Shoppers are seeking feel-good experiences, not just a good deal.
Central Ohio shoppers hit the old standbys in October 1992, plus one shiny new Downtown attraction with glass elevators, chrome columns and a full directory of stores.
Within a decade, though, a regional shopping center spree would add almost 6.5 million square feet of retail space at five major new destinations: the Mall at Tuttle Crossing, Polaris Fashion Place, Easton Town Center, and two outlet malls southwest of Columbus in Jeffersonville.
They'd hasten the death of just about everything that came before them; even the relatively young Columbus City Center quickly lost its luster—and its tenants. But as the building boom commenced, concern over the rapid expansion of retail space was confined mostly to owners of older malls such as Northland and a few taxpayers who didn't like the city incentives offered to developers.
“There's room for everyone,” one retail consultant told The Columbus Dispatch in August 1999, reflecting the economic exuberance of the day. “Columbus is a great town, and jobs are plentiful. The prospects for Columbus are excellent. It's a nonstop growth opportunity and very strong.”
Nonstop growth—Dispatch columnist Joe Blundo joked in 1997 that a mall would have to open every eight days in central Ohio to maintain the communal endorphin rush from new places to shop—would stop before long. The big malls of 1992, as well as many of the retailers who did business inside them, are now either gone or shells of their former selves.
“It was overbuilt—massively,” says Deb Stilgenbauer Miller, principal and chief strategy officer at Boulevard Strategies, a research and consulting firm in Dublin that serves commercial real estate and retail clients. According to analysts for Cowen Inc., a global financial services firm, there is 48 square feet of retail space for every person in the United States, compared to 22 in the United Kingdom and 13 in Canada.
Miller says the most often-cited culprit, online shopping, hasn't been the biggest blow to brick-and-mortar retail. People today spend hundreds of dollars per month on new necessities such as cell-phone service, internet access and cable television, which she says has eaten into their spending capacity.
The biggest factor, though? “Retail in general got complacent,” Miller says. “They got boring. They got mediocre. They got average.”
Now there's a park and apartments where City Center used to be. Its last eight tenants were evicted in 2009, and the city demolished the 1.3 million-square-foot Downtown mall just months after the 20th anniversary of its grand opening.
Northland Mall closed in 2002. Westland Mall's last tenant—Sears—shut its doors in September. Eastland Mall survives, but without any anchor tenants since Sears closed its doors there, too. Smaller, local centers such as Kingsdale Shopping Center in Upper Arlington and the former Worthington Square Mall (now Shops at Worthington Place) have made themselves over as neighborhood destinations.
And consider just some of the mall staples from a quarter-century ago that are no longer doing business anywhere: Jacobson's, Marshall Field's, Musicland, KB Toys, Fanny Farmer, B. Dalton Bookseller, County Seat.
Some local retail institutions are on the casualty list as well.
Lazarus, the original Columbus department store nameplate, became Lazarus-Macy's in 2003. Its flagship Downtown store closed in August 2004, and the name itself was retired seven months later by parent Federated Department Stores.
Schottenstein's and their Value City discount stores closed in 2008, although Value City Furniture stores remain.
The Limited, Les Wexner's original brand and the foundation of his retail empire, closed its 250 stores in January. Sun Capital Partners, which bought the brand in 2007, promises on thelimited.com that “very soon, we'll be together again,” but it has announced no plans to resume sales.
Brian Shafley, CEO of Chute Gerdeman, a Columbus retail design firm, says consumers now seek experiences, not just goods. They can buy stuff online. They need more than that to go shopping, he says.
“The way people shop is really wrapped up in lifestyle,” he says. “You think of Easton as a date night, not, ‘I need new pants.' If people are going to commit to going shopping, they want something out of it. They want to feel it was a fulfilling use of their time.”
Easton has kept up best with changes in shopping habits, Shafley and Miller say. It offers more events now, and it has added more restaurants.
Wexner, who developed Easton, is still going strong as a retailer after a succession of corporate name changes and an ever-evolving list of holdings.
The Limited Inc., became Limited Brands in 2002 and L Brands in 2013. It sold off Abercrombie & Fitch in 1996, Limited Too in 1999, Lane Bryant in 2001, and Express and Limited Stores in 2007. The company now consists of Victoria's Secret, Bath & Body Works, Pink, La Senza and Henri Bendel.
And what Columbus 2020 refers to as a “retail ecosystem” has grown around Wexner's companies and other Columbus-based retail companies such as Big Lots and DSW. More than 200 retail design, marketing, technology, distribution, logistics and other companies are based in central Ohio.
“Columbus really is regarded as one of the big hubs in the country for retail services,” Shafley says.
Bob Vitale is former associate editor.
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