Biz Beat

Optimistic about mall's new stores

Bob Bartlett is bullish on retail.

He's the head of Bartlett Joseph Associates, a San Rafael-based consulting firm that specializes in retail industry management. As his Web site proudly proclaims, he and his team "love retailing."

Bartlett gushes about retail's flexibility in identifying and serving consumer needs, its lack of barriers to willing entrepreneurs and its ability to reinvent itself, recycling real estate, workers, customers and capital with new formats, merchandise and venues.

Retailing is a more than $4 trillion industry, he said. That makes the U.S. economy, even with its problems, the envy of the world and the locomotive for the global economy. It's against that backdrop that he discussed the future of retail in the Northern San Joaquin Valley.

These days, much of that talk has centered around the kind of stores that will occupy the 65,000-square-foot addition under construction at Vintage Faire Mall. Macerich Inc., the mall's owner, is pitching The Village at Vintage Faire as an upscale, destination shopping complex. It will have room for 10 new stores and two restaurants in its open-air setting, featuring lush landscaping and the latest store designs.

So, to which retailers would that appeal? Well, one story making the rounds suggests that Chico's, Coldwater Creek, Coach, Ann Taylor and Banana Republic have been lined up as tenants. BJ's Restaurant and Brewhouse has announced on its Web site that it's on board. Macaroni Grill is rumored to be the other eatery in The Village.

Macerich isn't talking. Apparently the local folks can't, and their corporate counterparts won't even return phone calls.

Although Bartlett couldn't shed light on the latest rumors, he did say all the retailers being mentioned could consider a move to Modesto a good one even in today's economy. If Macerich can put together the kind of project that appeals to these retailers and the kind of shopping experience their customers demand, they'll come.

He said these retailers want an environment that will set them apart from the competition, such as department stores or big box outlets, with a unique setting that allows them to create an atmosphere highlighting each store's style and products. That's important, he said, because in today's world, shoppers often can find the same products cheaper at discount outlets, so maximizing the shopping experience at upscale stores is the key to bringing in shoppers. In other words, you might like the price of that name brand handbag at Wal-Mart, but you might enjoy shopping for one more at Coach -- even if it costs more.

For retailers, Bartlett said, it's all about the numbers. They look at demographics, projections and sales figures to determine if they're a good fit for a market. But they also look at how other retailers in that market are doing. Success follows success. He said their research is so thorough, retailers have a very good handle on what a new store's sales will be before it opens.

If the numbers add up, Bartlett said, the retailers will come, even with a slowing U.S. economy. He said it's important to remember that it's a global market that drives most retail decisions. Weakness in one area of the world can be offset by strength elsewhere. A strong distribution system and manufacturing network can bring stability to the bottom line.

As for retailers considering the new mall site, Macerich provides an advantage. Bartlett said commercial leasing with large mall companies means they have the flexibility to put retailers into desirable properties as well as those that may not be as high on those businesses' radar screens -- I'll get you into a Santa Monica place if you try Vintage Faire.

If the deal is good enough, they will come. As Bartlett points out, retailers have to increase their market share to survive. A retailer that saturates one region, say the Bay Area, may just be cannibalizing its base. Moving into new areas, such as the valley, would provide a new source of shoppers.

So there's no reason the mall can't bring in some stores that have been more typical to Walnut Creek than Modesto. Chances are Macerich already has its tenants lined up, especially if it plans to create shopping experiences that reflect those stores' tastes.

OK, so are the latest rumors on who's coming to town accurate? Could be, but no one's saying at this point. Look on the bright side, though. Bartlett isn't ruling anyone out: "There's no reason you can't have the same stores out there that we have in Marin."

Now that's saying something.

Have an item for Business Beat? Send it to David W. Hill, Business Editor, The Modesto Bee, P.O. Box 5256, Modesto 95352; or dhill@modbee.com.

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