Another reason to feel dowdy, courtesy of the almighty marketplace

March 09, 1997|By Elise Armacost

A FEW WEEKS AGO I opened this newspaper to TC depressing sight: a photo of the Williams-Sonoma sign coming down at Owings Mills Mall.

The accompanying story confirmed what I'd been trying to deny since before Saks Fifth Avenue left, as artsy housewares shops and unique boutiques gave way to stores with red discount signs in the windows. Owings Mills isn't Baltimore's answer to New York any more. The Gucci days are gone.

In industry parlance, the mall is being ''repositioned.'' In plain language, that means the classy stores that carried the stuff I finally can afford to buy full-price once in a while couldn't make it and are being replaced by the likes of Sunglass Hut International and Pay-less Shoes.

Going to Owings Mills used to feel special. I was working my first job when it opened in 1986. Every store had panache. I remember a friend suggesting we visit ''just to walk around and look'' -- to feel the marble floors beneath our feet, ooh and ahh at dresses with impressive price tags and rub elbows with shoppers wearing mink coats and dime-sized diamond rings.

''Of course,'' she said, ''we can't buy anything.'' We usually bought something -- a handful of Godiva chocolates, a scarf at Laura Ashley -- and left feeling semi-vogue.

Over the years I bought quite a lot at Owings Mills. It was my favorite mall -- close, pretty and only two stories, which counts for a lot if you're pushing a baby stroller. And once the initial awe wore off I learned you could build a very nice wardrobe if you hit the red-dot sales and end-of-season clearances. Some of the deals were so good I imagine the stores lost money on me. I suppose that means I helped put them out of business, though there's comfort in knowing that in recent years a bigger paycheck made me a bit less careful about bargain hunting.

There has been a fair amount of speculation about why, with affluent areas like Pikesville, Phoenix and the valleys nearby, Owings Mills couldn't survive as an upscale shopping center.

Critics of suburbia inevitably try to find some message about the death of the suburban dream. Maybe the banal appeal of malls has worn off and people are starting to crave the lively charm and bustle of traditional downtowns. Maybe fear of crime has scared them off. Towson Town Center, after all, just stepped up security, and Owings Mills reported a robbery or two a few weeks back. But police statistics show such events are still rare. And the downtowns are struggling to rejuvenate themselves, so we know shoppers aren't flocking there.

No, we have Let's Talk Cellular replacing Williams-Sonoma because Baltimoreans, even affluent ones, have never been upscale consumers. As a group, we're tight with a dollar and not particularly concerned about cutting-edge style.

Thrifty Baltimoreans

Leigh Bates, marketing director for Towson Town Center, said studies comparing Baltimore and Washington shoppers show the D.C. consumers willing to spend considerably more, especially on upscale merchandise. ''Baltimoreans who are doing financially well are still thrifty people,'' she says. Unless you're a serious cook, why spring $130 for a roasting pan? Who really needs $100 lime sandals for summer?

It's clear now that the Rouse Co. misjudged when it made Owings Mills all glitz and ritz. The well-to-do were neither numerous nor free-spending enough to support it on their own, especially once Towson Town siphoned off some of them. Development plans for Owings Mills changed, and the people moving there turned out to be less affluent than expected. The recession changed our spending habits.

Now, the mall needs all those families living in townhouses and modest single-family homes -- folks more concerned with retirement funds and a shed for the back yard than designer children's clothes. It needs the Target market.

What's happening in Baltimore mirrors national trends. Consumers are value-obsessed. They won't pay more for anything, which is part of the reason prices for everything from fast food to detergent are dropping. They have no loyalty to a particular store, nor much respect for names and labels.

So Owings Mills can down-scale or die. I wish it well in its new life; the prospect of vacant malls and megastores rotting in town after town is too real as it is, and there's a lot to be said for top value on decent products. But here's one shopper who enjoyed our brief flirtation with style, who's sorry to see what once was really something become just another place to pick up a pair of pantyhose.

Elise Armacost writes editorials for The Sun.

Pub Date: 3/09/97

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