The SoNo Collection mall in Norwalk is not scheduled to be open until October 2019, but its presence is already being felt in Fairfield County. For starters, it is difficult not to notice the massive construction site looming over the South Norwalk Exit 15 on Interstate 95, and the current structure only represents a portion of the 700,000-square-foot retail center.
Furthermore, the SoNo Collection represents something of an anomaly in a period when malls around the country are ailing or worse. The only other recent mall project in Connecticut, the 282,000-square-foot, 70-store Outlets Shoppes at Rentschler Field in East Hartford, was cancelled earlier this month even though the project was 65 percent leased and ground was broken for construction last November.
However, SoNo Collection is taking a different approach to retailing. For starters, its anchor stores represent unique destinations for the region: Fairfield County’s first Nordstrom and Bloomingdales returning to Fairfield County. Douglas Adams, senior director of development and municipal analysis at General Growth Partners (GGP), the SoNo Collection’s owner, stated the new mall’s tenant mix will be aimed at “midlevel to aspirational, with a small component of luxury.” He added that GGP also wanted to avoid having a situation common in other malls: a food court that becomes a crowded gathering hub.
“We agreed to limit our restaurants to 6 percent of leasable area,” he said. “That is almost half of what we would put into a shopping center. We are not looking for the traditional food court – we are focused on sit-down eateries or fast-casual establishments.”
Adams stated the mall is 60 percent leased, though he declined to name the tenants outside of the anchor stores, and he added the project’s $500 million budget is being maintained. He estimated that the SoNo Collection is creating approximately 1,900 construction jobs for the ongoing work in building the structure and will see roughly 2,500 jobs when the mall is open, with salaries averaging around $40,000.
As for employment, GGP is partnering with Norwalk Community College (NCC) to offer a retail training program designed by the National Retail Federation. While the program does not guarantee employment at the SoNo Collection, its aim is to direct a new generation of retail workers to bring a higher level of professionalism to their jobs.
“How many of us have walked into a store and been blown away by poor customer service?” asked Kristina Testa-Buzzee, associate dean of extended studies and workforce education at NCC, who noted GGP granted the school $250,000 for the new program, which will serve 500 students over a five-year period. “We were surprised and appreciative that they were willing to fund the training. This will give some folks a way back into the workforce and will give others a starting point.”
LOCATION, LOCATION, LOCATION!
Adams insisted that SoNo Collection will not siphon away customers from either Norwalk or the wider regional retail environment. “We are going to be different from retail on Route 1,” he continued, referring to Norwalk’s shopping area featuring major big box stores and franchise outlets. “The Danbury Fair Mall is over 20 miles away to the north, and the Westfield Trumbull and Connecticut Post Mall in Milford have a trade area that is separate from ours. And we are not trying to duplicate Greenwich Avenue on a larger scale.”
Retailing experts believe that SoNo Collection’s strategy is on the right track.
“Today’s malls are filled with dozens of stores carrying the exact same brands at vastly different prices, almost always higher than online because of rent overhead,” observed Joshua Shuart, chairman of the marketing and sports management department at Sacred Heart University’s Jack Welch College of Business. “Where I think the SoNo Collection can succeed is creating an ‘experience’ that goes far beyond just shopping or dining. If they can, others will take notice. But they already have the built-in advantage of a superb, wealthy, upscale location.”
Mousumi Bose Godbole, assistant professor of marketing at Fairfield University’s Dolan School of Business, wondered if other regional shopping areas will be inspired to aim for more experiential settings. “Retail cannot survive in the current format of just hosting shops,” she said. “If they are just sitting there, the malls will be a ghost town.”
Peter Gioia, vice president and economist at the Connecticut Business & Industry Association, predicted that the SoNo Collection will keep shopping dollars in the state and out of the New York City cash registers. “People may decide, ‘Let’s go there instead of going to the city,’” he said.
“I believe there is a big hole in the market for a high-end mall like The Westchester in White Plains,” said Jessica Curtis, senior managing director at NKF in Stamford. “This fills the demand.”
COMPETING FOR SHOPPERS?
But Curtis also wondered if the new mall would lure away individuals who would have been spending their money in other regional locations. “Shoppers might not go to Greenwich Avenue or Main Street in Westport and go to the mall instead,” she said.
However, the mall’s competition is not expressing any agitation over that prospect.
“Greenwich will now be surrounded by numerous high-end malls such as The Westchester in White Plain and now the SoNo, but there is room for everyone since the mall experience is much different than what local shoppers seek on Greenwich Avenue,” said Marcia O’Kane, president and CEO of the Greenwich Chamber of Commerce. “Greenwich Avenue is very much an ‘experience’ in shopping, compared to the mall atmosphere, which attracts a different kind of shopper.”
Matthew Mandell, executive president and director of the Westport-Weston Chamber of Commerce, agreed. “We offer an open-air experience instead of an enclosed mall,” he said. “People come to Westport for a change of pace.”
Jocelyn Paoletta, director of communications at the Bridgeport Regional Chamber of Commerce, also pointed out that not every Fairfield County resident or retailer is eager for a high-end mall experience. “While we are not currently developing a mall in Bridgeport, we are creating the kind of community retail developers are looking for,” she said. “Our newer downtown mixed-use projects such as McLevy Square with a new beer hall Harlan House and a new comedy club, and the Harrel Security Wheeler Building, and the Bijou Square nestled in a conclave of great dining and entertainment are all examples of the kind of walkable, livable communities that retailers are looking for.”
Melissa Eigen, senior marketing manager at the Danbury Fair Mall, saw the SoNo Collection as a positive development for the region. “Any time a mall is built ground-up shows confidence in the market,” she stated. “We’re both in Fairfield County and both of our shopping centers will be distinct and unique.”
And Jack Condlin, president and CEO of the Stamford Chamber of Commerce, expressed the belief that city residents will find themselves in a win-win situation when the new mall opens. “Competition is always the best thing for consumers,” he said.