New era dawns in shopping
Published by Florida Times-Union on March 15, 2005.
It was almost a week before St. Johns Town Center would officially open, but that didn't stop Jason Watkins from being amazed at what he saw.
"It's amazing to see Jacksonville grown up like this," he said, looking around the open-air shopping mall near Gate Parkway. "It's like we're turning into Atlanta."
The center officially opens today, with the festivities continuing through the weekend. Music groups such as the Commodores and the Marshall Tucker Band will be on hand, as will luminaries including Scooby Doo and Shaggy.
The main draw, though, will be the 100-plus stores themselves, with hard-core shoppers across the area revved up to a fever pitch at the thought of restaurants such as P.F. Chang's China Bistro and stores such as Designs of the Interior, shoe retailer DSW and Coldwater Creek.
During the past week, some tenants have had soft openings, drawing people who, in several cases, stopped by just to drink it all in, surprised that such a collection of stores would decide to locate in the 1.1 million-square-foot center on Jacksonville's Southside.
"It doesn't feel like Jacksonville," said Joseph Chyla, who was shopping at the Ashley Furniture HomeStore earlier in the week. "It feels like a big metro city."
The idea that St. Johns Town Center is a sign that Jacksonville has grown up is a view shared by retail analysts, who see the new development having an impact regionally as well as being a boon to local shoppers.
The new mall will have an impact similar to the effects of Regency Square mall opening up, said Stephen Tool, a retail specialist with Grubb and Ellis/Phoenix Realty Group in Jacksonville.
"When the first mall opened here, we didn't have all those department stores," Tool said. "We saw a whole raft of retailers enter the market."
With almost half of the center's stores new to the area -- and a batch more featuring designs or concepts not seen elsewhere in the market -- shoppers who used to travel to Atlanta or Orlando for high-end shopping now can stay on the First Coast.
The nature of the open-air mall, in which shoppers can park closer to the stores where they'll be shopping, also will help attract shoppers, especially those looking for a mix of shopping and eating.
In a study that America's Research Group conducted of eight open-air malls, the group found they attracted 45 percent of women and 55 percent of men who lived within 7 miles of the centers. Typically, the number of male shoppers a mall can attract is half that of woman.
"I think lifestyle centers or town centers are the wave of the future," said Britt Beemer, chairman of the group, which studies consumer trends. "They really have done a great job of incorporating entertainment with retail."
Scarcer stores such as Apple Computers and Sephora can help make Jacksonville a shopping destination city in its own right, bolstering the city's image among those familiar with more exclusive merchandisers.
"I don't think it's any different from having an NFL team," Tool said. "There are only a certain number of cities that get certain retailers. We're now on the map of retailers that never looked at the city before."
Stores such as Dick's Sporting Goods and Ann Taylor Loft are attracted both by the area's growing population and the changing demographics of that population.
"It's more people with more money," Tool said. "The stores like that."
Sprint, for example, rolled out its new retail concept at the town center, the first Sprint store in Florida to feature an upgraded look. The store includes a reservation system for customers, on-site repair facility and jewelry-store-like display cases for phones and accessories as well as a more airy decorating scheme.
"It fits our customer focus and the customers we're looking for," Kevin Brown, Sprint's regional retail sales manager, said about the decision to put the high-end design in St. Johns Town Center.
That idea proved correct the first day the store was open: The first customer who walked in bought three high-end handsets.
Howard Fineman, chief executive officer of Ashley Furniture HomeStore in Jacksonville, had similar thoughts when he decided to put a store in the mall.
"Jacksonville is a major city that doesn't get the credit it deserves," said Fineman, who moved to Jacksonville from the New York area five months ago after visiting the area over the course of several years. "This week, with the center opening, people are going to see what I've seen for two, three years."