Some Retailers Are Looking to Build Stores Up, Not Out


From booksellers to apparel stores, many of the nation's retailers are taking a second look at second floors.

The traditional one-floor store is giving way to two-level layouts as retailers try to inject some interest into their shops and squeeze into popular and pricey shopping districts. Grand stairways, glass-walled elevators and sleek escalators have become standard items in many urban shopping emporiums.

As developer Rick Caruso seeks tenants for the Grove at Farmers Market, a new upscale shopping center he plans to build next year in the densely populated Fairfax district of Los Angeles, he's found substantial interest in altitude.

"They all want to be in a two-story format," said Caruso. "There is much more drama in entering a store with two stories."

With the exception of department stores, most retail chains have preferred to build one-level stores, which are cheaper to construct and operate than multifloored outlets. But as land grows scarce and expensive in urban areas, and many retailers have expanded into rejuvenated downtowns, building up instead of out has made more sense for more retailers.

A second floor has also helped many merchants freshen up stale formats and create distinctive places that set them apart from competitors.

"It's wonderful," said Los Angeles architect Ronald A. Altoon of what he describes as double-level retailing. "It creates a range of spaces and experiences inside."

However, merchants and store designers must overcome the reluctance of many shoppers to trek up a stairway or wait for an elevator ride. "It's a constant battle to get them to the second level," said Bud Cope, vice president of store development for San Francisco-based Williams-Sonoma Inc., which also owns the Pottery Barn housewares chain.

The first rule of designing a two-level outlet is to make sure that the stairs, elevator or escalator to the second floor is visible to shoppers as soon as they enter the store, said Cope. In one of its first multilevel stores, Cope said the company mistakenly hid the escalator from view because it "would be visually displeasing." Sales on the second floor suffered as a result.

"People didn't know how to get upstairs," said Cope. "It was a real learning experience."

Now Cope's designers take pains to create dramatic staircases--such as the concrete and steel stairway in the new Pottery Barn in Old Pasadena--that lead the shopper's eye up to second-floor merchandise. In addition, store designers have cut out large sections of second floor to allow shoppers a peek at what's on sale on the other level.

"It is definitely our most dramatic format," Cope said.

The visual interest created by multilevel stores led developer Caruso to create two-story facades--which include balconies, setbacks and other features--for a one-story shopping center in Calabasas.

"I like the [two-story] format," Caruso said. "You can have more fun with it."

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