Should You Move Your Store?

A jeweler with a successful mall store did it. So did one with a century-old downtown business. Even a profitable local chain did it. All three left malls or downtown centers and relocated to highly visible freestanding buildings, redefining themselves as prestigious ?destination stores? in the process.

?Many retailers now find they do better in non-mall locations than mall locations,? says retail consultant Gary Wright. Veteran jewelry retail consultant Janice Mack Talcott says that as malls lose their appeal and downtowns struggle to revitalize themselves, ?more independent jewelers are reasserting their strengths [as retailers] and regaining dominance of their markets by setting themselves apart from the mall?s chain-store saturation.?

Why relocate? Sites Jewelers in Clarksville, Tenn., did well at its center court mall location, but as the time to renegotiate his lease approached, owner Bill Sites decided to move. ?It was time to control our own business again,? he says. ?The mall tells you when to open, how long to stay open, when to close and turn off your lights, when to remodel. In addition to rents, there are common maintenance area fees, trash pickup fees, advertising fees?and a tremendous amount of lookers who aren?t buyers.?

Paul Deters, co-owner (with his sister, Diane Deters-Krug) of Deters Jewelers in Evansville, Ind., decided to move out of a mall, despite a favorable lease. ?You don?t build equity, and you have to operate by their rules,? he explains. Unfavorable changes in the mall?s atmosphere, traffic, and business since the store opened in the 1960s also were factors in the decision to move. ?We?re an American Gem Society store and just didn?t fit in anymore,? says Deters. ?With our better merchandise, we?ve always catered to more affluent people. But in recent years, fewer came to the mall, and when they did, they had to get to us through crowds of teenagers.?

Rising costs are another factor pushing jewelers out. ?Jewelry stores pay some of the very highest rents for mall tenants, based on sales per square foot,? notes Michael Beward, vice president of development for the Urban Land Use Institute. (Total charges as a percent of sales are lower.) Since most mall rents include an escalating percentage of sales, ?you never get a point where rent is maximized,? adds AGS executive director Robert Bridel. Wright notes that recent statistics indicate ?the average regional mall isn?t generating the sales and traffic anymore to justify the rents they do charge.?

Many downtowns have drawbacks, too, including insufficient parking, a shrinking retail sector, inadequate lighting, and concerns about crime.

Bell Jewelers, the oldest jewelry store in downtown Murfreesboro, Tenn., relocated despite a revitalization project led by Bell owner Blake Tidwell. Although the project included a parking garage for retail customers, insufficient parking remained a problem. Lawyers, their clients, and courthouse staff parked all day in designated retail parking areas, and neither town nor county did anything about it.

?People told us they drove around the block 12 times before finding a parking space,? says Tidwell. Over time, fewer people visited downtown. ?Our business was good, but our customer base wasn?t growing. Those we lost to job transfers, moves, or death weren?t being replaced, so we had to do something.?

Freestanding stores. The answer for these jewelers?and, increasingly, others with similar problems?is relocation to freestanding stores, usually on major roadways near malls or retail centers. But escaping the problems associated with malls and downtowns isn?t the only reason for such a move. Bridel cites ?the prestige of establishing oneself as a ?destination shop? rather than just another store in a mall.? Deters says, ?You control your own destiny, and no one dictates to you.?

A freestanding store also gives a retailer high visibility, especially if it includes features to catch the eye of passing motorists and pedestrians, such as the 30-ft. sculpture and fountain in front of David Nygaard Fine Jewelers in Virginia Beach, Va.

Many successful jewelers in malls, shopping strips, or downtown locations simply ?need more space to be full-service stores,? says Talcott, and a freestanding store built or remodeled to order can provide it. ?They need it for more merchandise, for [custom jewelry] manufacturing, and for venting for repair.? She also cites special services, such as a media room where a visitor can watch television while his or her spouse shops, or a room where children can play.

Sites Jewelers? freestanding store has a number of features that its former mall store and downtown stores couldn?t accommodate. These include a computer section, for working with clients on custom-designed jewelry; a jewelry manufacturing area; and an expanded repair department on the main floor, behind glass (?to let customers watch, and take the mystery out of it,? says Bill Sites). A 210-ft. bridal section showcases price-oriented displays, a customer lounge offers cappuccino and a juice bar, and a children?s area shows videos of children?s TV shows.

Location, location, location. Anyone considering sites for a freestanding store should look for one that?s visible from the curb on major roadways near malls and retail centers. It should allow easy entry and egress (important for older customers) and have plenty of room for parking.

An ideal choice is a former bank. ?Banks are perfect,? says Talcott, ?primarily because of their vaults? and because they?re usually in high-traffic areas and good neighborhoods. Paul Deters bought a former bank in Evansville, Ind., and is glad he did. ?It gave us a huge walk-in vault, and the location is good, right across the street from a major entrance to the mall. About 55,000 cars a day go by.?

In 1998, he consolidated his mall and downtown stores into the 4,000-sq.-ft. building. The 2,200-sq.-ft. bank lobby was renovated and transformed into a jewelry showroom, and the 1,800-sq.-ft. drive-through area was enclosed as office space. ?In this day and age when many banks have foreclosed on financially troubled jewelers, it?s a strange twist when a jeweler takes over a bank,? Deters muses.

Don?t rush. If you decide to relocate to a freestanding building, expect a period of years, not months, between the time you make the decision and the day you open. Patience is paramount. David Nygaard spotted the bank building he wanted five years before he was able to buy it. ?I just said, ?Lord, if you want me to have it, I?ll be able to someday.? ? Sites spent months driving around with a video camera taping potential locations. Bell Jewelers? relocation took four years, including two years of planning and looking for a site.

Deters started looking in 1991, bought the former bank building in late 1995, and, with his co-owner sister, began a two-year remodeling project in 1996. He considers the lengthy time frame an advantage. ?It gave us time to do more shopping for merchandise and oversee how our display cases were being made, and when we let bids out for construction, we didn?t have to take the first one, because we had the cushion of plenty of time.?

Your research should include discussions with retailers who have gone through a relocation. ?The most important thing I did happened before I got deeply into relocating,? says Bell Jewelers? Tidwell. ?I sat down with people who had done it. I found out their mistakes and learned about negotiating with contractors and how to plan a move.? His discussions persuaded him to abandon a plan to build near his former downtown location, a move that he says ?would have been a disaster.?

Deters and his sister read about other retailers in trade magazines and visited stores personally before creating the design for theirs. Their research also led them to use features such as low-voltage lights, something they might not have done on their own.

Other subjects to investigate include traffic volume and retail and commercial plans for your community. Relevant studies are available at municipal or county zoning or planning departments. Tidwell, for example, found highway studies at his hometown?s planning office that indicated a daily traffic flow of some 39,000 cars past the corner he was considering.

Continue to pay close attention to your project after work has begun, especially if you use a residential rather than a commercial contractor.

Tidwell visited his construction site at 6 a.m. each day to make sure the workers were building it the way he wanted. Sites found during construction that his architect hadn?t taken security features into consideration. Bell discovered a city storm sewer running through his property that he hadn?t been told about.

Informing your customers. ?You may have spent 20 years doing business in [your old] location, but that?s no guarantee your customers will follow you to the new store,? warns Wright. ?You need a strategy to capture as many old customers as possible.? Strategies range from the obvious to the inspired.

  • Deters Jewelers informed hundreds of customers on its mailing and billing lists of its plans to relocate. It provided updates through newsletters and periodic reports.

  • Bell Jewelers, a Rolex dealer, installed a 5-ft.-wide Rolex clock over the new store?s entrance during construction. ?You can?t believe the number of people coming by to check their time with the Rolex,? says Tidwell.

  • Bell also held a ?moving sale,? the largest sale in the company?s history. For 10 days, radio and newspaper ads urged consumers to look for a ?major announcement by Bell Jewelers.? Days before the sale, the jeweler announced it was relocating and would hold a ?phenomenal moving sale,? with price reductions of up to 75%. ?We were closed for one day to prepare for the sale, reopened at 5 p.m., and sold everything that day, down to the fixtures,? says Tidwell. ?None of it was new merchandise. After 100 years in business, we had tons of stuff to get rid of that we weren?t taking with us.? The sale not only publicized Bell?s move but also made enough money to pay for it.

  • Sites Jewelers informed customers by word-of-mouth, newspaper ads, a radio campaign, and a three-month grand opening that included a ?very large promotion? featuring the ?Treasures of the Atocha.? That was ?the single best thing we did,? says Sites. So many people came to see the golden treasures that a tent had to be set up to accommodate the crowds.

  • To make sure a competitor didn?t get his former site, Nygaard kept his old store open for months, manned by a staff member who greeted customers who didn?t know about the move. The staffer gave them maps to the new store and $25 gift certificates. ?According to Wharton Business School studies, stores lose 20% of their business when they move,? says Nygaard. ?I don?t think we lost anyone.?

Counting the cost. Relocating to a freestanding store site can be expensive. The move, including land purchase, building, and renovations, cost the jewelers interviewed for this article between $500,000 and $1.5 million.

To reduce costs, some jewelers take their cases and fixtures with them. Tidwell used money from the sale of his downtown building (which he leased back for 18 months until his new store was ready) to pay the property costs of the new site. Nygaard and his family helped remodel the interior of the former bank building he bought. His wife wallpapered, his mother reupholstered chairs, and Nygaard helped with demolition inside during construction.

?We knew up front this was going to be expensive,? says Deters of his relocation project. ?I hope I never have to move again, but it was worth it.? All the jewelers interviewed for this story have seen business increase significantly since switching to a freestanding location.

Starting Over

Relocating isn?t just about finding a good site or planning a terrific new store. ?It?s also a great time to start over,? says retail jewelry consultant Janice Mack Talcott, a partner in Performance Concepts. ?That means taking a serious look at your business practices, your professionalism, and your customer service. Now is the time to make corrections and do it right in your new store.?

If you don?t have an employee manual or regular staff training, relocating may be the signal that it?s time to implement them. If you want to change your image, a move may present the perfect opportunity to do so. Deters Jewelers in Evansville, Ind., wanted to get out of tabletop ware and its bridal registry and dropped them when it relocated. Sites Jewelers, Clarksville, Tenn., wanted to build a bridal business and devoted a large section of its new store to it.

?Relocation is the perfect time to do all of these sorts of things,? says Talcott.

Relocation Pros & Cons

So you have decided to relocate?but where? There are four main possibilities: malls, neighborhood shopping or ?strip? centers, downtowns, and freestanding buildings. Each option has its strengths and flaws.

Malls

Pro. With easy access and plentiful parking, well-planned malls attract more customers than downtowns or strip centers. Independent jewelers have an advantage over chain jewelers in malls, according to experts, because local stores have a better sense of community tastes. And independents may be able to negotiate better terms now because of a proliferation of empty mall space across the country.

Con. Malls are expensive; jewelers pay some of the highest per-square-foot rent of any tenant. As malls increasingly become entertainment centers?with cineplexes, food courts, theme restaurants, and other attractions?tenants? costs are likely to rise. Most malls become an unwanted business partner with their tenants, regulating business hours, advertising, and even when a store must remodel.

Neighborhood Shopping Centers

Pro. Also called highway shopping strips, these are well suited to jewelers who rely on ?neighborhood jeweler? status. They make it easier to build up a loyal clientele. They?re also nibbling away at some of the business that used to go exclusively to malls, as more consumers are drawn to ?street-front retailing.? With at-the-door parking in uncrowded lots, strip centers are more convenient than malls and downtowns. They?re less likely to dictate store hours, décor, or advertising, and their costs are lower than malls?.

Con. Strip centers attract less traffic than malls do, and fewer browsers who might become buyers. Patrons of neighborhood strips usually go there with a specific purchase or errand in mind, so strip center tenants may have to do more advertising. Bad weather can close neighborhood centers or keep patrons away. Neighborhood strips have the same security concerns as downtowns, more so than in malls.

Downtowns

Pro. Rents are usually lower downtown than in malls, and proximity to business, legal, and office centers provides an upscale clientele during daytime and early evening. Many downtowns are being revitalized, and their galleries and fine restaurants are attracting a more affluent and sophisticated clientele than in years past.

Con. Many downtowns still struggle with problems of insufficient parking, inadequate nighttime lighting, empty buildings, and concerns about safety. A downtown jeweler has no control over surrounding businesses or city government actions?such as tearing up the street in front of your store to repair sewer pipes. And robbers are more likely to hit a downtown or strip center store than a mall jeweler?getaways in the streets are easier. So tight store security and a strong local merchants association are necessities.

Freestanding Buildings

Pro. As the accompanying article points out, a freestanding location becomes a destination store, meaning people don?t just wander in as they do in malls. It provides high visibility and distinguishes you from the crowd of competitors in the malls. You control your business and, with more space, can offer additional services. Jewelers who have relocated to freestanding stores say that, despite some problems, they do better business than in their former mall or downtown locations.

Con. A freestanding store is a big investment. Costs can exceed $1 million. If the site isn?t near a high-traffic area, a jeweler may have to spend more on advertising and marketing.