Rouse Co. Makes Discounting Work


June 26, 1994|By KEVIN THOMAS

Time was you couldn't beg a good discount retailer to locate in Columbia.

For years, the much-ballyhooed bargain shopping plaza known as Eastgate Mall, which stands virtually empty at the corner of U.S. 1 and Route 175, was the only game in town. And what a losing game it was, with Burlington Coat Factory finally settling in to save the old dinosaur from extinction.

Eastgate still sits there as a reminder that all that glitters is not gold . . . or gold-plated, if you're looking for bargains.

Through an apparent combination of good timing and crafty marketing, discount retailing has finally come to Columbia in a big way.

Snowden Square, the Rouse Co.'s regional shopping center off Snowden River Parkway, is racking up the successes.

Already the home of a BJ's Wholesale Club, Marshall's, Bed, Bath & Beyond, PetsMart and Service Merchandise, Snowden Square will soon have two new, major retailers to boast about.

They include the enormously popular Borders Books & Music, which is planning a 20,000 square-foot super-store for the Square (it already has a store in Baltimore County's Towson), and Zany Brainy, the Philadelphia-based mega-retailer of children's books, music and electronics, which plans to make a 12,000-square-foot store at Snowden Square its first Maryland outlet. A McDonald's indoor play center, called Leaps and Bounds, is also slated to open there next April.

If this trend continues, Columbia may have to fight off the discounters with a stick.

Much of the credit for bringing discount to Columbia has to go to the Rouse Co., which, as a pioneer of indoor suburban malls and urban festival marketplaces, has been practically unfailing in its ability to read the pulse of the buying public.

While Eastgate apparently arrived too soon, the Rouse Co. introduced Snowden Square only within the last few years, delayed somewhat perhaps by the recession. And where Eastgate faltered by rushing ahead with a mish-mash of substandard outlets, Rouse officials approached Snowden Square methodically, adding slowly to its roster of quality discounters.

It's a much better match for the typically upscale but frugal Columbia shopper.

As Columbia has grown, the demographics have worked in favor of supporting more and more retail. As the city's founding development firm, no company has been better poised to take advantage of the changes than Rouse.

By 1990, the average adult in Columbia was 44 years old, married and living in a two-income household averaging $61,000 a year. More than 90 percent of Columbia residents were working full-time and more than half of those considered themselves professionals.

All of this has made for a busy group of people; born to shop, but without a lot of time for hunting down bargains. Columbians want the comfort of going to one location where they can be reasonably assured of getting quality merchandise at a decent price.

Eastgate never offered such assurances, with second-tier discounters selling questionable merchandise in surroundings that, by Columbia standards -- how to say this? -- tended toward slummy.

The Columbia Mall, a bit frayed around the edges these days, is still the grande dame of city shopping.

Its uniqueness, of course, is that it is an enclosed center in the traditional sense, offering not only the convenience of a climate-controlled environment, but a gathering place for the community.

As a town square, it is where we go when we're not as concerned about price, or we just want to have a cup of coffee or a slice of pizza with the kids.

The mall's future lies in attracting another upscale anchor store, something the Rouse Co. has so far been unable to do.

Seattle-based Nordstrom said "no" to the idea several years ago and, thus far, no others have stepped forward.

Department stores haven't been doing well during the last several years, with several, including Columbia Mall mainstay Woodward & Lothrop, filing for bankruptcy.

It may be a long time before the mall gets a major new tenant or the shiny new wing that Rouse officials have been promoting.

In the meantime, Columbians will be doing quite well with the mix of shopping experiences currently being offered.

Kevin Thomas is The Baltimore Sun's editorial writer in Howard County.

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