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May 31, 2021 FOCUS: On The Record - Q&A

With high occupancy rate and new, exclusive tenants, Westfarms mall counteracts retail’s brick-and-mortar struggles

PHOTO | CONTRIBUTED Former Westfarms General Manager Alberto Arebalo recently left for a new job.

When the pandemic hit last March and online retail purchases began to soar, some experts left brick-and-mortar retail for dead.

Indeed, numerous major national brands — including J.C. Penney, Neiman Marcus and the parent companies of Ann Taylor and Men’s Wearhouse — filed for bankruptcy and closed a significant number of stores.

Amid that backdrop, U.S. malls have also taken a beating, but Westfarms in West Hartford seems to be an outlier.

In fact, the 1.3 million-square-foot mall’s occupancy rate prior to and throughout the pandemic has remained at 95% and it was even able to add new retailers over the last year, despite being forced to close for two months in the spring of 2020.

It’s one significant loss was Lord & Taylor, which shuttered all of its U.S. brick-and-mortar locations after filing for bankruptcy in August. But another downsizing national retailer, Nordstrom, decided to maintain its Westfarms outpost.

Now that Connecticut has lifted all business restrictions and more residents continue to get vaccinated, newly-named Westfarms General Manager Alberto Arebalo said he’s got a bullish outlook heading into the rest of this year.

Mall traffic is increasing and sales in key merchandise categories are trending ahead of 2019’s performance pace, he said.

Westfarms mall.

The 48-year-old Arebalo says Westfarms has been able to maintain its competitive edge by recruiting new-to-market retailers — essentially brands not found at nearby shopping centers. That’s a key part of the mall’s overall strategy, he said.

Arebalo comes to Connecticut from Miami where he was director of operations at Dolphin Mall, a 1.4 million-square-foot shopping center. Prior to that, Arebalo worked as the director of operations for Harvard Retail Corp., Urban Retail Properties and StoreTech+ Co.

Dolphin Mall is also owned by Westfarms parent Taubman, which was purchased in December by Simon Property Group Inc.

Arebalo has big shoes to fill having replaced longtime Westfarms General Manager Kevin Keenan, who had a 46-year career at the mall and was well-known within local and national retail circles.

Arebalo says he’s big into analytics and using data to detect consumer trends and behaviors. He also likes to get out on the shopping floors and engage with consumers to understand first-hand their wants and needs.

He recently sat down with Hartford Business Journal for a virtual Q&A. Here’s what he had to say:

Q: It’s a crazy time for brick-and-mortar retail. Why did you want the Westfarms GM job?

It’s almost like a homecoming to me. I am originally from and grew up in Middle Village, Queens, New York. I was in Florida for quite some time helping run Dolphin Mall and it took me awhile to acclimate to south Florida but it won’t take me long to acclimate to Connecticut.

For years the former GM of Westfarms, Kevin Keenan, couldn’t say enough about the Westfarms team and the people here so when the opportunity came up my interest was naturally very high. I came up with my fiancé Braja to visit the area and we both fell in love with the community, and we are looking forward to building our life here.

Q: How has Westfarms handled itself through the pandemic?

I wasn’t here when the pandemic first came to fruition last March when we closed for two months. Taubman took all the state, local and Centers for Disease Control recommendation guidelines and made sure customers were aware of the protocols we put in place, which included a mask mandate, social distancing, hand sanitizer and floor markers that directed traffic.

We also worked with retailers, which adapted and offered in-store pickup options. We also put together a curbside pickup program that proved very popular with customers.

Both addressed ways shoppers could receive goods immediately, particularly if they were not comfortable spending a significant amount of time inside of public spaces.

Q: How has the pandemic impacted the mall’s business operations?

The mall has remained very strong considering the challenging environment.

Our occupancy levels in 2020 and 2021 have remained at roughly 95%, showing that our lineup of brands has resonated with consumers even during the pandemic.

During the last year we also welcomed new-to-market brands, including Fablectics, Warby Parker, Cotton On and Cotton On Kids.

Those are all brands that are new to the Connecticut market.

Meantime, in 2021, month-over-month sales continue to increase. Many tenants are beating not only 2020, but 2019’s sales performance. This is highly encouraging.

Q: Which retail categories are driving the biggest sales increases?

Women’s specialty clothing, junior apparel and fine jewelry are up between 35% and 50% and athletic shoes are up roughly 20%. Traffic is up, occupancy is steady and inventory is back in stores.

Q: What’s driving that uptick?

With shoppers becoming more comfortable indoors, our volume continues to become more consistent with pre-pandemic levels. We are highly optimistic that this trend will continue as even more people become vaccinated.

People are finding their way back out and feeling refreshed and rejuvenated. They are shopping and resetting their wardrobe based on what their current needs are.

Q: Why has Westfarms been able to keep a strong occupancy during the pandemic?

Westfarms offers an exclusive lineup of legacy and contemporary brands, which are resonating with the modern consumer.

We have more than 40 new-to-market stores and restaurants and customers are drawn to the mall in search of that exclusivity.

Westfarms has the only Louis Vuitton, Kate Spade and The North Face in Connecticut, to name just a few exclusive brands. That gives us a competitive advantage and creates a draw for tourists outside the state and all around our state.

Q: How has the past year shaped or changed consumer shopping patterns and demand?

Since reopening in May, we have seen a broadening of our shopper demographics that has contributed to a positive impact on traffic and sales. This includes a younger, more diverse shopper coming to our mall.

In addition, the modern shopper is highly planful. Customers do their research with brands and come intent to visit specific stores to purchase specific merchandise they have identified online.

Customers still like to be involved with what they are purchasing, not just static content on a screen where they don’t know maybe how it fits and feels and how it makes them feel. People still need to find a connection with the products they are buying.

Q: One way the mall makes money is through its advertising platform. Can you provide some examples of companies that use it to spread their message?

Our advertising and activation platforms provide our advertisers with direct access to our customers.

For example, Hartford HealthCare has a wellness lounge here and NBC has a relax and recharge lounge that allows customers to come in, lock up their phones for a recharge, and then they can continue their shopping and go back and retrieve their phone later.

We also launched a digital signage program last year at all the high traffic areas at the mall that’s been hugely successful.

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