Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Flip flops are tops at two planned shops

Closed-toe shoes need not apply at a new store aiming for its first Charlotte location this summer, with another to follow in the fall: Flip Flop Shops, an Atlanta-based chain where, unsurprisingly, flip flops are the focus. Local couple Jeff and Pam Burrus plan to open one at Carolina Place mall in Pineville on July 1 - on the second level, near American Eagle - and say they're scouting sites across south Charlotte for a second location they hope to open in October or November.

Flip Flop Shops, which has 14 locations thus far and 40 more in the works, says it's the country's first retail chain devoted specifically to the summery shoes. It sells leading sandal brands such as Reef, Sanuk, Flojos, Vans, Havaianas, Olukai, Rainbow, Cobian and O'Neill in a laid-back, beach-themed setting, with prices ranging from $20 to more than $100. "Once reserved only for poolside or beachwear, flip flops have grown to become the global youth uniform, as well as accepted footwear for anyone ranging from surfers to high-level corporate executives," the company says in a news release, although I am quite sure that the latter assertion would be news to my boss, and those of plenty of other companies.

The Burruses have lived in Charlotte for 18 years, said Pam Burrus, who worked in banking before having her first child 10 years ago. Jeff Burrus was previously in the mortgage business, spending 14 years at the same company before it went out of business in February 2009. Instead of looking for another mortgage-related job, Pam said, he decided to do something on his own, and the couple began researching franchises. They kept coming back to the flip flop store, as they liked the concept and one-stop shopping aspect. They're planning to provide a relaxed experience and good customer service, Pam said.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Shopping center beefs up with meat shop

A gourmet butcher shop chain has opened its first Charlotte location in the Village at Robinson Farm, a food-oriented, farm-themed shopping center that opened last year at Rea Road and Williams Pond Lane, near Blakeney and Stonecrest.

The Meat House sells premium beef, poultry, veal, lamb and pork, Boar's Head deli products, proprietary marinades, cheeses, fresh produce, bread, side dishes, desserts and pastries, and other gourmet foods, in a format intended to evoke a neighborhood butcher shop. It also sells more than 100 varieties of wine.

The owner of the Charlotte store is Virginia Meehan, though the chain was founded in New Hampshire in 2003 by a pair of best friends. The company has expanded in the last two months with locations in six states - Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New York, North Carolina and California - with plans for further growth in the months to come. Its first N.C. shop opened in Cary in January.

The Meat House arrives a few months before another upscale specialty food shop is set to join the south Charlotte scene - Clean Catch Fish Market, scheduled to open in midsummer in the Tranquil Court mixed-use development on Selwyn Avenue in Myers Park. That store will specialize in responsibly fished and caught seafood, with what it says will be greater variety than supermarkets offer. It's aiming to offer weekly tasting demonstrations and classes on how to prepare, cook and pair wine with seafood, and will also sell prepared seafood items, wine, beer and organic produce.

Monday, April 26, 2010

Visiting Eastland, before it's gone for good

As Eastland Mall twisted in the wind over the last decade or so, it became increasingly clear that its days were numbered - with the only question when, not if, it would shut for good. But with the news last week that the mall is, indeed, slated to shut down at the end of June, a couple of colleagues and I decided to stop by for lunch on Friday, not as reporters, but just as customers, to see it while we still could.

It seemed the venerable shopping center was more diminished each time I saw it over the last few years, sapped by uncertainty, shedding a couple of stores here and there. But even as recently as a year or two ago, there was a little life left in it. No more: Picture a final clearance sale on its last, weary legs and you'll have a pretty good idea of what the place looks and feels like now. An air of resignation hung over the whole scene, yet maybe also a little relief, because at least now the mall's fate is clear - and shoppers and tenants can plan accordingly. Signs in the mall listed "Operating hours through June 30," and said, "Thank you to the hundreds of millions of shoppers who have visited us over 35 great years!" ("Hundreds of millions"? Hm.)

Contrary to the negative perceptions that have damaged the mall's image, our trip wasn't unsafe or sketchy - just really sad. Even on the way over, it was impossible to escape what had been and was no more - even the Red Lobster on nearby Albemarle Road, which had been open as recently as a few months ago, was boarded-up and closed. At the mall itself, the reminders persisted, down to the curiously unchanged '70s-style "Eastland" signs over the main entrances, showing that leaf-sun logo with the puffed-out cheeks blowing what must surely be a blast of bitter air at this point. The former Firestone car care center in the parking lot, on Central Avenue, was also closed.

Inside, the scene is arguably stranger, because the mall has been fairly tidily kept and still maintains all the familiar visual cues of a decent early-'90s mall, just with few shoppers and few of the stores you'd expect to find in such a setting. There are the shiny, neutral-colored marble floors, the neatly potted plants flanking stairways, the light flooding in from skylights, the greenery lining the balcony overlooks, all a bit of a time capsule, and not a decrepit one. A Charlotte native in our group could point to vacant storefronts and tell us what they used to be - Morrison Cafeteria, Hibbett Sports, Express, Sears, Dillard's, the Children's Place, New York & Co. (though through a window, wallpaper showing the Manhattan skyline was still visible), Chick-fil-A, Showmars. Even the off-brand Cinnabon-type place had departed. The old ice rink is now covered in a blue surface marked for soccer. Stores like Shoe Show and Champs Sports appeared to have left more recently, while Foot Locker, Lady Foot Locker and FootAction USA were still open, among the few national-chain holdouts, along with Kay Jewelers. The retailers remaining were primarily jewelry and sneaker shops, though there were also a couple selling home decor and streetwear, and a nicer men's shop.

The former Belk end of the mall is particularly empty, because it lost its anchor in 2007, earlier than the other sides of the mall. On Friday, nothing seemed to be in business at that end, on either level. We stood there for a minute, listening to the elevator music that rang through the quiet corridors, the cheery, wordless sax tunes striking an ironically mournful tone. "Looking to grow your business?" asked colorful signs affixed to the boarded-off Belk entrances, on both floors."Plant yourself here."

Back at the food court, about five restaurants were still in business, at least nominally: A bourbon chicken place, a teryiaki place, a pizzeria, an ice cream shop and a Charley's Steakery. I'd really wanted a cheesesteak, and it was clear the steak shop wasn't permanently gone: The lights were on, the cash register was on, the soda machines were on and signs promoting sandwiches were standing by the counter. But there was no one behind the counter, and no sign that any food had been prepared there that day. I waited a few minutes, hoping the proprietor would show up, but nothing changed. So I asked the man behind the pizza counter: "Is the cheesesteak place open?" No, he said, he's gone today. As it transpired, the pizza place and cheesesteak place are not open on the same days anymore, the pizza owner said, because if they were both open at the same time, neither would make money. So instead, they alternate - when the pizza place is open, the steakery isn't, and vice versa, with the owners using their days off to search for new digs.

Why, I asked the pizza shop man, had he stayed at Eastland, given the upheaval? Because, he said, until eight months ago, he'd been making money - and had a lease obligating him to remain. The rent was reasonable; though the pizzeria could have done more business in a storefront on Central Avenue in Plaza Midwood, the man said, the more expensive rent in a location like that would have negated the benefits. Now, tenants are freed from their leases, so he's looking for a new home.

Our choices thus constrained, we opted for pizza - a greasy pepperoni slice for me - and sat down at the edge of the food court, looking out at the center court. A few other, scattered tables were occupied. As we ate, a man at a jewelry store across the way brought out a sign and put it up: "Everything must go - SALE - mall closing."

As we walked out, we passed the recently shuttered Burlington Shoes, where boxes were stacked inside and the gate pulled down over the door. An old Nike poster display rack stood outside, with a handwritten sign reading "FREE" taped to it. On the door frame, another handwritten sign helpfully noted, "Store is closed."

Through it all, I kept wondering about the mall's decline and how it happened. Obviously, that kind of slide doesn't happen overnight, but it's interesting to consider that as recently as four or five years ago, Eastland was still pretty much fully occupied, with Belk, Dillard's and Sears still in business and other national chains still there, and the ice rink still open. But then, the situation seemed to shift rapidly - hastened, no doubt, by the opening of Northlake mall in 2005, a 2005 Christmas-season shooting near the food court and the departure of anchors such as Belk. For people whose Eastland memories stretch back farther, the contrast is probably even starker and more painful.

Though Eastland doesn't have the retail choices it once did - the biggest thing for sale there now is likely the mall itself, which is set to be auctioned at the Mecklenburg Courthouse on June 28 - you, too, might want to pay it a visit in its waning months. Though it might be easier to file it under "out of sight, out of mind," seeing retail decay firsthand can help you better understand what it means for our landscape, and how it ties into the well-being of an entire swath of town. But if that sounds like too much of a college lecture, approach it instead as a one-of-a-kind field trip to a fascinating 20th-century relic. Yes, it's our very own dead mall, here for a limited time only - and if we're lucky, we won't have another one to contend with for a long time, or ever.

Appliance rebates wrap up, with a little change to spare

North Carolina's "cash for appliances" rebate program concluded yesterday with most of its money depleted - about $7 million of the roughly $8 million in federal stimulus funds set aside for the instant 15 percent discounts on Energy Star refrigerators, freezers, washing machines and dishwashers.

Thanks in part to a real-time computerized tally tracking rebate dollars spent, the program appeared to run smoothly, without any Cash For Clunkers-style confusion about how much money remained. And it helped retailers sell likely hundreds or thousands more major appliances than they otherwise would have in late April: Statewide, the rebates were used on purchases of 15,621 washing machines, 15,102 dishwashers, 2,234 freezers and 21,471 refrigerators, for a total of about 54,400 appliances.

It's unclear whether there's enough money left to launch a second phase of rebates in June, as had been the state's plan if funds remained: The N.C. Energy Office said in a press release that it's reviewing and accounting for the money spent this weekend before making a determination. If the second phase takes place, it would offer mail-in rebates on selected water heaters, central air conditioners, heat pumps and gas furnaces, at least according to the state's earlier plan. Those discounts would be redeemable with retailers, contractors and programs offered through utilities.

Friday, April 23, 2010

Blakeney Ann Taylor converts to a Loft

An inquiring reader wanted to know: What's afoot at the Ann Taylor store at Blakeney, on Rea Road in south Charlotte? The answer: It's converting to an Ann Taylor Loft store, the lower-priced, more casual sister to the regular Ann Taylor nameplate. The Ann Taylor store closed April 10, and the new Loft is holding a grand opening today, a spokeswoman said.

The company has not yet responded to a request for more information about why the switch occurred, but it's possible that Loft's mix and pricing offers more appeal in a challenged economy.

Regular Ann Taylor stores remain at SouthPark and Northlake malls in Charlotte.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Teeter launches electronics recycling rewards

Also on the Earth Day front, Matthews-based grocer Harris Teeter is kicking off a new program designed to reward shoppers for recycling electronics. People wishing to dispose of old music players, computers, cell phones, video game systems, cameras, GPS units, flat-panel monitors and selected other electronics can visit this website, key in details of the product they're hoping to recycle and then find out how much their donation is worth. (It may not be much, depending on the product, but then, even a few bucks can help make a dent in a grocery bill.) They can then opt to receive payment in the form of a Harris Teeter gift card or donation to the school of their choice. The company will also provide a prepaid shipping label and voucher for mailing in the old items.

The site, in conjunction with the awesomely and appropriately named, also allows people to order collection materials for a one-time electronics recycling event or start a recycling fundraising program to benefit local schools, the company says.

Earth Fare ditches plastic bags for good

Just in time for Earth Day - which, yes, is today - Asheville-based specialty grocer Earth Fare is eliminating plastic grocery bags at all 17 of its locations, including those in Ballantyne, SouthPark and Rock Hill. The chain has long made a 5-cent donation to local nonprofits for each reusable bag used in a shopping trip, but customers without reusable bags will still have options: The chain will continue to offer recyclable paper bags and grocery boxes, it said in a news release (although if anyone can tell me what a grocery box is, I'd be interested in knowing).The aim, unsurprisingly, is to be more eco-friendly and reduce the amount of plastic clogging landfills, oceans and roads.

Though fairly unusual for a Carolinas company, there's plenty of precedent for Earth Fare's move: Retailing giants Whole Foods (which still, alas, does not have a Charlotte location) and Ikea don't provide plastic bags for their customers, either. Ikea goes a step further and requires customers to use a reusable bag, if they're using one at all - I definitely once left the University City store with an armful of goods, having forgotten my reusable tote. Trader Joe's also generally steers clear of plastic bags.

Some cities, meanwhile, have taken action themselves to reduce plastic bag use, with what they say are noticeable reductions in bag waste: In 2007, San Francisco instituted an outright ban on plastic grocery and pharmacy shopping bags, while Washington, D.C. this year began charging shoppers 5 cents per disposable shopping bag, paper or plastic. These steps haven't gotten underway without grumbling, with D.C. residents in particular grousing about their city's measure, one of the strictest and most comprehensive such rules in the country, applying to stores that sell food and/or alcohol. (So, yes, that'd be 5 cents for even a paper bag at the liquor store.)

Back in Charlotte, Earth Fare will be hosting a celebration in its stores to mark its transition, giving away more than 5,000 reusable tote bags. The Ballantyne store will hold an event from 4 to 7 p.m. today, with local vendors and children's activities

Friday, April 16, 2010

Northlake Mall gets "Wicked"

Fans of the Broadway blockbuster "Wicked" can find a fix at Northlake Mall in the weeks leading up to the national touring production's arrival in Charlotte. The Grammy- and Tony-winning musical, which tells the backstory of the witches of Oz before Dorothy shows up, comes to town May 19 at Ovens Auditorium. But starting today, the shopping center at Interstate 77 exit 18 will host exhibits, cast appearances, prizes and other tie-ins. The events will run until May 10 and include:
  • "The World of Wicked" display, in the mall's main court - also home of Santa Claus, at another time of year - where "visitors can walk through Glinda the Good's bubble, view the 'Behind the Emerald Curtain' museum display and take a photo in Oz," the mall says.
  • A live performance by members of the touring cast, followed by an autograph session, April 30 at noon.
  • "Wicked"-related discounts and specials from about 30 participating mall stores.
  • Prize drawings April 26, May 3 and May 10.
  • Giveaways of "Wicked"-themed products each Friday, Saturday and Sunday during the promotion.  
  • "Wicked" merchandise for sale.
Northlake is one of several properties owned by Michigan-based Taubman Centers to feature the production, which comes as malls and shopping centers across the country have been expanding events and promotions that go beyond shopping to lure customers amid a recession.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Belk dives into social media

At 122 years old, Belk Inc. has been around a lot longer than your average Twitterholic (Twitterhead? Is this an actual term? I know not) or Facebook super-poster - but then, adapting with the times has helped the company endure in the first place. And it's with that in mind the Charlotte-based chain has launched a Twitter feed and Facebook fan page to further connect with customers, and broaden interest in the company further beyond store walls - trying a strategy that a huge range of retailers are trying across the digital landscape.

"Social media is an essential component of a company's communications arsenal today," Ivy Chin, Belk's senior vice president of e-commerce, said in a news release. "By forging an exchange of real-time information, we will be able to share our story and create consumer relationships that provide valuable feedback and information."

The Facebook page will provide information on fashion trends, product launches, sales and special events, with interactive features such as product surveys and commentary from Arlene Goldstein, vice president and fashion director. Goldstein is also the personality and force behind the Twitter feed, which features trendspotting tips and other observations. And, because we're talking retail here, the company is offering incentive for folks to sign up: Those that become a Facebook fan of Belk will receive a discount coupon.

Friday, April 9, 2010

After a fire, Bruce Julian is back in business

Now that the smoke has cleared, so to speak, men's clothier Bruce Julian has reopened - and is celebrating with a grand opening party from 6 to 9 p.m. today. 

The Arboretum store suffered extensive smoke damage and was forced to close after a Dec. 19 fire that destroyed Avanti, the Italian restaurant next door. At the time, the restaurant said it also planned to reopen eventually, but its current status was unclear today, as its phone is disconnected and its Web site was not working.

Julian, meanwhile, has spent the months since the fire refurbishing and restocking his business, which sells fine men's clothes, accessories and offers custom-made items, too. The fire doesn't seem to have dented Julian's characteristic ebullience, either, at least if this quote from a news release is any indication: "I've always known the fashion at my Arboretum store was hot," he said, "but last December's fire was too much." Cue rim shot!

The store, which has local roots stretching back decades, reopened April 1, with fashions "selected personally in Manhattan by Julian and sales manager Ace Whiteheart," the release says. Tonight's festivities, it notes, "will include food from Ilios Noche, adult beverages and enticing prices on attractive clothes." Details:

Thursday, April 8, 2010

New-look Walmarts on the way

Walmart's expansion in the Charlotte area marches on - as passers-by have seen firsthand on U.S. 521 in Indian Land, S.C., just over the state line, south of Ballantyne. The new supercenter going up there is slated for an August grand opening, the company says, for inquiring minds who might wish to know. 

But the world's largest retailer isn't standing pat on its existing locations, either, some of which have begun to look more dated on the inside compared with newer layouts. At least two local supercenters are now undergoing major overhauls, and others are likely to follow, as part of a nationwide renovation effort slated to hit 70 percent of the company's U.S. stores by the end of 2012. The effort is intended to boost returns at existing stores by introducing the latest store designs, which are based on customer feedback.

Work is now in progress at the Mountain Island Walmart, at N.C. 16 and Mount Holly-Huntersville Road in Charlotte, and the West Gastonia location on N. Myrtle School Road. At Mountain Island, the work is expected to wrap up in June, while the Gastonia store is aiming for a May finish. The stores are remaining open during construction, the bulk of which will be done in overnight hours. Improvements include a new layout, wider aisles, low-profile shelving, bright interior paint schemes, enhanced lighting and easy-to-read signage - the very things you'll also see in the newest Walmarts locally, such as the store on Thunder Road near Concord Mills.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Concord Mills adds two stores

Two retailers are planning to open their first N.C. stores at Concord Mills this summer, according to the mall: VF Outlet and Zumiez. 

VF, in the 23,000-square-foot former A.C. Moore space, will anchor Neighborhood Five, selling jeans, intimate apparel, sportswear, swimwear, outdoor goods and children’s clothing from names such as Nautica, Lee, Wrangler and Vanity Fair. 

Zumiez, a teen-oriented skate and surf store along the lines of Pacific Sunwear, will occupy a 4,000-square-foot space in Neighborhood Two.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Rug and furniture store opening in old Kannapolis Target

Asheville-based Rug & Home is fond of interstate highways. How fond? If you've driven along I-85 or I-4o in recent memory, you've surely seen the retailer's billboards, touting its stores and, naturally, the highway exits - in Asheville and Gaffney, S.C. - at which you can find them. Now, Charlotte residents can expect to see even more roadside ads popping up, because Rug & Home this month is opening its third store, in a former Target in Kannapolis. It's at 3333 Cloverleaf Parkway - in other words, and as signs will surely blare, I-85 exit 58.

Rug & Home Wholesale Outlet, as it'll be called, is set to sell rugs, furniture, accents, artwork and home accessories and decor. At 96,000 square feet, it will be the company's largest store; Target vacated the property when it opened a new SuperTarget at Afton Ridge shopping center, a couple of exits south on I-85, in the fall of 2006.

The store will employ between 45 and 50 part- and full-time workers and is slated to open soon, though a spokeswoman said the date was not yet finalized. A grand opening will take place April 23. 

Rug & Home spent upwards of $500,000 renovating the building, with work that included lighting redesign, the addition of hardwood floors in some areas and painting and restoring the facade, chief operating officer Aanchal Agarwal said in a news release. "We were looking at the Charlotte market for a long time," she said. "Kannapolis' close distance to Charlotte's city center and Greensboro, along with the opportunity it presented us to renovate and occupy the abandoned Target building, proved the perfect fit for us."

The project received three years of incentive grants from the city of Kannapolis, according to the Cabarrus Economic Development Corp. They equal 85 percent of the new taxes generated by the company, projected to be just over $9,000.

Owners Rakesh and Dolly Agarwal, Aanchal's parents, founded Rug & Home in 1994. The other stores draw from about a 100-mile radius, the company said.

Denim, shoe brands bring standalone stores to SouthPark

Several familiar apparel brands will be branching out in Charlotte in the coming months, opening new standalone stores at SouthPark mall. Though their products are already available at specialty and department stores across the area, companies can gain more control over the customer and brand experience - and, they hope, boost sales - by opening stores exclusively devoted to their products. Will the new arrivals catch on here? As always, consumers will be the judge of that, starting this month.

First to open will likely be high-end denim maker 7 For All Mankind, which plans to debut sometime this month in the former Intermix space, in the Nordstrom wing. Already available at stores such as Belk, the Los Angeles-based brand is best known for its detailed and distressed jeans, priced at about $150 and up for women's styles. However, it also makes a broader array of clothing, including tops and sweaters, and the store - its first in the Carolinas - will sell denim, sportswear and handbags for men, women and children. The decade-old company is expanding its retail presence nationally, with about 20 stores already and about 10 more projected to open this year.

Casual and athletic shoe purveyor Skechers also plans to open a store later this month, in the former Illuminations space in the Macy's wing. It will sell styles for men, women and kids. The company already has an outlet at Concord Mills.

By early summer, longtime shoemaker Rockport should follow suit, with a shop in the former Club Libby Lu, also in the Macy's wing. The store will be the company's first in the Charlotte area, as well as the first in the state that uses a new concept, according to a news release: 90 percent of the store's inventory will be on the sales floor.

Finally, in a move that relates to clothing only in that it will likely make it more difficult for people to even squeeze into those pricey Seven jeans in the first place, Rocky Mountain Chocolate Factory is scheduled to open this summer in the former Lindt Chocolate space next to Aveda, at the mall's center court. Like the Rocky Mountain stores at Northlake Mall, Concord Mills and Charlotte Douglas Airport, it'll sell chocolate and other confectionery products. Employees will prepare a variety of caramel and candy apples, fudge, chocolate and other items on-site and in view of customers, using traditional cooking implements like copper kettles. 

A couple of other additions are also shaking up the mall's food scene, as my colleague Helen Schwab has previously reported: Cowfish is aiming for a "wild and weird" burger bar-sushi fusion, while San Antonio's Modern Mexican will move into the former Morton's steakhouse.