Two major clothing retailers are about to set up shop at Vancouver Mall. Casual apparel chain Tillys and women’s fashion store Windsor will both join the tenant lineup later this year, the mall announced last week.

The two stores will be the latest in a string of big name outlets that have joined the mall in the past year, a growth trend that stands out prominently during a year in which the COVID-19 pandemic has inflicted significant pain on the retail world.

In a December analysis, Susan Reda, vice president of education strategy for the National Retail Federation, declared that shopping malls “became an industrywide punching bag in 2020.”

“I just feel like we’re definitely bucking the trend,” said Vancouver Mall general manager Tracy Peters.

Five Guys Burgers and Fries and Chick-fil-A both recently opened in the mall’s new satellite building, and Hobby Lobby made its debut in September on the ground floor of the anchor tenant space that formerly belonged to Sears.

The upper level is slated to become a Round1 entertainment venue featuring bowling and other games, although the pandemic pushed back the originally planned end-of-2020 opening date. According to Peters, the company is currently considering an April debut.

Plans for those four newcomers all surfaced before the COVID-19 pandemic arrived, but all of them opted to continue development of the new locations. And last week’s announcement suggests that big retailers are willing to make new commitments in Vancouver even in the pandemic environment.

Tillys CEO Ed Thomas said in a statement that the company was confident in its newest location choice in part because Vancouver Mall is “thriving despite the extreme pressures the retail industry as a whole has experienced over the past year.”

COVID-19 delayed the start of build-out construction at Tillys, Peters said, but it’s underway now and Windsor is going to follow suit soon. Tillys is expected to open in the second quarter of 2021 and Windsor in the third quarter.

Pandemic shopping

The initial round of the state’s COVID-19 shutdown orders last spring impacted businesses across a wide range of industries, including retail outlets such as Vancouver Mall. Most were able to resume limited operations over the summer and fall, only to be shuttered again in response to a surge of COVID-19 cases in November.

But the retail sector caught a break in the second round. Instead of halting all indoor shopping, the November lockdown restricted retail stores to 25 percent of their usual occupancy, which was only a small reduction from the 30 percent limit that had already been in place.

As a result, the mall was able to remain open through the holiday season and keep operating much as it had throughout the summer and fall. And according to Peters, it’s been a surprisingly successful winter season.

All the malls in parent company Centennial’s portfolio have done relatively well in recent months, Peters said, but Vancouver Mall has been at or near the top of the pack. Despite the occupancy cap, the mall was able to beat its 2019 customer traffic numbers in the final week of December, she said, and it was the only Centennial mall to do so. Some stores were even able to beat their 2019 sales figures despite limited hours.

Peters said part of that success stems from the introduction of Centennial’s “Shop Now!” platform on the mall’s website, which began rolling out last fall. It allows customers to view each store’s inventory and place online orders for pickup, and a later update will merge the checkout systems into a single virtual cart for all the listed retailers.

The online system has been critical to help retailers make up for the lower foot traffic, she said, because customers have tended to make bigger-ticket purchases on average and the ones that do venture out to the mall tend to want to move through quickly to buy specific things.

“It will allow the brick and mortar to come together with the online shopping,” Peters said.

Shop Now and the mall’s “Retail To Go” curbside pickup service are both going to stick around after the pandemic ends, but Peters said she also expects the brick-and-mortar side of things to bounce back — that’s why the mall proceeded with a planned set of indoor renovations during the past few months, including new upper-level carpeting and updated interior seating.

Peters also credited Vancouver Mall’s success in part to the amount of residential growth in the Vancouver area in recent years, which she said has helped the mall maintain a steady stream of customer traffic.

Chain store bankruptcies

The news hasn’t been entirely positive. The mall’s Christopher and Banks location is about to shut down along with the rest of the stores in the chain, and the mall’s Aldo shoe store was also permanently shuttered as part of the parent company’s bankruptcy.

The parent or owner companies of several other big Vancouver Mall tenants filed for bankruptcy protection in the past year, including Men’s Wearhouse and anchor tenants J.C. Penney and Gold’s Gym.

Multiplex theater chain AMC has also been in dire financial straits, although CEO Adam Aron announced last month that the company would avoid any immediate bankruptcy thanks to a $917 million boost from investors.

But with the exception of Aldo and Christopher and Banks, those struggles haven’t translated into direct losses for the Vancouver Mall’s tenant lineup.

Big retail chain bankruptcies often result in a restructuring that closes some locations but maintains others, Peters said. J.C. Penney and Men’s Wearhouse have each announced some closures, but both chains’ Vancouver Mall locations are sticking around.

Gold’s Gym was bought out of bankruptcy last summer and maintained the vast majority of its locations, and Phase 2 easing of coronavirus restrictions allowed the Vancouver Mall gym to reopen earlier this month. The same goes for the mall’s AMC multiplex, which reopened Friday. Initial show listings have been fairly limited, but they’re expected to ramp back up soon.

“Their biggest challenge is they have to re-employ a lot of people” at AMC, Peters said. After two rounds of lengthy shutdowns, “they don’t have the same staff.”

Phase 2 also allowed the mall to reopen indoor seating at the food court, Peters said, and the restaurants will benefit from the return of nearby theater foot traffic.

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