MainPlace: The Selling Job Isn't Over : The Reborn Mall's Developers Are Happy, but Some Tenants Are Disappointed

Times Staff Writer

If MainPlace/Santa Ana were a movie, Siskel and Ebert would disagree.

Since its premiere nine months ago, the renovated mall has been getting mixed reviews.

Mall executives and anchor tenants say the regional center is doing very well. But some of its merchants are far from being fans.

A number of retailers at MainPlace complain about lack of business, inadequate promotion, high costs and the mall's difficulty establishing its image. And while most are quick to point out that it typically takes two years for a new mall to become well-established, some merchants are already having their doubts.

"If I had to live on MainPlace, I'd be going hungry," said Don Modica, general manager of Anthony's Shoe Service, which has four other stores in Orange County.

"Whatever kind of advertising they're doing, it's not enough," chimed Brad Mori, manager of J. Herbert Hall Jewellers at MainPlace. "A lot of people don't even realize this mall exists."

That type of sentiment was not unusual among the 18 retailers--out of the mall's 134 current merchants--that were contacted recently by The Times. Of the randomly chosen sample, 14 said that they were disappointed in sales and not meeting projections or indicated that they believe that the mall itself could do better.

Despite evidence of dissatisfied tenants, officials and developers of the newly renovated MainPlace say the mall's outlook is bright.

"The center is doing extremely well," said Stan Eichelbaum, senior vice president of marketing for Cincinnati-based JMB/Federated, codeveloper of MainPlace. "I imagine you could find a few tenants who aren't successful, (but) business is lethargic across the country.

"MainPlace is certainly keeping pace with anything in the country right now."

Industry observers agree that MainPlace appears to be busy. And some shakeout is inevitable in any new mall as retailers find themselves catering to an untested clientele, an industry expert said. "It's a fact of life. Some merchants will be unhappy," he said. "They either change themselves or they sell out to somebody who will."

MainPlace now is 78% occupied with 90% of its space now leased--a fairly good showing for a new mall. Sources close to MainPlace said the mall's sales climbed to about $24 million during its first three months in business.

According to Eichelbaum, that has resulted in sales at the center averaging more than a healthy $225 per square foot (excluding anchor tenants). Merchants were told by the mall that fourth-quarter sales for 1987 averaged $260-$267 per-square-foot, then dropped to $229.14 per-square-foot in the first quarter of this year.

By comparison, South Coast Plaza's sales averaged $370 per square foot. Brea Mall reached $237 per square foot last year and the Mall of Orange hit $238. Buena Park recorded slightly over $200 per square foot and Anaheim Plaza posted 1987 sales of $140 per square foot.

But competitors and some industry experts question MainPlace's numbers because the $225 figure is an annualized number based on a projection of how the mall would have done had it opened in January, 1987--nine months before shoppers actually set foot in its stores.

"It's really a projection," said a competitor who asked not to be named. The mall "won't know and can't prove those numbers until the end of the third quarter," when MainPlace has been open a full year.

The proof may not be there, but there is no disputing that at least Nordstrom and Bullock's--two of the mall's three anchor tenants--seem to be doing blockbuster business.

The Nordstrom store in Santa Ana "has been exceeding projections from the beginning. It's a very strong store for us," said Betsy Sanders, vice president and general manager of the Seattle-based chain. In fact, the MainPlace Nordstrom has siphoned business from South Coast Plaza, the chain's flagship store just seven miles away.

And Bullock's "has been in the top five of the Bullock's chain" of 22 stores since Feb. 1, said Jack McCarley, a spokesman for the chain.

The stores' apparent success largely stems from MainPlace's $90-million renovation, part of a massive project that took more than 12 years of planning before it finally was completed last fall.

Before that, MainPlace was called Fashion Square.

When it opened in 1958, Fashion Square was the South Coast Plaza of its day. As the second shopping center built in Orange County, "it was the premiere mall. Nothing had ever been built like it with the trees and the landscaping," recalled Sanford Ring, owner of Main Place Optometry, which has been a mall tenant for 25 years.

But as the county grew, retail competition became more fierce at the same time that population growth and money was shifting to south Orange County. In recent years, the center's image slipped severely at the small, 35-store mall with just two anchors--Bullock's and I. Magnin.

"How could it compete with South Coast and Westminster Mall? It just outlived its viability in the marketplace," Ring recalled. By mid-1985, it was one of Orange County's dowdiest and worst-performing malls.

All that changed when Fashion Square became the renovated, all-new MainPlace/Santa Ana.

Along with a name change, the center doubled its size and quadrupled the number of potential tenants to 170 stores. The mall lost I. Magnin but gained Nordstrom.

At the same time, the old-fashioned, open-air mall was transformed into an ultramodern, 1.15-million-square-foot enclosed center with miles of exposed turquoise beams washed in the glare of arched windows, neon art and marble fountains and waterfalls. Overhead, a giant skylight stretches the length of the mall's rooftop, giving MainPlace a bright, airy look.

Its developers--nationally known JMB/Federated and a local investment group headed by Henry T. Segerstrom--reasoned that MainPlace was perfectly located to attract hordes of shoppers.

The center is within a few miles of the interchange of the Santa Ana, Garden Grove and Orange freeways in Santa Ana--the seventh busiest freeway interchange in the nation with 441,000 vehicles zooming through daily.

And it is surrounded by "a population base of probably over 1 million people who didn't have a close-by center," Segerstrom said in an interview when the renovated center opened last September.

For some, MainPlace has lived up to its promise.

In addition to Bullock's and Nordstrom, some retailers say they are doing very well, indeed. Benetton, Brentano's, Fredric H. Rubel Jewelers, Joan Buck, Laura Ashley, Main Place Optometry and Mrs. Field's Cookies are among those that report brisk business in their own stores.

The business is coming from shoppers like Judi Pogor, 41, an assistant director of medical records from Orange. "I like everything about MainPlace. It's the only place I shop," she said during a shopping excursion last weekend. "Orange Mall doesn't have anything, and I hate South Coast--it's just too big and too busy. Here, I can always find something."

Theresa Wilson, a 36-year-old homemaker from Garden Grove, browses at MainPlace about three times a week. "It's relaxing and very elegant without being snooty. I pretend I've got the big bucks," she said.

Because Wilson and her husband just moved into a new home, she economizes by buying clothes at Goodwill or garage sales. But twice a week her family of four goes to MainPlace to eat dinner in the food court. "And I'm always stopping for home decor items" at some of the small, specialty shops in the mall.

But for other retailers--particularly smaller store owners--the mall's popularity seems to be gaining at about the speed of evolution.

"When you don't have a customer till noon, that's pretty sad," said one retailer who has a popular store at South Coast Plaza. "An hour and a half can go by sometimes without a customer in the store."

Roger's Gardens, the nursery and floral shop that was touted as one of MainPlace's big attractions, is "doing all right" although slightly below projections, said store manager Jon Wagner. But "most stores here--especially those without a large number of branches--have large portions of their stock advertised for sale," Wagner said. "That's usually an indication they're pushing for business."

"Most of the food (stores) are having a horrible time," added the owner of a chain of successful restaurants. "There's no nighttime business. . . . We can't operate and lose money."

Already, one store, the Brownie Baker, has abandoned its MainPlace site.

And the center will not meet its developers' early projections of $200 million in sales for its first year of operation. Instead, a more realistic estimate now seems to be that the center will hit that target by the end of 1989, said David Longbine, general manager at MainPlace.

To help drum up business, the mall has started a shuttle-service to Anaheim-area hotels and is considering running ads in Spanish-language newspapers. "We've been very aggressive in going after the tourism trade . . . and surrounding office workers," Longbine said.

The mall runs merchant-participation advertising "14 or 15 times a year" that retailers have the option of participating in, added Judy Bijlani, marketing director.

But merchants counter that on most nights, the shuttle stops running four hours before the mall closes. Many label the promotions as the sort that are unlikely to attract an upscale clientele.

"They've focused on the local vicinity and pitched their ads toward the young mothers with strollers," said one store owner who asked not to be named. "Those are the people who are buying new homes. They don't have a lot of spendable income."

Another retailer with a major clothing chain said the store has had to down-scale its merchandise. "We've done a total turnaround since the grand opening," said the merchant.

"Before, we were selling working and evening clothes . . . for easily $200 and up," the merchant explained. "Now we only sell fun, weekend casual wear for the price-conscious mother who's shopping with her little kids on Saturday. . . . The mall needs to decide who their customer is going to be."

MainPlace draws shoppers from throughout Santa Ana, Anaheim, Tustin, Villa Park, Lemon Heights and as far away as Riverside. General manager Longbine proudly points to preliminary research that showed 25% of the mall's shoppers lived in households with income of more than $50,000 per year. "And it's probably better than that now," he said.

Still, at nearby South Coast Plaza, the mean income of shoppers was $67,100 as of last summer. And according to some MainPlace merchants, the Santa Ana mall is having a tough time competing for high-income shoppers who are used to opening their billfolds at South Coast's dizzying selection of eight anchor stores and 250 smaller retailers.

"We're trying to compete with South Coast, but we're just not in the area for that," said a fast-food retailer who asked not to be named.

Merchants' problems are compounded, some claim, by the mall's lease rates. When required costs--including taxes, insurance, common maintenance and advertising--are added, merchants typically pay about $50 to a hefty $85 per-square-foot. Retailers also pay an average of about $1,100 each quarter to the mall for promotion and advertising.

Then there is added competition from MainPlace's back-yard neighbors including Brea Mall, Anaheim Plaza, Buena Park Mall and Mall of Orange. Two of those--Brea and Mall of Orange--are doing their own renovations that are sure to help them compete with MainPlace's glitzy new look.

MainPlace's management hopes that crowds of eager buyers will flock to the center once it is more fully leased.

By mid-September, 14,000 square feet at MainPlace's front entrance should start to take on a festival atmosphere with the opening of the overdue Christian Farmers Market--an open-air grocery and food court similar to Fashion Island's Atrium Court.


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