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Julia Perkins | June 10, 2021 Updated: June 10, 2021 6 a.m.
Danbury Fair mall is bringing in new businesses to fill vacant space, with experts saying malls need to be innovative to survive.
DANBURY — As the Connecticut Post Mall seeks to turn open space into apartments, the Danbury Fair mall says it’s seeing success in attracting new businesses.
Several new stores and a restaurant have opened during the coronavirus pandemic, while Shake Shack and Longhorn Steakhouse are on the way. While the mall still has vacant space, store openings bucks the common thinking that COVID could spell trouble for brick and mortar retail locations, especially malls.
“We’re really seeing some activity in back fills and backfilling some closures that happened due to COVID,” said Maura Ruby, senior property manager for the Danbury Fair mall.
Urban Outfitters, for example, is expected to fill Microsoft’s former spot in the winter, she said. Barbarie’s Grill took over the former Brio Tuscan Grille space.
Malls face challenges competing with the “convenience” of online shopping, said A. Ben Oumlil, a marketing professor with Western Connecticut State University.
“For them to survive in the long run, you have to provide better experiences for the customer, offer more than shops,” he said.
That means amenities like restaurants, gyms and car dealerships that could draw customers in, he said.
The Connecticut Post Mall, meanwhile, is proposing 500 apartments over two phases, in addition to 450,000 square feet of commercial space, two more plazas, a medical center, innovation center and office space.
“This is the kind of creativity and innovation that malls will have to experiment with to try to see what they can do to use the space in ways that support all the activities that are associated with the mall,” said Fred McKinney, the Carlton Highsmith Chair for Innovation & Entrepreneurship and director of the People’s United Center for Innovation & Entrepreneurship at Quinnipiac University.
Health care services are another example of something malls could offer, he said. If the state legalizes recreational marijuana, malls could take advantage of that, too, he said.
Community members have been able to get their COVID-19 shots at a clinic outside the Danbury Fair mall. The mall has long hosted food and blood drives, Ruby said.
A gym is expected to open this year, as well, she said.
Customers have adjusted to using technology and online services during the pandemic, but people are “social beings,” which is an advantage malls have, McKinney said.
“People like to touch and feel what they are about to purchase, at least see it in a non-digital way,” he said.
Still, stores will need to use more technology to please customers, he said.
“The malls have the ability to come back, but that doesn’t guarantee that all the stores that occupy these malls will be as successful because the competitive forces are still there,” McKinney said.
Retailers had a strong 2020 holiday season at Danbury Fair in part because the mall made it easier for people to shop there, Ruby said. The mall expanded hours and offered more curbside pickup and dining takeout. More stores offered shopping by appointment and offered “buy online, pick-up in store” options, she said.
“We met the incredible demands of the past year with best-in-class hygiene and safety protocols, and by providing people with more ways to shop to meet their preferences,” Ruby said in a statement. “Trends that accelerated last year, including curbside pickup and [buy online, pick-up in store], are definitely here to stay.”
Danbury could also take advantage of its proximity to New York, he said.
“There may be some unique opportunities for Danbury to attract more clients from across the border,” McKinney said.
In mid-December, the Barbarie family opened its third restaurant in the city at the mall. The new Barbarie’s Grill joins the family’s Jim Barbarie’s Restaurant and Barbarie’s Black Angus Grill.
Facing the challenges of running a restaurant in COVID-19, the family decided to do what it does best: open another restaurant, said Dean Barbarie, one of the owners.
“COVID really hit the restaurant industry significantly,” he said. “Brio(’s space at the mall) opened up and we rolled the dice. Sometimes you’ve got to do what you've got to do and try it.”
The big draw was that it’s a 500-seat restaurant, which made social distancing easier, Barbarie said.
“We had the ability to really spread people out and make them feel comfortable and safe,” he said.
Longhorn Steakhouse is expected to open this winter, adding more than 60 jobs locally, spokeswoman Brittany Baron said.
“We’ve received outstanding support from the community and look forward to serving expertly crafted steaks to guests once we open our doors,” she said in an email.
During the coronavirus pandemic, Dick’s Sporting Goods remodeled and expanded with an entrance inside the shopping center, Ruby said. Lovisa, a jewelry store, and Rainbow, a clothing retailer, also opened in 2020.
Charming Charlie, a women’s fashion retailer, opened last Friday. For this company, the opening is a homecoming. The retailer had once had a store at the Danbury Fair mall, spokeswoman Madelyn Fitzpatrick said.
“Danbury Mall was a very popular and frequented location in previous years for us/Charming Charlie,” she said in an email. “One of the main strategies for our return was focusing on markets that were historically very successful hence our return to Danbury. There are no significant changes in what fans can expect — we're still the fun, feminine, color-loving, women's accessories brand from before.”
In 2019, the Houston-based company filed for bankruptcy for the second time in less than two years and was expected to close 261 stores nationwide. But the retailer is making a comeback, with plans this year to open 14 locations in New York, California, Texas and the Midwest.
The store at the Danbury Fair mall is Charming Charlie’s only Connecticut location.
So far in 2021, FYE, an entertainment store, and Athleta, a woman’s apparel and gear store, have opened at the Danbury Fair mall. Newbury Comics is coming, Ruby said.
Danbury Fair is owned by Macerich, which owns, operates and develops major retail and mixed-use real estate in the country. The company is able to attract companies through “relationship building,” Ruby said.
“That’s what we have great strength in,” she said. “It’s a proven success story. Danbury Fair is a proven success story that bodes well for anyone looking for space in the market. We are the destination retail hub in the market.”