At many malls, anchors are going away

At many malls, anchors are going away

CHAMPAIGN — As a former Bergner's manager, Michael Ujcich saw firsthand some of the blunders that led to demise of the retailer and its parent company, Bon-Ton Stores.

Once a store with plentiful sales help, the Champaign Bergner's employed fewer people over the years, he recalled. The company was also late to offer an online shopping option.

And a "close-to-home" concept targeting merchandise to stores' home communities — such as Illini orange purses and shirts for Champaign — came along "almost a little too late," said Ujcich, who managed Bergner's at Market Place Mall from 2012 to 2017.

"I think more of it was not staying in tune with the market, and second was staffing," Ujcich said soon after the Aug. 29 closing of Bergner's and all other department stores under the Bon-Ton umbrella.

"People would say, I remember when you had lots of help," he said. "People would remember how many registers there used to be."

The closings leave Market Place and dozens of other malls with more cavernous anchor spaces to fill — at a time many surviving department store chains are cutting their brick-and-mortar locations by the hundreds.

"Every option is on the table for a space like that," said Market Place General Manager Dennis Robertson. "There are fewer department stores interested in space than in years past, so we're just looking at all the options."

Three of Market Place's four anchor spaces remain occupied — by J.C. Penney, Macy's and Dick's Sporting Goods/Field & Stream, which took over the former Sears space.

Nearby Eastland Mall in Bloomington lost its Bergner's, J.C. Penney and Macy's stores — and it's about to lose a fourth department store anchor when its Sears closes in November.

Springfield's White Oaks Mall took a double hit in late August when both its Sears and Bergner's closed, leaving Macy's as its only remaining department store anchor. A Dick's Sporting Goods is in that mall's fourth anchor spot.

Both Sears and Bergner's spaces at White Oaks Mall are owned by the two retailers, according to mall marketing manager Lori Kiel.

"We don't have any information to share right now on the selling of those two spaces," she said.


New look in Bloomington

While online shopping and more choices in physical locations to shop have upped competition for department stores and their malls, today's consumers are looking for more than retail to make a trip to the mall worthwhile. They also want entertainment and an experience.

Tennessee-based CBL Properties, owner of Eastland Mall, launched a redevelopment plan earlier this year for Eastland's J.C. Penney space that promises to mix things up a bit with a Planet Fitness, H&M clothing store and a freestanding Outback Steakhouse in the parking lot.

"We're trying to expand from being more retail focus," said CBL spokeswoman Stacey Keating. "Now we're going back and kind of blowing all that up and replacing these anchor stores with a variety of other uses."

CBL is still evaluating options for Eastland's vacant Bergner's and Macy's spaces, Keating said. Department stores aren't out of the picture, she said, but malls don't need as many of them as they used to.

"I think, speaking broadly, people are looking for more of an experience, and that's what we're trying to incorporate into our properties," she said.

A transformation of the former Sears space in CBL's Brookfield Square in Milwaukee, for example, is bringing in two new entertainment draws — a Marcus Theaters Bistroplex, which combines a nine-screen cinema with dining and a bar, and an adjacent WhirlyBall featuring a full-service restaurant and bar with entertainment such as bumper cars, bowling and laser tag.

Coming this year to the former Macy's space at CBL's Jefferson Mall in Louisville is a Round One Entertainment, featuring a restaurant, bowling, arcade, pool tables and karaoke, Keating said.

Brookfield Property Partners — the company that last month finalized its purchase of Market Place's former owner, General Growth Properties, views today's malls as lifestyle destinations that combine retail, leisure and dining.

The company's retail group didn't return a call to The News-Gazette, but an Aug. 28 post on its website sheds some light on how Brookfield intends to transform retail spaces for the next generation with fitness centers, groceries, entertainment concepts and other non-traditional mall tenants.

It's not all just about the merchandise mix, the company said.

"One of the biggest things being done to affect this change is engaging hospitality rather than traditional retail architects," said Brookfield retail executive Vice President Richard Pesin. "When you're in a good hotel lobby, you know it — you want to hang out there. The architects we're engaging are trying to re-create places where people want to dwell and stay. The space inside won't feel so cavernous and will be more inviting."


'A tremendous asset'

Communities may be losing more than they know when their decades-old department stores die.

Bergner's employees dug deep for the United Way of Champaign County's annual fundraising campaigns, donating $15,000 over the last five years, according to Nancy Suchomski, the nonprofit's director of workplace campaign development.

The store was also a big supporter of the United Way's annual "Power of the Purse" fundraiser, with its staff setting aside purses considered to be special and providing them to United Way at deep discounts, she said.

"We're going to miss them tremendously," Suchomski said. "They were a tremendous asset to our community."

Ujcich, who now works for the local nonprofit Courage Connection, recalled other community fundraisers hosted by Bergner's.

One offered nonprofits the opportunity to keep all the proceeds from books of coupons they sold. Another provided discounts in exchange for donations of used clothing given to Goodwill Industries.

"It wasn't uncommon to fill a 52-foot semi with clothing," he said.


Suits and furniture

Ujcich, who worked decades in retail management and was also a furniture consultant for Bergner's before the store closed, saw marked changes over the years.

He first worked for Bergner's in its early years while a University of Illinois student. Back then, Bergner's had lots of sales help, a much larger management team, a second-story restaurant overlooking the mall, major appliances and sporting goods departments, even a hair salon, he said.

"We had a lot of people on the floor to help you make your selection, answer your questions and actually sell," he recalled.

The impact that can have on customer loyalty was illustrated in one of the store's departments that continued to sell well — men's suits, Ujcich said. An employee in that department who worked one-on-one with customers outfitted many of the community's male professionals — and was consistently among the top 30 associates for all of Bon-Ton Stores, Ujcich said.

Bergner's furniture department also drew loyal customers who watched for and shopped the sales — though furniture was a recent addition before the store closed, he said.

"Unfortunately, it was only on the floor a year-and-a-half," he said.

As he's been out in the community on behalf of Courage Connection, Ujcich said he's heard many people say they'll miss Bergner's. Where will they shop for wedding presents? Who will help them choose ties?

He also sees several department store chains out there that are getting it right — Nordstom, Von Maur and Boscov's, to name a few.

Von Maur in Normal is a smaller store, he said, but it's got traffic.

"You never feel there's nobody there to help you," he said.

Under new management

Champaign’s Market Place Mall changed hands Aug. 28 with Brookfield Property Partners’ acquisition of Chicago-based General Growth Properties. Here are a three things to know about the new owner:

➜ Commercial real-estate giant Brookfield paid $9.25 billion cash for the remaining share (about two-thirds) of GGP it didn’t already own.

➜ As of last month, Brookfield Property Partners listed total assets of about $90 billion in office and retail properties, along with interests in multifamily, industrial, hospitality and other asset categories.

➜ By adding GGP and its roughly 120 malls, Brookfield retail properties now include (in addition to Market Place Mall) such Illinois malls as Chicago’s Water Tower Place and suburban Oakbrook Center, Northbrook Court and Spring Hill Mall.

Going or gone

Department store stalwarts that were once foundations of Midwestern malls have been steadily tumbling as shopping habits have changed. Some of the bloodbath:

➜ Macy’s: Announced plans in 2016 to close 100 underperforming stores, with the first 68 gone last year. At the start of this year, 11 more locations were added to the hit list.

➜ J.C. Penney: Closed about 140 stores last year; eight closings added for this year.

➜ Sears Holdings: 46 Sears and Kmart stores are set to close in November. That follows several hundred additional Sears and Kmart store closings since 2017.

➜ Bon-Ton Stores: A bankruptcy filing set in motion the Aug. 29 closing of more than 250 Bergner’s, Boston Store, Carson’s, Elder-Beerman, Herberger’s and Younkers stores.

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