Some local stores thrive amidst worry for regional malls

WILLIAMSVILLE, N.Y. (WIVB)- Nathan Mroz owns BFLO Gallery and Gift Shop, a brick and mortar Buffalo-themed store in the Eastern Hills Mall.

The 23-year-old entrepreneur is a bit of an Oxymoron; this Millennial is making money where big box stores like American Eagle struggled.

“Where these national stores are closing, it presents a new opportunity for local stores like myself,” he told News 4 while standing in his flagship store.

Mroz also runs a BFLO shop at McKinley Mall.

He used to have space at the Walden Galleria, but rent was too high for him there, so he turned his focus to his flagship store at Eastern Hills, which he recently expanded.

“The shopping experience has changed dramatically in the last 10 to 20 years,” explained UB Marketing professor, Charles Lindsey,

Lindsey said it’s Millennials that are doing much of the changing; they’re spending less, and doing more shopping online.

“You go to a store, a bricks and mortar store. You might compare some items, some brands, and then you get on your smart phone and then you actually order it online,” he said.

The practice is called ‘showrooming,’ and Lindsey said Millennials have mastered it.

It’s not all bad news from brick and mortar locations though, the professor told us.

While stores like Banana Republic and The Gap have downsized; their cheaper, sister store, Old Navy, seems to be doing okay according to Lindsey.

Dollar Stores are also thriving. He said it’s a reflection of shoppers wanting to spend less.

Before Gwen Ruppert was hired by Mroz as an assistant manager, she worked at one of those national stores.

“We started off with integrating our stores. From kids stores and having two managers to having one store, then payroll went down,” Ruppert said.

With decades of sales experience, the industry veteran brought her expertise to BFLO. It’s the small, family vibe Ruppert said, that separates working at large national stores and BFLO.

“You started seeing a lot of strong employees and managers leave the company because of, there was no more benefits. Because they were only working 30 hours and they were hoping for full time. So I did see the change in that, and that’s because a lot of online sales.”

Mroz isn’t immune to the online giant; he’s using social media as way to lure shoppers inside Eastern Hills, a mall that’s purposefully tried to bring in more locally owned, specialty shops as opposed to big box stores.

The mall’s general manager Russell Fulton noted that while American Eagle Outfitter closed, BFLO opened. He also made the comparison between Dave & Busters, which closed, to the locally owned Rocky’s Big Games & Sports Bar, which is now open at Eastern Hills.

Mroz moved his shop into the mall about two years ago.

“The following year, we doubled pretty much the sales in that same quarter. And granted, that’s in a mall that continues to lose big name stores but at the same time continues to re-invent itself. We’re the “Elmwood the East” as they call it. A lot more locally owned shops.”

Lindsey said local stores can sometimes renegotiate their contracts with malls when large anchor stores close, as they risk losing the foot traffic they might bring in.

So far, Mroz isn’t feeling the heat, but he said to keep shoppers wanting to visit his physical shop, he offers free holiday gift wrapping with free boxes; a service some large national stores have done away with.

Lindsey isn’t convinced small and regional shopping malls are doomed, but he said they’re changing.

The ones that adapt, he feels might have a bright future.

MORE | Online companies and omni-channel retail 

Companies like Amazon are recognizing the benefit of brick and mortar locations the same way physical stores are seeing the benefit of connecting with consumers online.

Lindsey said ‘omni-channeling’ is becoming the new norm for successful retailers. It’s the practice of integrating multiple platforms of shopping.

An example the professor used was Amazon’s pop-up shops on the east coast, or its grocery store in Seattle. Retailers must recognize, Lindsey explained, that their consumers want more than one experience, so they need to offer it.

It’s also part of the reason he believes the online giant sought to acquire Whole Foods.

Additionally, malls that offer multiple experiences tend to attract more shoppers. For example, adding new entertainment options like lazer tag or ‘escape rooms,’ is one way regional malls have stayed afloat.

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