Buoyed by retail upswing, area malls working to fill vacancies

The holiday shopping season finds malls faring well and getting creative in efforts to replace big-name retailers, according to local and state officlals.

Liberty Center lost two retailers this year and is set to lose another later this month. The Gap closed Jan. 28, about two months after Gap Inc. announced that up to 200 of its namesake stores could close after poor earnings reports. Rogers Jewelers closed about a month later, several months after Austin, Texas-based retail jewelry store operator Samuels Jewelers filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy.

Liberty Center recently filled that space with local boutique tenant That’s Invintage.

Also closing at Liberty Center this year was Charlotte Russe. Forever 21 announced that it would shut down stores, including its Liberty Center location, as part of its bankruptcy filing. The Liberty store is set to close next week.

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The $350 million mega retail shopping center is not only working with new retailers to fill those locations on a permanent basis, it’s also continuing to welcome uncommon tenants, including Molly’s Cupcakes and iFly Indoor Skydiving. It also worked quickly to replace Cantina Laredo, which shut down in August, with Agave & Rye in October.

It also brought in Le Macaron French Pastries, Top It Off Cafe & Sweets and Global Salon, as well temporary tenants besides That’s Invintage, including Anything Airbrushed and Bird Brain Apparel.

The apparent resiliency of Liberty Center and others of its kind is evidence that the health of the retail industry is “quite good,” according to Alex Boehnke, manager of public affairs for Ohio Council of Retail Merchants, which represents more than 7,000 retailers of all sizes across the state of Ohio, including big-name retailers and smaller, family-owned businesses.

“Nationally and in Ohio, as well, we had a very good Black Friday and Cyber Monday and that whole weekend that kicks off the shopping season,” Boehnke said. “What you’re seeing this year is similar to what you’ve seen in recent years where the industry is in a transitionary phase. We have too much retail space and I think you’re seeing a natural correction there.”

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What’s going on in retail in Butler and Warren counties is similar to what’s going on nationwide and statewide, where even if a mall has a tenant leave, the space can be filled by property owners who “get creative,” Boehnke said.

“Obviously, they don’t want that space to be vacant and they are, by and large, pretty successful with filling it,” he said. “While you do have some retailers struggling, overall the industry is doing quite well. Retailers who have struggled to implement technology or adapt with the disruption that occurs with more and more online shopping are the ones who are struggling more than others.”

Retail growth of 3 to 4 percent statewide during the holiday shopping season and relatively high consumer confidence are signs of a continued positive news for retailer and property owners, Boehnke said.

Cincinnati Premium Outlets in Monroe saw far more openings than closings in 2019. The outlet mall this year has welcomed an AT&T store, Charley’s Philly Steaks, Fanatics by Lids, Pepper Palace, Proletics, Puma and Vans. It also welcomed an UGG Holiday Pop-Up store and a Bass Factory Pop-Up store.

But Saks Fifth Avenue Off 5th, which celebrated its 10th anniversary along with the outlet mall in August, was scheduled to close there on Friday.

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The openings at Bridgewater Falls Lifestyle Shopping Center in Fairfield Twp. included fast-casual franchise Burgerim, clothing store Carter’s|OSHKOSH, Paradigm Beauty and Orange Theory Fitness.

Nationally, occupancy rates for malls remain high at about 92 percent and the net number of malls for the past five years is positive, according to the International Council of Shopping Centers.

Retail sales for the year by the end of last month were up 2.1 percent unadjusted year-over-year excluding automobile dealers, gasoline stations and restaurants, according to the National Retail Federation.

“It really comes down to the consumer and the consumer is in pretty strong shape,” said Mark Mathews, the National Retail Federation’s vice president of research development and industry analysis. “We have record levels of disposable income, we actually finally are starting to see wages rise. Debt levels have increased and they’re pretty high but the consumer’s ability to pay off that debt … is at record levels.”

Holiday retail sales during November and December are projected to increase between 3.8 percent and 4.2 percent for a total of between $727.9 billion and $730.7 billion.

Many consumers began their shopping early this year, with some starting before November. NRF surveys showed that 39 percent planned to begin by Halloween, and that consumers on average had completed 52 percent of their shopping as of the Thanksgiving Day weekend.

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Mathews said an NRF survey showed Thanksgiving saw “pretty outstanding numbers” of nearly 189.6 million shoppers, an increase of 14 percent over last year’s 165.8 million, and spending was up 16 percent.

“Thanksgiving was later this year so more people probably felt a sense of urgency shopping Black Friday and the days around it,” Mathews said.

December is expected to see a boost in retail sales compared to December 2018 because that month was down 0.2 percent from the previous year.

NRF’s numbers are based on data from the U.S. Census Bureau, which said this month that overall November sales – including auto dealers, gas stations and restaurants – were up 0.2 percent seasonally adjusted from October and up 3.3 percent unadjusted year-over-year.

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