Retail Reopening Q&A with West Acres Development CEO, Brad Schlossman
Over the past couple of years, malls have had to reinvent and become innovative with their strategies to encourage consumer spending onsite versus online. The pandemic's infiltration threw a wrench into these ongoing plans, forcing shoppers home for their safety and the community's as well. While Governor Burgum did not mandate stay-at-home orders for North Dakota, many retailers closed shop and now are in their initial steps of reopening to a new world where touching/feeling is discouraged and social distancing is required.
GNDC recently sat down with West Acres visionary and CEO, Brad Schlossman. The shopping center in Fargo, which opened in 1972 with 52 stores, now holds over 100 stores. Schlossman opened the conversation with a statement of appreciation: "I would like to express gratitude to our customers, our teams, and our stores for doing what it takes to re-open in our new normal."
GNDC: West Acres re-opened on May 1. How long was the mall closed? Please share some of what went into the decision to re-open and how you prepared.
Schlossman: We were closed for a total of 7 weeks starting on March 20. We re-opened on Friday, May 8. We closed voluntarily when Governor Burgum directed that gathering places be closed. As the most visited venue in the state, closing was the right choice for the safety of our community. At the time, about three-quarters of our stores had already closed including all three anchors. The decision to re-open was based on the evaluation of the data, the guidance from Governor Burgum, and Mayor Mahoney. Prior to reopening, we worked diligently through a re-opening strategy to ensure we opened in the safest way possible.
Tell us about the first weekend’s traffic – have you heard anything from individual stores?
The first weekend exceeded my expectations, but it was not at pre-COVID levels. We had roughly one-third of our stores open for business. Many of the stores that did open, which were largely the locally owned stores, did well. In our opinion, a gradual re-opening is a sensible way to ensure that everyone is staying safe. Our position is that we want to do this right, not do it fast. When I walked through the mall on Friday, I had a sense of relief at how “normal” it felt to me. Even though the many changes we’ve made, including removing the furniture in the mall, having limited seating in the food court, and safety messaging throughout, the mall still felt inviting. It was great to see our teams, store employees, and customers back in the mall again.
Do you have any insight into the outlook of retail?
A crystal ball would really come in handy! Joking aside, there really is no template for anything like this as it is unprecedented. We have nothing to go by other than general expectations, which are that it will open slowly and that the recovery will be gradual. We believe that some stores that were struggling before COVID hit may remain closed. West Acres as a whole and West Acres, as a company, was in good shape going into this. That puts us in a good position to thrive in the long run.
Are any of your stores or food services doing delivery, curbside, or online ordering? Is West Acres promoting or assisting in this at all?
Yes, we support our stores and their efforts to innovate quickly. Best Buy, Chili’s, Evereve, and several other stores offered curbside pick-up during the shutdown. Now that we are open, we have dedicated spaces specifically for curbside pick-up in the parking lot. Each store can provide its own curbside option. On our website, we have a “CURBSIDE PICKUP AVAILABLE” label next to the stores that are offering this option and also instructions for how curbside pickup works. We think that curbside pickup is here to stay. Many stores were already offering “buy online and pick up in-store” options before this.
Tell us about what this means for your new local offering, the District?
Restaurants have had a tough time during the pandemic. With additional restrictions on them, even now when they can be open. It will be difficult to make the decision to make an investment in a new facility when they will be opening in a less than ideal situation. We do have alternative plans and ideas underway. The nature of our industry, and our long-term success at West Acres, has been our ability to adapt and innovate and we are up to that task.
Tell me about anything you are doing differently within the mall for the safety and peace of mind of your customers and the people working there? Are you keeping the same hours you kept in the past?
For the foreseeable future, a shopping trip to West Acres will feel different. If it didn’t feel different, we wouldn’t be doing our job to protect the community. It is a new normal, but the same mall. We have limited the mall hours to 11:00 am to 6:00 pm. These hours are temporary to start, and we may move the closing time to 7:00 pm if there is support for that. Additionally, other changes include the closure of high-touch amenities, no furniture in the common areas, limited services at Guest Services, altered food court operations, a new policy for minors, and distancing guidelines. All of these changes not only protect our visitors and employees but also give our team the opportunity to place their focus on the extensive cleaning and sanitation standards we have put in place.
Cleanliness has always been a top priority for us, and for the last forty-eight years, our teams have done an excellent job keeping the mall clean. It is not as if we had to learn a new skill, we just had to ramp it up.
We are also asking our customers to do their part if and when a visit feels right to them. We ask that they protect themselves and others by wearing a mask, participating in physical distancing and of course staying home if they are sick or have been exposed to COVID-19. Additionally, we ask that trips to West Acres are efficient: shop, dine, and head home. One of our greatest joys is being a community gathering space, but now is not the time to come to the mall to hang out. We look forward to the day that we can bring back the special amenities and events that encompass the full West Acres experience for our guests, but we won’t do so until it is deemed safe. Our highest priority is the safety and wellbeing of all the people that make-up West Acres – employees, our community, and our customers.