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    Monday, July 15, 2024

    Malls around the country are declining, but this Conn. one is among busiest in New England

    In the middle of the day, in the middle of the week, the mall on the Farmington-West Hartford line still draws many visitors.

    The midweek crowd is a diverse group, ranging from parents shopping with their children, to sneakerheads looking to add to their collections, to senior citizens walking the premises for exercise and then stopping for drinks and snacks.

    By consistently generating robust foot traffic, Westfarms has weathered the disruption of the past few years experienced by so many other malls and solidified its position as one of the busiest malls in New England. Underpinning Westfarms' popularity is a steady supply of new stores, whose arrivals have demonstrated the mall's enduring appeal to retailers in the post-pandemic era.

    "Shoppers want to shop at Westfarms because of the unique-to-market brands that we have that can't be found elsewhere," Westfarms spokesperson Amanda Sirica said during a tour of the mall on Wednesday. "And retailers want to lease here because we have the shoppers."

    Many newcomers

    Since the beginning of 2023, an eclectic group of retailers has opened at Westfarms. Last year's newcomers included furniture retailers Arhaus and Jordan's Furniture; activewear brand Alo; Biberon, which sells handbags, wallets and shoes; fashion retailer Francesca's; accessories brand The Frenchie Co.; underwear-and-sleepwear brand Intimissimi; and shoe seller A Sneaker City. This year, the new arrivals include mattress brand Tempur-Pedic, which opened last month; stuffed-goods retailer Squishable, which opened earlier this month; JD Sports, which is expected to open within the next few weeks; and lifestyle brand Miniso, which is set to open this summer.

    In many cases, a store at Westfarms represents a brand's first or only location in Connecticut. Alo, A Sneaker City, Biberon, The Frenchie Co., and Squishable do not have any other stores in the state.

    "The Westfarms of the worlds are able to keep bringing in the latest and greatest," Charles Cristella, executive vice president of mall leasing and retail at commercial real estate firm JLL, said. "But those are few and far between."

    Among the homegrown businesses on Westfarms' roster are Biberon, which was founded by Basema Hamied, who grew up in Manchester, and sneaker retailer Impossible Kicks, which was founded by Meriden native Wayne Mocadlo. In January 2021, Mocadlo opened his store at Westfarms, which marked the first Impossible Kicks location. In addition to the establishment at Westfarms, which is Impossible Kicks' sole location in Connecticut, there are now 17 Impossible Kicks stores across other states.

    "I have a lot of really cool childhood memories here. Westfarms has always been my favorite," Mocadlo said Wednesday at the store. "Overall, with foot traffic and the demographics of the area, you get so many crowds coming in."

    Biberon, Impossible Kicks and The Frenchie Co., have gained traction at Westfarms by participating in Emerge with Taubman, a program focused on helping up-and-coming brands open brick-and-mortar stores. The program's name refers to Westfarms' majority owner and manager, Taubman Realty Group, which comprises a partnership between the Taubman family and Simon Property Group.

    Westfarms' ever-evolving lineup continues to resonate with customers. In April, Westfarms attracted about 373,000 visitors, ranking No. 1 among malls in Connecticut, according to data from location-analytics provider Placer.ai. Danbury Fair was No. 2, with approximately 367,000 visitors, and Connecticut Post Mall in Milford was No. 3, with about 315,000 visitors.

    "I think there's a good variety of stores," Cheshire resident Charlotte Palma, who just completed her first year at Merrimack College in Massachusetts, said during a visit Wednesday afternoon to Westfarms with her father, Michael, to shop for gifts for her mother's birthday. "I feel like when I need to get something, there are a lot of stores with exactly what I need."

    Her father's only gripe was footing the bill for his family's trips to the mall through the years.

    "You're talking to a guy who's got to spend the money here," Michael Palma said, with a wry grin. "It was never fun for me!"

    Adapting during challenging times

    Like other shopping centers across the state and country, Westfarms has grappled with the upheaval unleashed by the COVID-19 pandemic.

    In the mall's biggest setback of the past four years, the Lord & Taylor store at Westfarms closed at the end of 2020. The bankruptcy of the country's oldest department-store chain also precipitated the shutdown of all of its other stores — including its three other locations in Connecticut, at Danbury Fair, Trumbull Mall and in a standalone building on High Ridge Road in Stamford.

    Westfarms filled the space vacated by Lord & Taylor when Jordan's Furniture opened its approximately 120,000-square-foot showroom. In the walkway that leads into Jordan's Furniture, a Sally's Apizza establishment is expected to open later this year.

    The former Lord & Taylor spaces at Danbury Fair and Trumbull Mall are still vacant, although residential development and pickleball courts have, respectively, been proposed for those locations. In Stamford, a Saks Off 5th department store took part of the building that housed Lord & Taylor, while a long-planned Whole Foods Market store might take the remainder. At the same time, there are a number of vacant anchor spaces across other malls in the state.

    With Jordan's having filled Westfarms' largest vacancy, the approximately 1.4 million-square-foot mall has reached a leasing rate of nearly 100 percent, with about 150 stores. Westfarms' other anchor tenants are JCPenney, Macy's, Macy's Men's Store & Furniture Gallery, and Nordstrom.

    The full house reflects not only Westfarms' appeal to retailers, but also several other advantages. For one, Westfarms draws many affluent customers, a demographic whose discretionary spending generally has been less affected by post-pandemic headwinds such as surging inflation and rising interest rates. In Farmington and West Hartford, for instance, the median annual household incomes were, respectively, about $118,000 and about $124,000 in the past few years, compared with a statewide median of about $90,000, according to Census Bureau data.

    Westfarms' location is another asset. It is situated at the intersection of Interstate 84 and Route 9, and within a bustling corridor that includes other shopping centers such as Corbin's Corner, which stands across the road from the mall.

    The location insulated Westfarms from the opening in 2019 of The SoNo Collection in Norwalk, which is the newest mall in Connecticut. Unlike Stamford Town Center, which has lost a number of retailers that have opened stores eight miles east at The SoNo Collection, Westfarms' approximately 65-mile distance from The SoNo Collection allows them to easily co-exist. Among Westfarms' newcomers, Arhaus, Intimissimi, JD Sports, Miniso and Tempur-Pedic each have stores at The SoNo Collection.

    At the same time, Westfarms has withstood the rise of e-commerce. Services such as curbside pickups were popular during the pandemic, while many shoppers still like to buy online and pick up in stores. Returns from online orders also generate sales because customers frequently visit other establishments when they make returns.

    "Westfarms is thriving in the post-pandemic era," Sirica said. "Shoppers have returned and then some."

    And for many shoppers, going to the mall is not a ritual that they would want to replace with browsing on their smartphones or computers.

    "I like coming in-store to shop," Charlotte Palma said. "I feel like it's more fun than shopping online."

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