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2020’s Top 10 COMEBACK Retail Center Experiences: Nos. 6 thru 10

Al Urbanski

Every summer, Chain Store Age delights in picking the year’s Top 10 Retail Center Experiences. Experiences were put on hold by COVID-19 in 2020, but not so the innovation and imagination of retail center operators. We decided to shine a light on the Top 10 centers that are leading the way in creating safe, yet still-inviting, experiences to draw crowds back to their properties. Last week we revealed the Top 5 COMEBACK Retail Center Experiences, now here's the rest of the list.

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No. 6 – MainPlace – Santa Ana, Calif.

“We’re thrilled to see you,” shouted signage to guests returning to MainPlace. Other signs like “OMG, hey you!” and “Stay safe. Have fun,” aimed to treat shoppers like old friends, not new clinic patients.

“I grew up in retail, and the way we believe in running our properties is from a standpoint of customer engagement,” said Centennial CEO Steve Levin, whose father owned a chain of 30 Margie’s value-fashion shops.

A robust consumer campaign, then, was one of the first things Levin asked his marketing team to produce when the pandemic broke out. The tagline: “Our Priority is YOU.”

“We feel very strongly that our places should be the places where people want to go when they leave their houses,” Levin said. “Life, art, social engagement, shopping, eating—those are things we wanted to conjure in our campaign to re-open the mall.”

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No. 7 – Assembly Row – Somerville, Mass.

When we visited this town-within-a-town on the outskirts of Boston as part our New England Top Stops tour last fall, an admiring pack of kids was crowded around the giraffe standing outside of Legoland. Now that 15-foot-tall plastic ruminant sports a big black mask with a sunflower on it.

Sunflowers have sprung up all around the streets of Assembly Row--in shop windows, on sidewalk signage, billboards, bathroom doors, hand sanitizers, and automatic parking lot gates. Federal Realty chose this striking image of freshness to signify its property as a welcoming, clean, and safe environment in a flu-flooded land.

“The sunflower is a sign of life. It’s something that grows in fresh air. It’s bright and colorful and big. It’s a visual manifestation of a place that people will feel comfortable to re-enter,” said Federal senior VP Patrick McMahon.

The sunflowers at Assembly Row are not merely graphic. Actual sunflowers have been planted around the grounds and visitors leaving the property found “Thank You” cards containing sunflower seeds in their windshield wipers.

No. 8 – Hill Country Galleria – Bee Cave, Texas

This Invesco Town Center provided another great example of how colorful, expressive graphic art can recast stern government regulation into refined living.

“Health and wellness have been a big part of the Hill Country Galleria experience, and that’s what guided our COVID efforts,” said senior project manager Phillip St. Pierre.

Among them:

  • Proper social distancing plans to safely maintain popular programs like Camp Gladiator and Fit 4 Mom;
  • development of the hashtag #BeeStrongTogether and the hiring of a local artist to create playful and colorful health and wellness messaging;
  • installation of 18 curbside pick-up locations on the main boulevard to welcome shoppers not yet ready for in-store experiences.

Hill Country Galleria converted its pre-booked Saturday Night Concert Series to a virtual event, and invited locals to picnic on the great lawn in marked- out, socially distanced spots.

“Our outdoor environment and generous public spaces proved to be the perfect setting for social distancing,” St. Pierre said.

No. 9 – Naperville Crossings – Naperville, Ill.

Phillips Edison & Company manages 317 properties across 31 states and, while every one of its centers has a Publix or Walmart or Kroger that hit sales records during April and May, 5,500 of its tenant (whom PECO calls “neighbors”) were out of business.

“These people are entrepreneurs and they’re going to solve their own problems. What we tried to do was give them the best chance to make a profit,” Edison said.

Neighbors at Naperville Crossings got together to work out solutions and turned a landscaped island on the property into a patio with outdoor dining. Restaurant staffs united to keep the area clean and inviting and to collaborate on curbside pick-up and carry-out options.

More tenants than ever joined PECO’s DashComm communications network to access PECO Connect and obtain social media signage, grand opening banners, flyers, and coupons. A Tenant Rewards program helped small business neighbors apply for loans through the CARES Act.

“Being part of the community is something that got embraced,” Edison said. “It’s like being in a war. You never want to wish that on somebody, but you emerge from it stronger.”

No. 10 – Plaza del Lago – Wilmette, Ill.

Plaza del Lago got its start as Spanish Court in the 1920s in this spot north of Chicago then called No Man’s Land. A hundred years later, this now mixed-use project used its open land to survive.

High-end, locally owned tenants took the concept of “open air” to a new level. Yoga 6 transitioned from virtual yoga classes to a tranquil experience located in the breezeway adjacent to the center’s historic fountain. Outdoor seating was maximized to accommodate eateries like Convito Café & Market and Burhops Seafood. Chantilly Lace carried on its high level of service through virtual consultations and Zoom shopping party sessions, personally delivering purchases to customers.

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