September 9, 2013

Bon-Ton store fills void at Maine Mall

Amid challenging times for regional malls comes a rare achievement in South Portland – no vacancies.

By Jessica Hall jhall@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

SOUTH PORTLAND — Retailers hope the arrival this week of Bon-Ton Stores Inc. as an anchor tenant at the Maine Mall will increase foot traffic and sales at the shopping center, but sluggish retail sales nationally and competition from online shopping sites are likely to keep diverting customer spending from traditional department stores.

Today's poll: Bon-Ton

Do you plan to shop at the new Bon-Ton store in the Maine Mall?

Yes

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Bon-Ton is set to open Thursday at the Maine Mall, filling the site of the former Filene’s. The store sells a mix of high- and moderate-priced products and will employ about 170 people.

Carl D. Walsh/Staff Photographer

Those stores are banking on cosmetic changes in the stores and features such as customer service and high-end brands to bring in shoppers, especially in time for the peak holiday shopping season.

The arrival of the York, Pa.-based chain puts the Maine Mall, which has more than 1 million square feet of retail space, at 100 percent capacity, which is unusual for regional malls. Nationally, the vacancy rate at malls hovered at 8.6 percent in the fourth quarter last year, according to real estate research firm Reis Inc. That compares with an 11-year high of 9.4 percent in the third quarter of 2011 and a low of 4.9 percent in the second quarter of 2001.

Nationally, the outlook for retail sales has been lackluster. Retail sales in August were weak for the usually lucrative back-to-school season, the second-biggest shopping period of the year behind the winter holidays.

For the nine U.S. retail chains that reported August sales for stores open more than a year, sales rose 2.9 percent, falling short of Wall Street expectations.

Karen Pelletier of Portland said she knew Bon-Ton was opening soon because she had seen advertisements on city buses around town, but said she didn’t plan to make a point of stopping by to check out the new store.

“I try shopping online mostly. I don’t window-shop,” Pelletier said. “Sometimes you want to touch and feel something, so it’s good to come in person. But I often use technology to find a cheaper price.”

The growth in retail sales in South Portland, where the Maine Mall is located, has outpaced sales growth for the state as a whole, said James McConnon, a professor of economics at the University of Maine.

In 2012, South Portland consumer sales rose 4.5 percent from 2011, while general merchandise sales rose 4 percent. That surpassed statewide growth of 3.3 percent in consumer sales and 2 percent in general merchandise sales, McConnon said.

In the first six months of 2013, both consumer and general merchandise sales in South Portland rose 4.8 percent versus the same period a year earlier. That compared with the state growth of 2.7 percent in consumer sales and 1.5 percent in general merchandise sales in the same period, McConnon said.

“South Portland has been performing very well as a retail community. That Bon-Ton wants to be part of this indicates that they think they can generate sales,” McConnon said.

Bon-Ton is set to open Thursday, filling the site vacated by Filene’s in 2006. It will join Macy’s, Sears and J.C. Penney as the mall’s anchor tenants.

“We’re always looking for opportunities, and the Maine Mall itself was a draw. To have a mall with 100 percent occupancy is pretty rare these days,” said Alton Walker, vice president and regional store director for Bon-Ton.

Walker admits the store has yet to carve out an identity in the state. The Maine Mall location is its first in Maine and the name and brand are still unknown here.

“People don’t know what a Bon-Ton is. I’ve heard everything from candy store to Chinese restaurant,” Walker said.

Marybeth Ford of Brunswick had a typical reaction to the news that Bon-Ton was opening. She said she’s not a frequent mall shopper.

“I don’t come often. I didn’t even know Filene’s was gone,” Ford said. “I’m not a big consumer.”

(Continued on page 2)

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Today's poll: Bon-Ton

Do you plan to shop at the new Bon-Ton store in the Maine Mall?

Yes

No

View Results