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Are mall vacancies ‘natural turnover’ or changes in retail?

By Bryan Richardson

In the pre-noon hours Friday at Manhattan Town Center, Charlotte Hart, co-owner of Kitchen Capers, waited for early customers looking to take advantage of the retirement sale.

The store, which Hart and her husband, Bob, have owned since 1995, will close in January unless she finds a buyer.

Hart gave a simple answer to the reason for retirement: “Age.”

If Kitchen Capers ultimately closes, it would be joining a club that has left Manhattan Town Center feeling emptier these days.

Since the top of the year, Sbarro, Aeropostale, CJ Banks and One Stop Sports have made their exit from the mall. Candyopolis also closed, but accessories store Francesca’s has taken its place.

The absence of Sbarro adds to the food court vacancy left by Ed’s Dog House, which was next to the pizza chain.

Despite the recent vacancies, Jocelyn Guilfoyle, Manhattan Town Center marketing manager, said officials are happy with the overall health of the mall.

“Some of the vacancies are just a natural turnover that you experience in retail,” she said. “It’s a great opportunity for us to refresh our tenant mix.”

Guilfoyle said any occupancy rate above 90 percent is “super healthy,” a mark the mall is still reaching.

“The last four or five years, we’ve been sitting at a 98-percent occupancy, which is really good for a shopping center,” she said. “We’re still at a mid-90s occupancy rate right now.”

Sbarro and Aeropostale have reduced the number of stores nationwide as both companies are working through financial difficulties including bankruptcy in the case of Sbarro.

“We try to deal with (closings) the best way we can, and try to get a tenant in as soon as possible,” Guilfoyle said.

A couple of the long-time store owners said they’ve seen many changes at Manhattan Town Center.

“There’s always a constant coming and going,” Hart said. “Some stores last a long time, there are those that simply don’t make it, and there are stores that are doing well but their corporate office might not be.”

Karen Streeter, who started Kansas Kollection in 1994 with her husband, Brad, said changes are just the nature of the mall industry.

“Over the years, we’ve seen it full, we’ve seen it less than full. It’s just the cycle of the business,” she said.

Hart said this latest cycle has left the mall with more empty stores than usual. “It’s probably the lowest it’s been that I can recall,” she said.

Hart has worked in the mall since 1990 at Kitchen Capers’ predecessor, Butterfields, a similar store concept that opened with the mall in 1987.

In terms of staying power, Streeter attributes some of her store’s success to the state-specific products sold, which gives Kansas Kollection a niche in the market.

She said other retailers such as clothing stores deal with higher competition.

“You can walk down the mall or main street and go into any number of clothing stores with similar items,” Streeter said.

The two didn’t agree on the status of the mall’s customer traffic.

Streeter said the mall has a built-in audience for those visiting Manhattan.

“A lot of times, out-of-town people will go to a mall because it’s a comfort to them,’ Streeter said.

Hart said traffic in the mall has decreased even as Manhattan has grown.

“The city is growing, yes, but with it comes more stores, and more stores mean more competition,” she said.

Hart said she was concerned that this is a national trend.

“From what I’ve read, malls overall across the nation aren’t doing very well,” she said. “I guess people’s buying habits are changing.”

Guilfoyle said mall performance varies from market to market, but Manhattan is still in good position.

“Currently, Manhattan is still in an economic growth pattern, so that benefits us and gives us opportunities to attract quality tenants,” she said. “That’s in our advantage at this point in filling those vacancies.”

Guilfoyle said she hopes to have an announcement in the next couple of months about a new tenant.

She said there isn’t a particular mix of stores the mall is looking for to fill the vacancies.

“There’s no optimal balance we’re looking for,” Guilfoyle said.

Guilfoyle said lease negotiations takes time, using the Sears wing of the mall as an example. She said the various vacancies in that area became filled over the last four years.

“That just took some time, and that’s kind of how it works, especially when you’re dealing with national retailers,” Guilfoyle said. “It takes some time to work out the negotiations.”

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