New American Girl in Town

January 8th, 2013

Shopping Centers Today
By Ben Johnson

The store that American Girl plans to open at Easton Town Center, in Columbus, Ohio, in June will be a hit. The company has the data to prove it. “Because we started as a direct-order business, we have years and years of data that show us where we have strong penetration and where our customer base is located,” said Wade Opland, vice president of retail. “Ohio is a strong state for us — we knew we wanted to put a store in this particular area as we looked at the demographics and sociographics.”

American Girl, a division of Mattel, will open an 11,500-square-foot store at the 1.7 million-square-foot Easton Town Center, a luxury lifestyle shopping center developed by Steiner & Associates in 1999. “Columbus really rose to the occasion on a couple of perspectives,” said Opland. “The Columbus location is a good distance from Cincinnati, Cleveland and Detroit. We looked at a lot of malls, but the Easton Town Center was impressive based on its geographical pull as a high-end premium lifestyle center. With 22 million visitors annually, it’s a very attractive center to be in.”

American Girl stores typically draw from a 200-mile radius and are geared to be destinations in themselves. To Opland, the stores are an extension of the brand. “Omnichannel marketing is really what we’re all about here,” he said. “The guest wants to see, touch, feel and experience the product and have the memory that only American Girl stores create. We want the online experience, the store experience, the book experience all to be synergistic and consistent to the brand of American Girl.” Those same synergies helped bring the leasing deal to fruition. “They have a big reputation, and as a grandmother, I can tell you that I certainly shopped at their store on Michigan Avenue, and they are the preeminent brand in their sector,” said Anne Mastin, executive vice president of retail real estate at Columbus-based Steiner. “So we went after them.”

The timing of the American Girl lease coincided with many lease renewals for other retailers at the center. It also fit nicely with Steiner’s plans to create a 40,000-square-foot district with 15 new stores dedicated to family-oriented retailers. “It just happened that at the end of 2011, we did have one of those anniversaries for major tenant rolls, and that allowed us to make the move,” said Mastin. “We also built a new, 1,000-car parking garage in front of the American Girl entrance and added 20,000 square feet of ground-level mall shops. By doing that, we added a lot of interesting, fun retailers that heretofore we weren’t able to accommodate at Easton because we didn’t have the space.”

American Girl’s store-growth strategy has been measured. In 2005 the company operated just two flagship stores, in Chicago and New York City. In 2006 it opened its third flagship, in Los Angeles. It has since come up with a smaller-store format suitable for shopping centers in virtually any market in the country. “We knew from the customer feedback that they wanted more stores,” said Opland. “So we went to work on the retail expansion strategy which is the smaller-store format. That is why we are 14 stores strong today. But we are going to keep American Girl stores special, so we could potentially have only 20 stores across the whole nation. You’re not going to see a store in every mall across the country, because our guest travels, and we want to be calculated and very methodical with our growth.” The company has opened about two stores per year since 2007, he says, and management is looking at markets with a large population and an appropriate demographic.

“One of the things that is really important as we talk to malls around the nation is that American Girl can really change the landscape of the mall,” said Opland. “Malls continue to struggle with traffic, and American Girl brings families and girls and grandparents to a mall location. We’ve seen time and time again that American Girl really helps the businesses around them but also brings a new level of excitement and energy to a center.”

From the January 2013 issue of Shopping Centers Today

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