square-foot store is slated for a spring 2011 opening, the Seattle-based department store chain said today.

The Charlotte location is the second Rack store slated for North Carolina: Nordstrom previously announced plans to open a Rack at the Renaissance Center in Durham. That location is set to open later this September. Nordstrom also has full-line stores at SouthPark and at the Streets at SouthPoint in Durham.

Rack stores sell clearance apparel, accessories and home goods from regular Nordstrom stores at 50 to 60 percent off regular price, as well as items purchased just for Nordstrom Rack at 30 to 70 percent off of their original prices. The first Rack opened in 1975, a couple of blocks from Nordstrom's flagship store in Seattle.

The Rack in Charlotte will join another department store's off-price brand on the local retail scene: Saks Fifth Avenue's Off 5th, at Concord Mills. Unlike Nordstrom, Saks doesn't have a Charlotte full-line store, though - the closest is at Triangle Town Center in Raleigh.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Burger King escalates fast-food coffee battle

If you're a fan of Burger King's coffee, get ready to say goodbye: The nation's no. 2 burger chain will begin ditching its "BK Joe" this summer in favor of the Starbucks-owned Seattle's Best line of java, in an attempt to fight back against sagging sales and boost the quality of its food - and, I'm assuming, its reputation. Says the Associated Press:

Under the effort, more than 7,000 Burger King restaurants will begin sell the coffee along with iced varieties that also come with a choice of plain, vanilla or mocha flavors and whipped toppings. While prices will be set by franchise owners — who operate 90 percent of the chain's locations — the brew's suggested prices range from $1 to $2.79. Drinks will be sold all day.
Far from an isolated move, the move puts BK squarely in the fray of fast food chains angling for a bigger share of the lucrative beverage, and breakfast, business. For the past two years, McDonald's has been aggressively rolling out and expanding its McCafe line of espresso-based drinks. Dunkin' Donuts has been growing locally. And Chick-fil-A has recently begun touting its 100 percent Colombian brews, too. (Of course, for the finest in quality, may I suggest the Observer's third-floor vending machine, and its 75-cent cups of watered-down...something? What? No takers? Moving on...)

Starbucks bought Seattle's Best in 2003 and has been using the brand to grow while avoiding further overexposure of its namesake products and stores. Locally, it's available at the cafes in Borders Bookstores. For Burger King, the new addition could help bolster how people perceive its food - something that looks to me to have taken a backseat amid weird-verging-on-creepy promotions featuring the "king" and his giant plastic head, "Baby Got Back" rapper Sir Mix-a-Lot and Spongebob Squarepants, and grease-soaked sandwiches with sub-McDonald's appeal. The AP story says that along with the new coffee, the chain is likely to debut improved breakfast products. We shall see.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Concord Mills and SouthPark owner goes shopping for more malls

Big business doings in the Midwest today could reverberate on Charlotte's shopping scene - depending on the outcome.

Simon Property Group, the Indianapolis-based owner of SouthPark and Concord Mills malls, has offered $10 billion to buy General Growth Properties, the bankrupt, Chicago-based company that owns Carolina Place and Valley Hills Mall in Hickory. It is also, with Childress Klein Properties, one of the developers of the stalled Bridges at Mint Hill shopping center, at Lawyers Road and Interstate 485. With more than 300 malls, Simon is the largest mall operator in the country, and General Growth is the second-largest. But the latter has struggled under a giant debt load and entered Chapter 11 last year, leaving other companies eyeing its portfolio.

If Simon's bid for General Growth succeeds, one company would control three of the region's four largest malls, concentrating a lot of power in one place. (The fourth, Northlake Mall, is owned by Detroit-based Taubman Centers.) But it's far from a done deal. According to the Wall Street Journal, General Growth has also been negotiating with a Canadian real estate company, Brookfield Asset Management, which is interested in buying a sizable stake to help lift General Growth out of bankruptcy as an independent company. A bankruptcy judge will also have to approve any deal.

Though who owns a mall isn't usually too apparent - or much of a concern - to shoppers, it has an important impact on factors such as the type of tenants the mall can recruit and the appearance and maintenance of the building. Not that this is a perfect example, but consider Eastland Mall, where owner disinterest arguably hastened the decline of an already-shaky mall. And it makes you wonder from a competitive standpoint, too - if such a deal goes through, would Simon have to sell off some properties to avoid antitrust issues? We may yet find out - and will keep you posted.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

New fitness club, dance studio on tap for Ballantyne area

A three-story modern fitness club and new dance studio are headed to Toringdon Circle, a mixed-use development in the Ballantyne area, on Johnston Road just north of Interstate 485. Medical offices at the four-year-old center are 98 percent occupied, and the retail space is working its way back from the blow struck by the recession, said Marla Sessoms of Brackett Co., who handles leasing for the property. The development is owned by Nationwide Realty Investors of Columbus, Ohio, and also includes Pike Nursery and Hickory Tavern, Sticky Fingers and Ruby Tuesday restaurants.

The biggest addition is a 42,000-square-foot Urban Active fitness club, the first North Carolina location and 36th overall for a Lexington, Ky.-based chain. Set to open in the fall, the $8 million to $13 million gym aims to be cutting-edge, with distinct amenities. Among them: A surround-sound "cardio movie theater" that will show sporting events, concerts and movies on a wall-sized projection screen, in a darkened room full of cardio equipment. The gym will also include a kids' playroom to serve different age groups, tanning beds, a pro shop, a smoothie bar, a women's-only fitness area, racquetball courts, a lap pool and a Spinning studio. All cardio equipment will include an individual flat-screen television. (The Charlotte location will resemble a new Urban Active in Columbus, Ohio, shown above. Snow, presumably, is not included.)

"The demographics are perfect for us," said KT Remus, Urban Active's marketing director. She noted the chain's more established markets have multiple locations, and that it is looking for the opportunity to grow further in the Carolinas. A preview center selling memberships will open nearby in April, Remus said. Prices generally range from $35 to $55 a month, with discounted rates before the club opens.

Also on the way is Carolina Dance Capital, a 8,600-square-foot dance studio slated to open in August. The company has been operating as Weir Dancin' in Matthews for the last decade, and the Ballantyne location will be its second studio. The school offers all styles of dance training for ages 2 to adult, and will have six state-of-the-art studios at the new location, according to a news release. It will occupy a space that originally consisted of five storefronts, three of which were vacant, Sessoms said. The other two housed a coffee house and a health resource center, but they closed - largely due to the recession, which has led to considerable turnover in Ballantyne, as many new, small businesses were unprepared to weather the dropoff, Sessoms said. A gourmet foods store in the center also closed, and some spaces have never been filled.

"I think the timing really was the key, and it's the key now to turn it around," Sessoms said. She's been recruiting tenants to bolster the center, and aiming to give it a fitness flavor.

Other changes at Toringdon Circle within the last year include the opening of Cru Wine Shop, which is in the former Vintage Wine Cellar space, the arrival of State Farm insurance agent Wil Brooks' office and the opening of Rullo di Pasta Italian Cafe & Bakery in a space that had been vacant.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Ring, ring, ring: Harris Teeter's jingle goes mobile

Can't get enough of Harris Teeter's jingle, the star of countless commercials and contests? Now you can take it on the go, in your purse or pocket: The Matthews-based supermarket chain has made 10 versions of its "My Harris Teeter" ditty - six vocal, and four instrumental - available as free ringtones. "The ringtones are another, fun way for Harris Teeter to interact with customers," spokeswoman Catherine Reuhl said.

Though unusual and possibly unique for a grocery store, at least one with a Piedmont presence, the tie-in is far from the first corporate ringtone. Nationwide Insurance launched what's believed to be the first one in the U.S. in 2004, using its "Nationwide is on your side" song. Though it's unclear to me why exactly a person would choose that as his or her ring of choice - unless, perhaps, you worked for Nationwide, or needed repeated reminders of your insurance coverage - it makes plenty of sense for the company. As its advertising vice president said when the tone launched, they want to reach consumers and promote their brand in every possible way, and ringtones are another, modern way to do that.

Companies are also using the technology in subtler ways - well, at least relatively subtler. The Web site offering Harris Teeter's tones is also promoting ringtones featuring kitchen noises such as a blender whirring and eggs frying, sponsored by Rice-A-Roni. Whether you'd even contemplate downloading any of the above probably depends on whether you find the whole idea of ringtones amusing or annoying enough that you permanently set your phone to vibrate, but it's definitely an arena that isn't finished growing. So what's next? Any other local companies you'd nominate to compete with iTunes ringtone best-sellers like the Black Eyed Peas? (The Morris-Jenkins jingle comes to mind, although I have a friend who'd strenuously disagree...)

Thursday, February 4, 2010

It's curtains for more movie-rental stores

The depressing plot twists just keep getting worse for bricks-and-mortar video rental shops: Movie Gallery, which operates stores under its own name and the Hollywood Video banner, this week filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy and will be closing 760 stores nationwide, more than a quarter of its total. The company also warns that more locations could close as the bankruptcy process unfolds. Movie Gallery is aiming to reorganize and move ahead with its most profitable stores, but this is its second trip into bankruptcy in less than three years, and it also closed several hundred stores during its initial stint there.

There are 22 Movie Gallery and Hollywood Video stores in the Charlotte region. Of those, half are set to close, according to the company's Web site. Affected locations include the Movie Gallery stores in Belmont, Cherryville, Chester, Gastonia, Lake Wylie, Lincolnton, Rock Hill and Waxhaw, and the Hollywood Video stores in Matthews, Harrisburg and on Johnston Road in Charlotte.

Beset by competition from Netflix, Redbox, and other downloadable and on-demand streaming services, traditional video rental stores are vanishing from the landscape at a precipitous rate. Blockbuster Video, the nation's largest video rental chain, has also been closing hundreds of stores, including but not limited to locations on Montford Drive and at Quail Corners on Park Road in Charlotte. The Montford Drive location was where I went to rent movies when I first moved to Charlotte. But that was years ago, before I had a Netflix subscription - which kind of sums up the dilemma such stores face these days.

According to a news release, Movie Gallery's goal is to emerge from bankruptcy with a "new and sustainable business model centered on a smaller base of profitable stores." But with the tides shifting as they are, I'm wondering how long even those will remain profitable enough to remain afloat. Though there are still people who like to pick out movies in person - and impulsive times when that's the only option - that pool of customers seems to be draining quickly.
It'll be interesting to see where it ends.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Blakeney adds four new merchants

South Charlotte's Blakeney, which marries big-box retail with smaller, village-style shops and restaurants, is adding to its roster with four new tenants:

  • Belly Elan Maternity Boutique, which sells clothes for moms-to-be and new moms, baby products and related accessories, has moved to an 800-square-foot space from Promenade on Providence, a few miles away at Providence Road and Interstate 485. The store originally opened in Feb. 2005, and also has an extensive Web site.
  • Barbers at Blakeney is set to open this month in Blakeney Crossing, a newer development across Rea Road from the original or "big" Blakeney. The shop will provide full barber services and related products.
  • Blue Basil, a casual Thai restaurant from Rick Taing, the owner of Sushi 101, is slated to open in March.
  • And finally, a store whose name doesn't start with "B" (although, as you'll see, it has connections to one): Home decor shop Casual Elegance, which sells traditional and transitional decor, artwork, accessories, jewelry and gifts, plans to open in March. The business began as a booth at Blacklion and will continue to maintain a presence there, but this will be its first full storefront, according to a news release.
Update: Casual Elegance is backfilling the space left vacant when Acorn closed, Belly Elan is where Potion used to be and the Thai restaurant will occupy the former Sugar Magnolia restaurant.