It's two years until Short Pump's megamall opens, but high-dollar shopping centers already are battling for Richmond's fattest wallets.
It's 10 a.m. on a weekday, and Regency Square mall is stirring. Christmas lights pop on. Mall walkers begin their final laps. A salesman at the Oriental Shop kiosk blow-dries dust from the jewelry on display. Ending an early-morning visit on Santa's knee, a dazed-looking little boy wanders back to his mom. The shoppers are shopping. One of those shoppers, Jan Dankos, is on her way out of Hecht's with her handbag slung over her left shoulder and a full shopping bag in each hand. It's early to be hauling so much out of the store, she concedes, but Hecht's opened at 9: "That's why I was here with my coupons." Regency Square is Dankos' mall of choice. It's the closest mall to her home in Goochland, where she lives with her husband and three children. So Dankos shops here regularly, she says - that is, she adds, "until Short Pump." Dankos is referring to plans for Richmond's newest retail mecca, the $236 million Short Pump Town Center, which is slated to open in September 2002. She notes that the complex will be closer to her home, offer a larger Hecht's and bring otherwise-unrepresented stores to the area. "I'm looking forward to it," she says. Yep. Just days after the ground was broken for Short Pump's newest mall and almost two years before it opens, the war among the area's upscale malls already has begun. Naturally, the planners behind Short Pump - local developer Thomas E. Pruitt and Cleveland-based Forest City Enterprises Inc. - would like nothing more than to lure Richmonders away from malls like Regency Square and keep regional shoppers away from Washington, D.C. They're using some alluring bait. Two of the mall's four anchor tenants, Nordstrom and Lord & Taylor, may cause swooning among West End women. The mailed invitation to last week's groundbreaking underscored the company's promotional strategy: It's the Second Coming of Retail. The invitation vowed that "the dawning of the age of sophistication in Short Pump will be upon us" and promised a "new era" that would "redefine the very notion of fashion and lifestyle in Richmond." Speakers at the dirt-digging ceremony wore out the word premier, while government officials salivated over the potential tax revenue. It's clear that Short Pump Town Center has launched a preemptive strike to become the Richmond area's definition of sophistication, says Ken Gassman, a retail analyst for Davenport & Co. "And there's a good reason for that," Gassman explains. "Malls have moved from being 'malls for the masses' to 'niche malls.'" That is, malls have begun to target specific groups of consumers: "Retailers can no longer succeed by trying to be all things to all people." Short Pump's early grab at an "upscale" label may already have dampened a similar project in the works at Stony Point, Gassman says. But it's most likely to affect Regency, the closest mall to Short Pump. "It's not like Short Pump's going to put Regency out of business," Gassman says. But he speculates that the opening of the new mall may parallel what happened in the South Side, when Chesterfield Towne Center took business away from Cloverleaf Mall. Paige Peak, a longtime presence on local TV ads who was hired in mid-September as Regency Square's marketing director, says it's too early to tell what might happen when Short Pump opens. But she's confident that Regency will continue to attract loyal shoppers. "The good news is that we've been here 25 years and we have seen competition come into the market," Peak says. When Virginia Center Commons opened, for example, Regency rode out the change in shopping patterns. "There was an initial dip," she says, "but then it came back again. There are going to be those shifts." Regency may be in a good position because, during the past five years, it has been on a mission to "upscale itself," Gassman says. When leases expire for certain less-desired tenants, their rents are raised. They move out and new specialty stores move in. Indeed, 30 percent of Regency's current tenants are specialty stores, says Peak. These include J. Crew, Banana Republic and Williams-Sonoma. Short Pump has refused to name tenants that have agreed to move into the new complex. But developers say that once half of the 100 retailers and restaurants have committed, they will begin to release their names. Of course, it's not all about the stores. "Convenience counts a lot when consumers go shopping," Gassman says. And the population density around Regency is still high. Short Pump, on the other hand, hopes to draw shoppers from a wide geographic area - including Williamsburg, Harrisonburg and Roanoke, Gassman guesses. And Regency has also focused on what Peak calls the "extra measures" that enhance a shopper's experience, such as a clean, safe environment, a concierge desk and entertainment during the year. During the next two years before Short Pump opens, Regency will have plenty of time to think about its counterattack. Peak says she's begun diving into a marketing plan. "The question is, What will Regency do next?" Gassman says. "I will guess that you will start seeing some hard-hitting promotions for Regency Square in the mass
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