Shoppers in Fargo-Moorhead redefine malls while flocking to unique boutiques
For years, you knew what you were getting when you went to a shopping mall. You’d walk through one of the big department stores anchoring the mall, throw a penny or two in the fountain, buy school shoes for the family at Thom McCann and maybe a beef stick or two from Hickory Farms. If you were feeling like a treat, Fannie Farmer candies might hit the spot.
The goal of the earliest shopping malls of the 1950s was to provide convenient one-stop retailing for busy people. As more Americans moved to the suburbs, they didn’t want to fight for a place to park while shopping downtown or put up with inclement weather going from small store to store.
The shopping mall was the answer — ample parking in climate-controlled conditions. Walk-up restaurants joined forces to create food courts. Even Santa had a place to visit with the kids every Christmas. But after more than 50 years, shoppers, including those in Fargo-Moorhead, are going retro by choosing to frequent smaller, specialty boutiques along with the more traditional shopping mall. And even the shopping mall is evolving to meet demand.
“Over the past couple of years, we’ve seen a lot of changes and we’re seizing the opportunity,” said Brad Schlossman, CEO of West Acres Shopping Center in Fargo.
In October 2018, Schlossman unveiled the mall’s plan to shake up its traditional mall with the creation of “The District at West Acres” — a multi-million dollar, 30,000-square-foot space of restaurants and ‘experiences’ for customers.
“Our focus is to provide an experience that our customers want and our community can be proud of,” Schlossman said.
The District features four to five restaurants with a focus on first-to-market, regional and local concepts. Visitors will get to enjoy their food in warmth and comfort indoors in the winter, but on the restaurant’s patios in the summertime — a neighborhood feel that research shows shoppers want.
“The District will create a casual, warm, inviting and unique environment,” Schlossman said. “We are transforming, in order to bring customers in.”
And one way to please those customers once they get in the building is by surrounding them with beautiful things to look at. West Acres has teamed up with The Arts Partnership to turn 6,000 square feet of unoccupied space near Best Buy into 20 studio spaces with tall ceilings and skylights.
“We look at it as a cultural return on investment. It gives a platform for the arts and we think it’s important for the customers to have access to the arts as well,” said Alissa Adams, West Acres senior vice president of marketing and development.
While the city’s largest mall is looking to further enhance the shopper’s experience with open-aired dining and interaction with the arts, smaller shops are relying upon individual relationships and unique products to entice shoppers.
In downtown Fargo, mother/daughter team of Marceia Andreasen and Kelly Falk run the boutique “Kindred People”.
The business partners frequently attend large expos, including the biannual MAGIC fashion marketplace in Las Vegas, to handpick clothing for their stores. Their goal, according to Andreasen, is to buy only one “pack” of fashion items that typically include six of the same product — a decision she said ensures customers will have something unique that 100 other women won't be wearing around town.
“When we go to a market, they ask us, ‘Who is your girl?’ and we say, ‘Everybody,’ ” Andreasen said. "Kindred means people that are kin to each other, so we try to make this a place where there’s something for everyone.”
In south Fargo, Leela & Lavender owners Jill Shea and Laura Polanski wanted to offer shoppers a “style adventure” with variety and diversity while empowering and inspiring women along the way. It must have worked, because their boutique was voted #1 by readers in the “Best Of” Fargo-Moorhead publication in 2018.
“We pride ourselves on strong customer service,” Shea said. ”We believe every woman should feel like she is getting pampered when she comes to Leela.”
Boutique owners know they face real challenges not just from malls and discount stores but from online shopping. They’ve learned to work a little harder to make the shopping experience special from the moment customers walk in the door until they head out with shopping bags in hand.
“We feel the environment is so important to a shopping experience,” Shea said. “We believe our stores should feel like a home. Every one of our stores has a fireplace and a bar. Leela is a venue for our customers to gather and have fun. We offer 'style parties' for our customer to gather, have sips and snacks, socialize and shop for clothing for all facets of her life.”
While boutiques like Leela & Lavender and Kindred People could be considered competitors, they seem to understand there is strength in supporting the growth of Fargo-Moorhead’s boutique community.
“We work very closely with our neighbors and other small businesses in our Blu Water Creek neighborhood,” Shea said. “We feel it’s important to partner with other businesses. We believe we are better together."