Monday, May 24, 2010

Tory Burch opening at SouthPark

The first Tory Burch boutique in the Carolinas is slated to open in July in the Neiman Marcus wing at SouthPark mall.

The New York-based designer's eponymous line features classic American sportswear with a '60s-style bohemian twist, with signature items such as ballet flats and tunics. Her boutiques have a distinctive visual identity, with orange lacquer doors, mirrored walls and Lucite fixtures; the SouthPark store will occupy 2,149 square feet that last housed Billy Reid.

Burch, below, is a Philadelphia-area native who launched her line in 2004. Her clothes, shoes, jewelry, handbags and accessories can be spotted regularly in fashion magazines, on celebrities (and, therefore, in the pages of magazines like US Weekly) and (mais bien sur!) on the CW's "Gossip Girl." Indeed, Burch herself appeared on the soap in its just-concluded third season.

Office Depot grand opening in Huntersville

Office Depot plans to mark the grand opening of its new Huntersville store at 9 a.m. tomorrow (Tuesday, May 25). The store is located at 9530 Birkdale Crossing Drive, at Sam Furr Road, across from Birkdale Village.

Area officials will be on hand for a ribbon-cutting ceremony and nonprofit donations. Then, the doors will open; the store has 21,000 square feet of selling space and is decorated with colorful signage, carpeted floors for a warmer feel and a floor plan designed to be intuitive and convenient, according to a news release.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Consignment First heads to new location

After 17 years near the corner of Independence Boulevard and Sam Newell Road, Consignment 1st is moving to a new, more spacious location two miles south, on the same side of Independence, just past Interstate 485.

The eclectic consignment furnishings store will hold its grand reopening at 9 a.m. Saturday, at 11416 E. Independence Blvd., in the fairly recently remodeled Matthews Plaza, also home to Ashley Furniture, Tuesday Morning and Elevation Church. The first 100 customers receive a free tote bag, while the second 100 will get a free hot dog from South 21 restaurant. In addition, former Charlotte Hornets star Muggsy Bogues will be signing autographs from noon to 2 p.m.

Husband and wife Dave and Debbie Hayes founded the business in 1987, at the corner of Kilborne Drive and Central Avenue in Charlotte, and later consolidated into a building on Independence Pointe Parkway. Consignment 1st outgrew that space about five years ago, Dave Hayes said, but spent the intervening time concentrating instead of opening new stores. There are now nine other Consignment 1st stores, including four locally - in Pineville, Lake Norman, University City and Gastonia. However, the Matthews building is for sale, and they wanted to be proactive and avoid uncertainty - hence the new location. It has about 6,000 square feet of additional retail space and much greater visibility, and will enable the store to stay open longer, too, until 8 p.m. instead of 6 p.m. The new building will also house company headquarters and a corporate training center, and has a consignment intake area double the size of that in the previous space, with an additional loading dock.

The store sells upscale furniture, accessories, antiques and collectibles, with items at all price ranges, from "practical to palatial" in a fun atmosphere, Hayes said. And it's been faring better than most others in the downturn - as have other thrift and resale stores, with consumers looking for affordable alternatives. The economy, Hayes said, has brought new customers into the store.

Though his store has seen a slowdown, Hayes said, he and his wife see trends moving in an encouraging direction now. "It's not like an explosion, but we think we've pretty much figured out what the new normal is. We're ok with it. It just took a while to get used to it."

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Free cheesesteak pretzels, for those who dare

The one and only N.C. location of the Philly Pretzel Factory, in Mooresville, will be giving away its newest product from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Monday - a cheesesteak pretzel. The pocket sandwich (alas, not pictured at left) combines two iconic foodstuffs from the City of Brotherly Love, with thinly sliced steak and American cheese wrapped in a warm soft pretzel.

Will it be two great tastes that taste great together? The Mooresville shop's co-owner, George Heck, sure thinks so. Eager to expand his lunch menu, the native of Riverton, N.J. - just across the river from Philadelphia - began experimenting with pocket sandwiches using pretzel dough about eight months ago and was pleased with the result. The Philly-based company is now selling such items in all its stores, and is aiming to launch them with the help of the Monday giveaway. The cheesesteak pretzels - admittedly, perhaps not for the faint of stomach - normally sell for $3.50 apiece, $6 for two or $5 as part of a combo that includes a drink and (naturally) a regular pretzel. (If you're looking for the famous cheesesteak with Cheez Wiz, though, look elsewhere: "The best cheesesteak is with white American cheese," Heck said.)

The Mooresville store, at Mooresville Crossing (the Best Buy plaza) on South River Highway (N.C. 150), opened in March 2007 and sells an array of authentic pretzels, baked and hand-twisted fresh daily, starting with flour. It's part of a 130-store chain that has most of its locations clustered in the Philadelphia area. Heck, who grew up enjoying soft pretzels, co-owns the business with his wife, his brother and sister, and their spouses. He's lived in Charlotte since 1992 and has also worked in the construction equipment finance business. In addition to selling pretzels at the store, he also visits schools and businesses to promote them as a fundraising vehicle or snack to sell at sporting events, to give just a couple examples.

"Every day in my store there is some kind of Philadelphia reunion," Heck said. "It's been great, because we've got a lot of regular customers that we know by name."

If even eating a cheesesteak inside of a pretzel isn't sufficiently Philadelphian for your taste buds, however, you don't have to look far to add to it: I'm pretty sure there's a Rita's Water Ice in the same plaza.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Tim Gunn: Making it work at SouthPark this weekend

This event was announced months ago, but I feel duty-bound to provide a reminder that wry, wise and ever-tasteful "Project Runway" guru and co-host Tim Gunn will be visiting SouthPark mall on Saturday for a spring fashion show and meet 'n' greet. The event starts at 1 p.m. at Center Court.

Previously chair of fashion design at Parsons The New School for Design in New York, Gunn has served since 2007 as the chief creative officer for Liz Claiborne Inc. The company is sponsoring Saturday's proceedings, which will feature several of its brands, including Juicy Couture, Kate Spade and Lucky Brand Jeans. Says a news release: "Guests will enjoy live style transformations, get invaluable fit and style tips and learn how to maximize their wardrobe!"

Reserved seating for the event is full, but standing room will be available. In addition, anyone who spends $125 or more at Juicy, Kate Spade and/or Lucky Brand stores this week will receive a complimentary gift and be professionally photographed with Gunn on the runway, whether or not they have a seat, according to the mall.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Bi-Lo is out of bankruptcy. Now what?

Supermarket chain Bi-Lo announced Wednesday that it had officially exited bankruptcy, about 13 months after seeking protection. While in Chapter 11, the chain shed debts and unprofitable leases, and it also renegotiated an important supplier contract. But now that the court process is complete, the company's future depends on its ability to win over shoppers, some of whom have drifted away.

The region's no. 4 grocery chain by sales occupies a precarious place in the market, because it strives to compete on quality and price, pitching itself as the best of both worlds, a middle ground between supercenters such as Walmart and more elaborate stores like Harris Teeter. It tries to sum that up in its current advertising slogan, "Savings without sacrifice."

In the years leading up to the bankruptcy filing, the company's strategy appeared to be flagging, and sales dropped. In the past year or so, though, Bi-Lo has refocused its efforts, closing laggard locations, including several locally, and broadening the rollout of promotions such as Fuelperks, which provides a gas discount for shoppers who spend over a certain amount. Losses have narrowed, and sales at surviving stores have generally improved, if not necessarily back to the levels seen five years ago. But Bi-Lo is by no means out of the woods. Never a market leader in Charlotte, the chain has also been facing a stiff challenge from Publix in its hometown of Greenville, S.C.

So I'm wondering: If you don't now shop at Bi-Lo, what would it take to get you to go there? Are its locations a problem? Price? Atmosphere? If you are a Bi-Lo shopper, why, and what else - if anything - would you like to see at stores? I'm hoping to talk with the company to get a sense of what awaits post-bankruptcy and would be interested in hearing your thoughts, too.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Small shops coming to Myers Park

Several small retailers are setting up shop in Myers Park, notably at the new Tranquil Court on Selwyn. The mixed-use development on, yes, Selwyn Avenue has already landed Clean Catch Fish Market and a branch of Mellow Mushroom pizzeria, which is making its return to Charlotte after a few years' absence.

Next up for the center: Metro Fitness, a 7,847-square-foot, "urban, upscale fitness center" offering small group classes as well as personal training. Slated to open in mid-August, the gym says it will have cardio and weight equipment, a smoothie bar and classes such as spinning and kettlebell. In addition, Salon P, a full-service hair salon focused on sustainable products and practices, will be moving to Tranquil Court from across the street in mid-June, occupying 1,253 square feet.

Also, Old Dog Clothing plans to move from Phillips Place to reopen in August at 569 square feet at the Villa, a two-story retrofitted home at 715 Providence Road anchored by Acquisitions. Old Dog sells custom clothing for men and women, as well as custom leather and upholstered furniture for individuals and businesses.

Two other businesses have recently opened in the neighborhood: Rococo Antiques and Interiors is open in 1,300 square feet at Colony Shops, next to Tranquil Court on Selwyn Avenue, offering interior design and an assortment of antiques, artwork, chandeliers and accessories. And Pure Barre, a total-body workout using yoga, ballet and pilates, has opened its first N.C. location at 2,104 square feet at the Manor Shops, in the plaza with the Manor Theater and Panera Bread on Providence Road.

Monday, May 10, 2010

H&M? Not here, at least this year

If you're eager for Swedish fast-fashion retailer H&M to finally open a Charlotte store, well, keep waiting. The only new U.S. market the sought-after chain plans to enter the rest of this year is Portland, Ore., says a story in today's Wall Street Journal that attempts to explain why H&M has been so slow to arrive in many areas across the southern part of the country. Short answer: It's the weather. Says the article:

"The chain's Swedish parent company, H&M Hennes & Mauritz AB, isn't sure how to sell clothes in cities that are always warm...It wasn't until 2006, when the brand had around a hundred stores in the country, that the company finally entered the Los Angeles area, its first foray into a U.S. city with year-around sunshine.
H&M now has nearly 200 stores in the U.S. But they are noticeably absent in areas that seem ripe for its colorful tank tops and floral dresses. Austin, Houston and Dallas are bare, as are Salt Lake City and New Orleans. The states of New Mexico, Mississippi, Alabama and South Carolina also lack an H&M, while Indiana boasts three.
In the few warm weather climates where H&M has ventured, its penetration is minimal. It only recently opened in Florida, in Orlando, and won't land in South Florida until this fall. It has only two stores in Las Vegas."
This seems a somewhat strange explanation to me, as H&M has stores in both the Middle East and the warm, Mediterranean regions of Europe. But even if that does hold true, it still doesn't entirely explain the lack of a Charlotte store - after all, we have four seasons here, and H&M opened a location in Raleigh earlier this year. The company also has stores in Richmond and Atlanta, neither of which is known for its frigid climate.

If you've never been to an H&M, you might be wondering what the big deal is anyway. But there really isn't an equivalent local option to the chain's stylish, affordable basics and trendier pieces - and when I say "affordable," I mean, at truly recession-friendly prices. Even when the featured styles aren't quite up your alley - a lot of the floral tops and dresses I spotted there during a recent trip to New York brought on unpleasant flashbacks to the early 1990s - the variety changes quickly enough that if you don't find something that interests you on one visit, chances are that will change by the next time you stop in. Though I've never conducted a scientific poll (or, heck, an unscientific one), I'd bet the chain tops the list of stores that people would like to see come to Charlotte - and that that scenario would repeat itself in other H&M-free cities across the South. Compounding the frustration: You can't buy the company's clothes online in the U.S., either.

In the five-plus years I've lived here, Charlotte has been able to check some big names off its retail wish list: Trader Joe's, Crate & Barrel, Neiman Marcus and Ikea. Even Whole Foods and Saks Fifth Avenue, which have pulled back on plans to open in Charlotte, at least at one point announced their desire to have a local presence (although with Saks, it's perhaps a good thing it didn't happen, because the company is now shutting underperforming stores in the recession). But H&M, which opened its first U.S. store in New York 10 years ago, has continued to hold out. Though I'm pretty sure it will arrive eventually, for a lot of local shoppers, it can't come soon enough.

Update: Here's what H&M spokeswoman Nicole Christie had to say today about prospects for a Charlotte store: "We don't have anything to announce yet, but we definitely believe in Charlotte as a very strong retail market and having great potential for our stores." 

The chain has received plenty of feedback urging a local store and is "by no means neglecting the market," she said, but will hold off until it can find the right space. 

"We're really secure that when we come to Charlotte, we're going to be well-received," Christie said. "But our priority is finding the right location. We know we have the customer base there."

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Coming June 1: Return of the appliance rebates

O ye in appliance purgatory, the suspense is over: There will indeed be a second installment of North Carolina's federally-funded "Cash for Appliances" rebates - a mail-in program starting June 1, with a wider range of eligible appliances.

The initial phase ran from April 22 to 25 and offered an instant 15 percent rebate on Energy Star-rated dishwashers, washing machines, refrigerators and freezers. That go-round consumed most of the money allotted for the program, about $7 million, with 54,400 appliances sold. The remaining $1 million will fund the second phase, which involves mail-in rebates for set dollar amounts. Air conditioning systems, gas furnaces, heat pumps and water heaters are covered this time around, as are the appliances involved in the first rebates. However, the discounts on items that were already part of the program will probably work out to be smaller for most consumers than those offered in April, because of the fixed amount - $100 on a washing machine, for instance - compared with with 15 percent off.

As with the earlier appliance rebates, the upcoming discounts are available on a first-come, first-serve basis, and only N.C. residents replacing older appliances can apply.

The appliances covered in the phase two rebates include Energy Star-rated:

  • Air conditioning systems, $300
  • Washing machines, $100
  • Dishwashers, $75
  • Refrigerators, $150
  • Freezers, $75
  • Gas furnaces, $300
  • Air-source and ground-source heat pumps, $300
  • Water heaters, $200 (gas storage, gas tankless, solar with electric backup, solar with gas backup)
Unlike the last round of rebates, the upcoming rebates are not instant, but available via mail. Starting June 1, consumers can go online and reserve a rebate following a qualifying appliance purchase. They then have 14 days to send it in, and it should be fulfilled within two weeks of receipt. Consumers can visit a regularly updated spending total to keep track of the amount of money remaining. Details:

Monday, May 3, 2010

More local movie rental shops to close

The region's already-shrinking roster of video rental outlets is poised to decline even further: The remaining Movie Gallery and Hollywood Video stores are set to close within the next few months.

We last went to the videotape on this subject (er, so to speak) in February, when the chains' parent company, Oregon-based Movie Gallery, filed for bankruptcy and announced plans to close half of its 2,145 U.S. stores. At the time, the company - the nation's second-largest video chain - said it wanted to reorganize and emerge with a smaller base of profitable locations. But the chances of that succeeding seemed questionable at best even then, given the intense competition bricks-and-mortar video stores are facing from the likes of Netflix, Redbox and various streaming services. Indeed, Blockbuster, the nation's largest video chain, is itself wrestling with debt and trying to right its financial ship and broaden its business model. For Movie Gallery, however, it appears the tape has finally run out (ok, yes, I realize they focus on DVDs now, but, work with me on the metaphors here), according to a report in the Wall Street Journal.

At the time of the bankruptcy filing, the company had 22 Movie Gallery and Hollywood Video locations in the Charlotte area, already down from its peak several years ago. Now, only 10 are listed on the company’s website - in Stanley, Dallas, Kannapolis, Kings Mountain, Lincolnton, China Grove, Locust, Maiden, Rockwell and Clover, S.C. Stores contacted Monday said they were closing, but weren’t sure of the exact timeline. Movie Gallery was also in bankruptcy in 2007-08 and shut hundreds of stores then.