Longtime mall shops buck the trend

Knowing the market helps handful of stores survive 29 years at shopping center

Howard Business

March 13, 2000|By Liz Atwood | Liz Atwood,SUN STAFF

Nearly 30 years ago, James W. Rouse cut the ribbon on The Mall in Columbia, giving the new town a main street that featured two department stores and 102 shops and restaurants.

Today, five of those original mall businesses remain, surviving changing fashions, fickle consumers, competition from large retailers and the increasing popularity of Internet shopping.

"There is no magic," said Randy Brooks, owner of Edward Arthur Jewelers, who was a college student working at the store part time when it opened with the mall Aug. 2, 1971. "You have to work."

FOR THE RECORD - An article in the March 13 edition of the Howard County edition of The Sun on original tenants in The Mall in Columbia omitted Hyatt & Co, a locally owned men's clothing store.
The Sun regrets the error.

Edward Arthur is one of three original independent merchants to last. The other two are the gourmet food store Bun Penny and men's clothier Brooks Oliver.

Two other original tenants -- women's clothing store Lerner New York and Bailey, Banks and Biddle Fine Jewelers -- are outlets of national chains.

"It's very unusual to see independents still operating in the same mall," said Mark Millman, head of the Millman Search Group, a retail consulting firm.

Not only have they had to face competition from large national chains, they also have had to cope with rent increases of at least 100 percent as The Mall in Columbia grew from a sleepy shopping center to a regional powerhouse, Millman said.

Mall manager Pat Walsh said he believes the three independents survived the odds because they are owned by astute businessmen. "They are focused on the market," he said. "They have the ability to change with the market."

Brooks has watched fashion trends come and go in the jewelry business and observed changing customer expectations.

In the beginning, "a couple would come in and put a diamond on layaway and make payments every week," Brooks said. "Nowadays, it is instant gratification."

A couple select the diamond and setting and want it ready that night, paying for it with a credit card, Brooks said.

Brooks' brother, Edward, and his partner, Arthur Wodiska, founded Edward Arthur, seizing the opportunity to open a business in the Rouse Co.'s new mall.

"It was the new dream of Jim Rouse to make the mall the main street of the town," said Randy Brooks, who was one of three employees when the store opened in a 1,400-square-foot space.

Today, the store has 20 employees and nearly twice as much space, growing with the recent mall expansion that added 100 stores.

But while the competition has increased, so has the number of customers drawn to the renovated mall.

Brooks, who bought the business in 1989, said he sees the second generation of customers coming to purchase engagement rings.

"It's such a personalized business," he said.

Richard Cohn, owner of Brooks Oliver, also said he has survived by giving personalized service, although his store has changed significantly from the blue jeans shop it started as.

Today, Brooks Oliver offers a full line of men's clothing from suits and top coats to tuxedos to sportswear. Even the name of the business has changed from Poor Richard's.

"We grew with the mall," Cohn said.

Like Brooks, Cohn followed his family's footsteps. His father had owned menswear shops, and Cohn opened his first store in Silver Spring in 1969. But he soon was forced to leave that location to make room for a Metro station.

About the same time, the management of The Mall in Columbia was seeking tenants for its new shopping center. Malls were fairly new in 1971, but Cohn decided to take the chance.

"A lot of people were taking the same step," he said.

Cohn started with three employees and 1,000 square feet. Today, he has six employees and three times the space.

"You need to have the right product," Cohn said.

His store has had to change to keep up with men's fashions, and over time it has earned customers' trust, he said. "The longer you stay here, people have confidence in you."

The secret to Bun Penny's success appears to have been its ability to be many things to many people, said owner Jeff Ditter.

When Bun Penny opened, it was three stores -- a deli, a wine shop and a coffeehouse.

A few years later, the walls separating the businesses came down, but Bun Penny kept its three product lines.

Today, the deli case features many more salads than it once did. And the store is offering more kitchenware.

"It's my first stop when I come to the mall," said Katja Lewis, a Carroll County resident, sitting outside the store sipping a chocolate latte.

"A lot of times you hear Bun Penny described as a Columbia fixture," said Ditter, who started at the store 20 years ago as a stock boy and bought the business in 1990. "For each customer, there is something they think is unique to the store."

The store tries to stay ahead of the trends, emphasizing good food, service and presentation, Ditter said. "If we continue to work at that, we'll always be here."

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