Sunday, February 24, 2008

Shop of the Day

In the movie The Forty Year Old Virgin, one of the main characters works in a store that sells stuff on eBay. When a guy goes into the store and wants to buy something he is told he can only have it if he goes home and buys it on the internet.

Well, folks, here is that store. And no, it's not a joke. It's in the Mall at Northgate, it's called Sold Online, and, as the hi-tech display in the picture shows, it works like this: you drop off your item, they sell it online, and you get a check in the (snail?) mail.

Unfortunately I didn't have any items with me to drop off (why didn't I think to bring that old Ikea table with me to the mall?), so I couldn't try out the service.

Any ideas why there's a dentist's chair in the store?

Saturday, February 23, 2008

Safeway, Terra Linda

I took a look at the Safeway at Terra Linda when I was passing through there last week. The store is located just north of The Mall at Northgate, on Las Gallinas Avenue. It is part of an old strip mall that includes Pier One, Starbucks, the Magic Flute music store and several services and take-out food stores.
I heard that the Safeway wasn't too good, and having seen the store I can see why. Both inside and outside the supermarket needs some work to bring it up to the standards of other Safeways in the region. The store is smaller than average and seems crowded, with stock piled in the aisles, making it difficult for customers to pass each other.

With no other full-sized supermarket in the Terra Linda/Las Galinas/Civic Center area, it looks like Safeway does not have an incentive to improve its act.

Signage of the week

I like the little blue soap bubbles.

Friday, February 22, 2008

The Mall at Northgate

It's the biggest mall in Marin and the only enclosed shopping center in the county. Located in Terra Linda, just three miles north of San Rafael, it's got three department stores and around 100 specialty shops. It's forty years old and ugly as hell. Yes, it's the Mall at Northgate. Very brief history: started out as Emporium department store (now Macy's) and an outdoor mall. People tell me this was a nice place to shop in the 1970s, but I guess it was also the only place to shop back then. Major renovation in the late 1980s resulted in the present format. A glass roof was added to enclose the mall, requiring a multitude of columns to support it, which you see everywhere.
After several years of speculation, Macerich finally revealed plans at the end of last year for a full renovation, to begin sometime in 2008. Going against the current fashion for de-malling, they've decided to keep the roof on, but make significant changes to bring the center up to date, including new high-level windows along the malls and the creation of outdoor plaza areas. More details here.
The layout is a T-shape, with a department store anchoring the end of each mall. There's level parking on each side, with several points of entry to the mall in addition to direct entry to the department stores. There's also a double-deck parking garage in the south-west corner.

I took my camera along on my visit this weekend to record the "before" version. On the outside, Northgate looks like many a regional mall from this era, surrounded by a sea of car parking with a lot of not very attractive walls. There are several areas with external-facing stores, but as usual, these are low-traffic locations and attract low-rent tenants.

Inside the center the natural light is quite good but the malls are rather wide and have been filled with an abundance of kiosks, carts, vending machines, palm trees, plantings and other clutter. Part of the renovation plan is to bring forward the store fronts to narrow the malls, providing a more intimate retail environment without the need for messy mall furniture. The renovation also needs to do something about the poorly-designed side malls and long bare walls that exist at the moment. The lack of activity in these areas brings down the vibe of the whole center.

The three department stores cover the low to middle market segments, with Mervyn's anchoring the discount end, closely followed by Sears, with Macy's having slightly higher price points. The Macy's store is possibly in the worst condition, with worn carpeting and beaten-up fixtures. Mervyn's tile and carpet flooring is also clearly ancient, and Sears is not much better. Let's hope a good overhaul of these stores is part of the renovation package. The specialty shop roster is a long way from what you would expect from a major mall in Marin. Admittedly, the center management isn't actively trying to lease the units ahead of the renovation, so there is no point being too harsh on the current composition. But after the reno is complete the roster should be a who's-who of mid-market fashion chain stores. Here's your demographic:

The most popular part of the center on my visit was the food court, which was doing a great business with fans of the fast-food.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

News round-up

Celebrity chef Tyler Florence will open a cookware store in the old Banana Republic store in Mill Valley. For an idea of what to expect take a look at Tyler's website and blog. I predict lots of very large pictures of the eponymous chef to feature in the shop's decor.

Sees Candies is to open a permanent store at Vintage Oaks in Novato.

The Sharper Image has filed for bankruptcy and intends to shutter 90 stores. It's not known if the outlet at the Village at Corte Madera will be one of the closures. Gonna miss them massage chairs.

The Marin Independent Journal reports that downtown Larkspur is to get a face lift, including new trees and improved sidewalks.

Also from the IJ, watch out for dirty foot spas next time you visit a nail salon.

Yet another new grocer is opening a store in Novato. Following the opening of Trader Joe's last year and the construction of new full size Safeway and Whole Foods markets, Berkeley-based Grocery Outlet is set to refurbish and occupy the vacant 25,680 sq.ft Bell market unit at the Nave Shopping Centre on South Novato Boulevard.
Grocery Outlet is a surplus or salvage market, which means it picks up surplus supplies from food manufacturers and is able to sell them at discount prices.

Friday, February 15, 2008

Shopping in Marin – adding up the numbers.

I was curious to know how big the whole retail market is in Marin, or put another way, how much money is available to be spent in stores in the county. This is an important number for retailers and mall owners, because they all want (and need) to grab a slice of it. One way to estimate the market size is to find out how many dollars the average person spends in stores and multiply it by the population. Another way is to track recorded retail sales or multiply average store sales per square foot by the total retail space in the County.

One widely used source for retail spending estimates is the Census Bureau’s Consumer Expenditure Survey, which is produced every few years. I totaled up the retail expenditure items for the San Francisco metro area from the 2006 survey and it appears that average spending per household was $18,111.

As we all know, Marin folks have more cash to spend than the average San Franciscan. According to the Bureau of Economic Analysis, average per capita income in Marin in 2005 was 44% higher than San Francisco. If we assume retail spending was also 44% higher than San Francisco the average Marin household would have spent approx. $26,000 in 2006. Allowing for some additional growth over the last two years bumps this up to $27,600 per household in 2008. With just over 100,000 households in Marin, that adds up to around $2.8 billion this year.

Now let’s add it up the other way. In 2006 taxable sales in retail stores in Marin were just over $3.2 billion, according to the CA Board of Equalization, which monitors such things. Allowing for some market growth, the 2008 total is probably around $3.4 billion. But this total includes non-household sales (i.e. trade sales such as lumber, office supplies etc) and autos, boats etc (which I don’t count as retail). Take these items out and the total reduces to $2.1 billion. Then we have to add in an allowance for sales of goods and services which do not attract sales tax, such as food to take home and prescription drugs. These items account for approx. 25% of household retail spending. Adding them in pushes up total retail sales in the County to $2.8 billion. This just happens to match the amount I calculated above, which is nice.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

The Square, Novato

Maybe not the prettiest bit of retail real estate in the County. Let's just be generous and say The Square is a modest and functional "no-frills" neighborhood center, located on Novato Boulevard just west of downtown.
DeLano's and Longs Drugs provide the anchors, with a selection of specialty shops that are... well "convenient" I guess is a good word.
Tagliaferri's is the most interesting store - an italian deli where you can get a coffee and some salami.
There's also a few eateries - Villa Roma, Cafe Bangkok and Henrys Burgers.
And there's a fitness center and a few vacant stores.

I didn't hang around long enough to sample anything.

Monday, February 11, 2008

Pacheco Plaza

In Ignacio, just south of Novato, is one of my favorite Marin shopping centers: Pacheco Plaza. This local grocery-anchored center was built in 1967 by the Kieckheffer Company and is still owned by the family. I love it simply for the architecture, which has something modern and typically Californian about it – it’s the shopping center equivalent of an Eichler house. The entrance to the center is framed by the Bank of Marin and West America Bank, with the latter having a neat drive-through tucked under its slanting roof that looks like an upturned planter. The other key elements that I like are the stylish monument sign and the big red Safeway signs on the supermarket. Alas for poor old Pacheco, those big red “S” logos won’t be there for much longer. A gleaming new Safeway in steel and glass is growing out of the ground at Hamilton on the eastern side of 101. In a matter of months the Pacheco store will close, the customers will disappear and the specialty shops will exit.
But of course the Kieckhefers are not going to give up without a fight. After forty one years service to the community they're ready to re-model, re-brand and re-launch! Behold the Pacheco Lifestyle Village! Plans have been submitted and approved. Architects drawings portray ultra-trendy shoppers loaded with full shopping bags and sipping lattes in the sun outside brightly-lit shops. Ah... the dream lifestyle.
I wish them luck and I think they might need it. Lucky Novato-area shoppers will soon have new full size Safeway and Whole Foods markets, as well as the recently-opened Trader Joe’s. Competing with that will be tough, especially with a new Safeway just across the freeway.

But I will certainly miss the old center. Can we at least keep the monument sign? The City wants to replace it with one that is up to code - i.e. no more than six feet tall, like this one at Novato Fair. Yuk!

Thursday, February 7, 2008

More moves at The Village

The tenant roster at The Village at Corte Madera keeps on a-changing. Latest retailers to fall victim to the Macerich leasing hounds are Brookstone, Max Studio and Cheaters, all of which were newly shuttered when I dropped by yesterday.

The boards are already up around these units, with cult frenchies Lacoste, sporty footwear store Puma and SoCal T-shirt peddler Michael Stars signed up to offer their wares to the voracious Marin public.

It's been quite a year for the Village as it races to cast off it's stodgy image by bringing in the hippest boutiques and trendiest chain stores. What a turnaround from owner Macerich's previous policy of marketing The Village as the classy safe mall for the thirtysomething Marin housewife, while positioning Northgate in San Rafael (which Macerich also owns) as the place to go for teen and twenties fashions. I'm guessing that they got the message that none of the cool retailers in the latter category wanted to go to Northgate.

I've certainly noticed more of a buzz in recent months, with bigger crowds and a younger demographic at The Village since the opening of Abercrombie & Fitch, Juicy Couture, True Religion and Lululemon.

Macerich are working on plans to extend The Village - so now's our chance to tell them what we would like to see there. What's that you say? Bring back Crate & Barrel...?

Larkspur Landing Shopping Center

Larkspur Landing residents will get a new place to stock up on groceries when Grocers Landing opens its doors at the Larkspur Landing Shopping Center. The retailer is currently fitting out one of the vacant units at the eastern end of the mall. According to its website, the store will include gourmet and prepackaged foods.

Larkspur Landing Shopping Center has always struggled to establish its retail identity. It currently has an eclectic mix of stores, eateries, service providers and commercial offices that don’t quite gel.

The center is located off Sir Francis Drake Blvd, just east of the 101 intersection. It is the main component of a mixed-use zone which also includes Century Theatres, a Marriot Courtyard and several garden-style apartment buildings. It is linked by a pedestrian bridge to the Golden Gate Ferry terminal.

There are several separate one and two storey buildings at the center, most of which are clustered around an outdoor pedestrian mall, which contains a nice fountain and is a pleasant spot to sit and have lunch on a sunny day; although there always seems to be a cold breeze blowing through the mall whenever I’m there.

The largest space is occupied by Bed Bath & Beyond, which took over the 42,000 sq.ft box vacated when the original supermarket moved out a few years ago. The other key tenants are Marin Brewing Company, Noonans Bar & Grill and 24-Hour Fitness. Aside from some other eating and drinking places (Starbucks, Tam Cellars, Tha Siam) the remainder of the mall has little to offer, with quasi-retail uses such as AAA travel, a Yoga Studio, beauty salon and several vacant stores. And even though the car park always seems full, the mall is almost always empty. On a midweek afternoon you’re more likely to see tumbleweed than shoppers rolling along between the stores.

The Landing was designed as a grocery-anchored neighborhood retail center. Problem is there’s hardly any neighborhood for it to serve. Neighborhood centers need 10,000 people living in their primary trade area. The Landing’s primary trade area is constrained by natural and man-made barriers: Highway 101 to the west, the Bay to the south, the hills to the north and San Quentin to the east. Less than 1,000 people live in this pocket of land.
I wonder how the developers expected this center to work? Did they think the ferry commuters would stroll over to shop there on their way home? Maybe they anticipated a greater density of new home development in the area. Or perhaps they imagined the 5,000 “residents” of San Quentin State Penitentiary would provide a loyal and regular source of customer traffic.
Without a local customer base, the only businesses that can trade successfully at the center are destination stores, such as the Marin Brewing Company and Bed Bath etc. These businesses are well known throughout central Marin and they work fine, albeit in isolation. We all get the BB&B 20% off coupons in our mail every month, stuff them in our kitchen draw until the next one arrives, then forget to take them with us when it’s time to buy towels.
Destination retailers don’t need to co-locate with a critical mass of other retailers, which is why you find them on stand-alone sites with good visibility and car parking. People drive up, go inside to do their thing, and then leave. Destination shoppers are not there to wander around and browse at nearby stores; hence the vacant units at The Landing.
Perhaps if a major destination grocer – Trader Joe’s or Whole Foods – had taken the ex-Albertsons space instead of BB&B, the rest of the shopping mall would have kept busy enough to keep the stores trading along the mall, the non-retail uses out and the vacancies down. But Trader Joe’s has plans for a new store at the nearby Cost Plus Plaza, and Whole Foods has committed to the old Albertsons site in Mill Valley.

Tough January for Retailers

The slowdown in consumer spending is evident in the reported sales results, with many stores reporting a decline in year-on-year sales.

Retailers with outlets in Marin include department stores Nordstrom and Macys, whose same-store sales in January were both approx. -7% lower than the same period last year. Target was down -1.1% and Gap dwn -2%, while Ann Taylor and Abercrombie & Fitch each saw 0% growth.

Talbots, which runs Talbots and J Jill brands at The Village at Corte Madera, saw its quarterly sales fall by 6%, and responded by announcing that it would increase to 100 the number of underperforming stores it plans to close. Chicos, also with a new store at The Village, had a shocker, with January same-store sales down -22%.

Best performer among the large stores was Costco, whose same-store sales for the January period increrased by 7%. Sales at Ross were up 1.1%.