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The re-emergence of merchant-led retail

Following COVID, a transformational moment occurred. People began to realize that they missed the social aspect of shopping.
Levin: "Digitally native brands with national followings have abandoned the belief that they don’t need physical locations."

I just finished reading The Kingdom of Prep, a book about how Arthur Cinader and his daughter Emily Cinader Scott built J.Crew into a legendary lifestyle brand by reinterpreting the traditional fashion archetypes of prep schools for a mass audience--and how the brand’s aggressive expansion eventually led to the point of financial disaster for J.Crew.

Relevant and engaging new retail brands face a perplexing challenge when their businesses are exhibiting success. Understandably, they want to reap the fruits of their success through expansion, which usually leads to sourcing outside capital. But investors’ agendas are ruled by numbers and growth, not by consumer trends. Hundreds of new stores are quickly opened minus the necessary insight that will ensure their locations are matches for their customers. I believe that’s what’s gotten so many great brands like J.Crew in trouble.

Now the good news. Retail has experienced and survived a significant shift in consumer behavior.  The department store anchors that malls were built upon have now become--in many cases—challenges to redevelopment opportunities. Entertainment brands, health and beauty retailers, and dynamic food and beverage concepts are the pillars of new retail developments. For developers and creators like us, it’s an exciting time to be a part of the business.

Merchant-led retail is back, and with a new cast of brands full of resonant national and local appeal. At MainPlace in Santa Ana, Calif., we opened the nation’s first American Ninja Warrior Adventure Park, which draws national and international visitors who flock to the area to visit Disneyland and Knott’s Berry Farm. 

Another focus for Centennial is providing unique culinary experiences. The food and beverage scene continues to explode with new, exciting concepts catering to the growing popularity of Foodie Culture.  Foodies are seeking chef-driven restaurants with distinct local vibes.

Another notable shift relates to e-commerce brands. Digitally native brands with national followings have abandoned the belief that they don’t need physical locations. They have embraced an omnichannel philosophy of allowing current customers to be able to research products online before making their in-store visits—and recruit new customers who discover their brands through a store visit then sign them up on their e-commerce channel.

The adoption of online shopping was expedited when COVID burst upon the nation. As people stayed home, they began shopping for groceries online and taking advantage of home delivery and pick-up options. They loved the convenience of it.  Over time, however, a transformational moment occurred. People began to realize that they missed the social aspect of shopping.

The COVID lockdown caused brands to focus on meaningful customer engagement and connecting with customers when and where they wanted to connect--a much-needed change in the industry. This shift inspired Centennial’s early adoption of the virtual shopping platform, Shop Now, providing customers the ability to browse and search in stock inventory with delivery and pick-up options.  In addition, brands and developers are adopting data-first strategies leading to right-sized, successful physical footprints.

Jim Boscov, the CEO of Boscov’s, which operates 50 department stores in the Northeast, opens just one store a year. He picks his new locations armed with great local market knowledge, and he continually renovates older stores to keep them in tune with the times.

At Centennial, we are excited to be a part of the retail renaissance led by passionate merchants carefully selecting physical locations that align with their omnichannel strategies. The role that we as owners and operators must play is to focus on creating lasting partnerships by collaborating with merchants on developing marketing and activation strategies designed to drive traffic and create memorable experiences for our customers.   

Helping make retailers successful is what, ultimately, makes us successful.

Steven Levin is the founder and CEO of Dallas-based Centennial, which operates 30 retail centers nationwide.

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