Westfield Garden State Plaza in Paramus, N.J. is one of the top-performing malls in America, and it typically has a waiting list of marquee retail and entertainment tenants vying for the right space at the mall to become available.
But now, the mall is realizing its future lies not just in getting the right big name, national tenants, but also in opening its doors to the right local business owners.
The mall has partnered with one of the state’s Small Business Development Centers to make it easier for small businesses, particularly minority and women-owned companies, to become mall tenants, without the initial investment or long-term commitments typically involved in opening a store at a mega-mall.
The mall is offering flexible, short-term lease options, and matching small business owners with move-in-ready spaces where they can start selling almost immediately, without major buildout costs.
The small business owners benefit from having access to the foot traffic, sales, and word of mouth that comes from being at a mall that draws over 18 million visitors a year, even during a pandemic.
The program, which the Plaza’s parent company, Unibail-Rodamco-Westfield, is planning to roll out to its other Westfield malls, could prove to be a smart strategy at a time when the majority of consumers say they are more eager to support small businesses, and to shop local, due to the pandemic.
The initiative is designed “to bring Main Street to the main stage,” said Chris Neidhardt, director of leasing at Westfield Garden State Plaza. But it also is intended to reach businesses beyond traditional mom-and-pop shops on Main Street, Neidhardt said. “It can be digitally native brands, first-to-market brands,” and even entrepreneurs creating products out of their homes, he said.
The program was first conceived by mall executives at a time when the pandemic was shutting down Main Street business and also was creating vacant spaces in the mall.
Westfield Garden State Plaza partnered with the New Jersey Small Business Development Center based at the nearby Ramapo College. “We were pleased that the mall leadership was trying to bring the community into the mall under terms that are reasonable for small businesses to make that leap,” said Vince Vicari, regional director of the Small Business Development Center (SBDC).
The mall and the SBDC hosted a meeting in February to introduce local small businesses to opportunities at the mall. That meeting generated interest from about 200 businesses, Tiffany Ramirez, marketing manager at Westfield Garden State Plaza said.
Small business attendees told the mall “this is a dream for me to have a store at Garden State Plaza,” Ramirez said.
“They looked at the mall as a huge conglomerate that is scary to enter,” Ramirez said. “We wanted to break down that barrier for them and show them that there’s opportunity here and support them,” she said.
One of the first business owners to open at the mall through the program, Erika Oldham, owner of Chic Sugars, a bakery that sells custom cakes, cupcakes, cookies, cake pops, cake jars, and other desserts, said she was amazed at how quick and easy it was for her to open at the mall.
Oldham has been operating her business for more than a decade, and also has a store in downtown Englewood, N.J.
She had approached the mall about opening a dessert vending machine, and Neidhardt showed her a move-in ready kiosk in a prime mall location that had been vacated by a previous food tenant.
“Once we started talking numbers, it seemed like a good play to get us in front of the masses, one that would enlarge our footprint at a much lower entrance fee than what I had just spent to build my store in Englewood,” said Oldham, who has been a finalist on the Food Network’s Winner Cake All show.
Since opening at the beginning of April, Oldham has been pleased with how her Chic Sugars mall kiosk has been performing. A number of her most popular items, like macarons and cake jars, have been selling out every day, and she has been seeing double digit sales growth since opening.
Oldham also has produced themed cupcakes for mall events, and movie openings at the mall’s AMC multiplex, and is talking with restaurants at the mall about providing custom cakes and other desserts.
The kiosk also is great advertising for her Englewood store, and her custom cake business, Oldham said. “It’s getting us in front of people that we wouldn’t neccessarily have the ability to be in front of,” she said.
Tonnie Rozier, owner of Tonnie’s Minis, a dessert bakery with a store in Newark, N.J. and one set to open in Edgewater, N.J. said when he heard about the Garden State Plaza initiative he met with Neidhardt and Ramirez and decided immediately that “I want in.”
“I wasn’t really looking for another space at the time, but when I saw the mall and I saw the numbers and saw the opportunity.” he decided it was too good to pass up, Rozier said.
“I’ve tried to go into other malls in the past,” and the typical mall leasing requirements make it hard for small businesses to break in, Rozier said.
The Plaza offered him a short term lease which will let him see if the mall is a good fit for his products, and an already built-out space.
“The opportunity to go into a space without a heavy down payment is a huge break for small businesses,” he said.
The mall and the tenants did not reveal what the small business tenants are paying for rent. and mall offiicials said they couldn’t cite a typical rent a business might expect to pay because rents vary greatly based on location and leasing terms.
Vicari of the SBDC said the goal of the program is to recommend small businesses that can succeed in a location at the mall while paying market rates for rent and other expenses, not to rely on incentives or discounts. The SBDC provides advice and support and seeks to recommend businesses that would be a good fit for the program, he said.
“We want to make sure they are going to be able to make money,” he said.
Unlike big national retailers, small businesses who are considering a new location “have to get it right the first time,” Vicari said. “When you’re a small business you can’t go back in the till and keep paying for mistakes you made along the way,” he said.