A day in the life of Bellis Fair mall

HUSTLE and FLOW: Bellis Fair averages about 35,000 shoppers a day, with about 40 percent of these customers stopping for a meal in the food court. Of these 35,000 customers, about 20 percent are Canadian, according to statistics from General Growth Properties, owners of the mall.

   Bellis Fair mall is truly a city unto itself. Under its roof are all the things one needs to survive. And, if you wanted, you could probably live there — if you can get mall security sold on the idea.
    Not surprisingly, tending to approximately 750,000 square feet of retail space and a little more than 4,700 parking spaces on a 72-acre property is quite a task. Regardless, this massive entity in north Bellingham is ready for business every day. This is how it happens.

Running a city
    A day at Bellis Fair starts early — 6 a.m. to be exact, when the mall opens for mall walking, a program which has some 200 to 300 registered participants.
    Next to open is Target, at 8 a.m., followed by a rush of 1,200 to 1,500 mall employees (a number that fluctuates depending on the season), who show up to work between 9:30 a.m. and 10 a.m.
    With everyone in place, so goes the day at the mall; shoppers and diners fill the long hallways of white tile, ducking into stores or just browsing shop windows. And finally, at around midnight, the last of the mall patrons leaves when Regal Cinemas closes its doors.
    After the shoppers have gone home, preparation for the next day begins. The mall has a contract with a cleaning-services company that provides 20 housekeeping employees who clean the mall’s common areas each night. Ever wonder how the miles of floor always stay so clean? Credit a floor cleaner that resembles a small Zamboni, the machines used to resurface ice rinks.
    To haul away all the garbage, Waste Management has a contract to empty the mall’s five trash compactors, plus one compactor for each of its five anchor stores.
    Also on site 24 hours a day is part of a rotating crew of eight mall security officers, provided by AlliedBarton security services.
    Coordinating the daily, monthly and yearly tasks are the staff from General Growth, a company that owns Bellis Fair and more than 200 malls in 44 states. At Bellis Fair, the company has a staff of 19 people in management positions.
    Despite the undertaking of such a massive operation each day, Dennis Curtis, general manager at Bellis Fair, said that although upkeep of the mall is a never-ending task, day-to-day operations run quite smoothly.
    “The staff is well-coordinated and knows how to get things done efficiently,” he said.

Keeping the locals happy
    Currently, Bellis Fair has 122 businesses, filling 155 available spaces, including kiosk and cart spaces. To be able to call Bellis Fair home, a business must meet mall management requirements, and be the right fit for the entire entity.
    “We’re really a property-management company when you boil it down,” said Cara Buckingham, marketing manager at Bellis Fair.
    According to Curtis, General Growth’s lease agreements contain language that requires stores to keep a uniform appearance by doing things such as keeping uniform hours, having accepted signage and proper merchandise placement inside the storefront. Mall management tries to keep control of sights, sounds and smells of its tenants, so everyone has a level playing field, he said.
    To become a tenant, Curtis said, you need to show mall management a business plan and a financial statement, and be the right fit for Bellis Fair as a whole.
    As General Growth has relationships with thousands of tenants nationwide and has an electronic leasing system, Curtis said getting a new tenant in business is a relatively streamlined process. “As an entire mall, we need to create a balance between all business types when considering a new tenant,” said Curtis.
    Buckingham said that from a marketing standpoint, it can sometimes be a struggle communicating with tenants and mall employees. She said it requires a totally different style of communication, where the mall’s image must be conveyed — and those involved must participate in creating that image.

Creating the image
    To grab the attention of shoppers, Bellis Fair needs to get into the public’s eye.
    Buckingham said the message the mall wants to convey to shoppers is that of a comfortable, inviting, family friendly shopping environment with a wide selection of stores to choose from.
    According to Buckingham, the mall has for many years been marketed externally, showing people what is offered, but not illustrating what the experience is like once they arrive. As of late, she said, Bellis Fair is advertising amenities such as kids fun-packs to keep them occupied, a soft seating area and other amenities that make for a pleasant shopping experience.
    To broadcast this message to customers, Bellis Fair relies quite a bit on its Web site, said Buckingham.
    Reaching customers outside of Bellingham and surrounding parts of Whatcom County is also a key part of the mall’s marketing plan. Bellis Fair uses Bellingham Whatcom County Tourism as way to get out the word to tourists. In addition, she said the mall keeps up good relations with tour-bus operators, and received around 400 busloads of tourists last year.

Happy tenant: Tracy Cooper of Maggie Moo’s said the mall’s constant flow of local and Canadian customers is a huge draw.

Love those loonies
    Because Whatcom County shares a border with British Columbia, Canadian customers are a market force below the border.
    “We still consider lower British Columbia part of our secondary market; it has certainly ebbed and flowed with the Canadian dollar,” said Curtis.
    The strength of the Canadian dollar has certainly been a factor in where Canadians shop, but store selection has also been important, said Buckingham.
    She said when the mall first opened in 1988, the retail options were far superior to what Canada had to offer, and, combined with the strength of the Canadian dollar, Bellis Fair was an appealing shopping destination.
    Today Canadian shoppers are interested in new items to the market, such as clothing retailer Hollister, and stores not found in Canada, like Victoria’s Secret, said Buckingham.
    Despite a drop in the Canadian dollar in 1998, Bellis Fair didn’t take a bad hit. “We certainly benefit from the Canadian market, but we have a core market here in Whatcom County,” said Buckingham.
    With the recent resurgence of the Canadian dollar, Buckingham said Canadians are returning; she estimates they are 20 percent of Bellis Fair’s customer base.

Ready, set, shop
    Bellis Fair receives 35,000 customers daily and about 13 million annually.
    Based on stereotypes, it is not surprising that more women partake in shopping than men, and at Bellis Fair, the numbers don’t lie. Seventy-one percent of the mall’s shoppers are women, with the target demographic being women 25 to 54, said Buckingham.
    On average, visitors to Bellis Fair spend 103 minutes per shopping trip, and 43 percent of them eat in the food court during their visit.
    Not surprisingly, the highest concentration of visitors comes during the holidays. Traditionally, November and December sales make up 27 percent to 28 percent of the year’s sales for typical mall businesses, said Curtis. He said the first quarter of the year after the holidays is generally the slowest time for mall businesses.
    Although sales figures were not made available, Buckingham said shoppers are buying, and mall sales as a whole are up.
    As part of the local economy and community, an entity like Bellis Fair works with many businesses and government agencies to keep things running smoothly.
    Like many businesses, but in this case on a grand scale, Bellis Fair often works in cooperation with Bellingham police and fire departments.
    The mall also does a lot of work with the Bellingham Planning and Community Development Department, as there are frequent construction projects at the mall. Curtis said General Growth has an in-house planning department that reviews tenant plans and then sends plans to the city for approval.
    In addition, the mall also uses local business to support its operations. Curtis said the mall keeps a list of local accepted contractors for construction projects, and uses local companies such as Mills Electric to do electrical work.

The future
    With Ferndale’s Pioneer Plaza in limbo, and growth in the northern part of Bellingham and the rest of Whatcom County occurring at a rapid pace, how does Bellis Fair fit into the mix of serving future consumers?
    Being centrally located in an area of new growth is certainly a good thing, said Curtis.
    There is, however, not enough customer demand to warrant a huge increase in retail offerings, and Bellis Fair wants to be responsive to the needs of the community, he said.
    Despite being hemmed in by Interstate 5, Meridian Street and Bakerview Road, Curtis said the mall does have opportunities to expand to the north.
    For the time being, however, Curtis said there are no plans to expand Bellis Fair, or add yet more residents to this retail city under one roof.

Downtown has rebounded from mall’s initial opening

   The Bon Marche. Nordstrom. J.C. Penney. Woolworth. Sears.
    Once upon a time, these stores were all located in downtown Bellingham.
    While some newcomers to the area and local youngsters may not be aware of this, many longtime downtown business owners say they won’t soon forget the glory days when these department stores were located in the heart of the city and, combined with numerous independent retailers of various sizes, made for a thriving downtown business district.
    “The streets were busy and the sidewalks were bustling with people moving from store to store,” recalls Donel Griggs, whose family business, Griggs Office Supplies, has been located downtown since 1906. “It was gorgeous downtown. When I start thinking about it, I get emotional.”
    And then, in 1988, came the arrival of Bellis Fair mall.
    The major department stores, which for decades had drawn shoppers downtown, were lured away by the mall, and became anchor tenants there.
    With its scores of stores, acres of free parking and the luster that comes with big, new attractions, the shopping center became the popular new place to shop around town, a big draw for consumers in Whatcom and Skagit counties, as well as lower British Columbia.
    With fewer reasons for people to go downtown to shop, slowly, in ensuing years, many of the remaining businesses began to suffer.
    “When the big stores left, the hustle and bustle was gone,” Griggs said. “Everybody else (downtown) either had to go to the mall or scale down, and as you scale down you have to let go of employees. A lot of stores went out of business, or their owners quit or retired.”
    Local developer Bob Hall recalls downtown’s future looking its bleakest a couple years after the mall opened.
    “It seemed to me there was a 30 percent to 40 percent vacancy rate,” he said. “I remember sitting on Holly (Street) once in the middle of the day and not seeing one car go by.”
    Indeed, for many downtown retailers, operating in the late 1980s through late 1990s was a struggle.
    The desire — and need — among many consumers to head there was gone and, said Ken Ryan, owner of The Bagelry, remaining business owners and city officials couldn’t agree on ways to spark interest in downtown.
    “Some downtown owners tried to get together but it was hard,” he said. “When you have a bunch of independent businesspeople, it’s tough to come together for a consensus.”
    “We had some people thinking we needed to do something and others who thought, ‘Well, it’s going to take time to get things going again, but it’s going to take time either way. Let’s just let nature take its course.’ I think that attitude has mostly prevailed,” said Ryan.
    Persevering downtown, during the decade after the mall opened, required business owners to accept and adapt to the situation, said Chris Foss, co-owner of The Greenhouse, which opened in 1972.
    “As a business owner, the challenges are ever present, regardless of whether they’re internal or external. I’m a firm believer that I can’t worry about things that are outside my control. My job as a retailer is to provide the most interesting product and nicest environment for the customer.”
    Following the announcement that the mall was coming, Foss, and her business partner, Foster Rose, a former city councilman, decided to move to a larger space and expand their clothing offerings.
    “We knew that in order to grow our business, we needed to become a destination location,” she said.
    Other downtown business owners who stayed afloat during the lean years were of like mind.
    For example, at Clark Feed & Seed, a 102-year-old business on Railroad, owner Larry Oltmann began specializing in tropical and saltwater fish, to compete with larger pet stores. At Griggs, the store scaled back its furniture, art and book departments and focused on office supplies.
    Today, though, many believe downtown has turned the corner and its revitalization is well underway.
    While specialization helped some stores survive during its dark years, business leaders point to other factors that have aided the downtown rebound, such as:
    Groups like the Downtown Renaissance Network and its predecessors, which promote businesses, events and cleanup projects.
    The work of Sustainable Connections and other groups that promote buy-local campaigns, which tend to favor mom-and-pop stores over national chains.
    Bellingham’s reputation as a desirable retirement community, which has helped fuel demand for downtown condos close to shopping, dining and recreational activities.
    “Revitalization is a sum of 50 little things, as opposed to one big thing,” Hall said.
    Some business owners, however, simply believe downtown’s revived swagger was just a matter of waiting for the novelty of the mall to wear off and for people to rediscover how exciting a vibrant downtown can be.
    “Downtown has a feeling of uniqueness and individuality,” said Griggs. “People are tired of seeing the same chain stores. You see the same stores in the mall here as you do in Seattle or back east. And in downtown there’s fresh air as you walk outside between stores.”
    Kirsten Shelton, executive director of the Downtown Renaissance Network agreed.
    “You can go anywhere to buy a T-shirt. A lot of people choose to come downtown for the experience,” she said. “There are a lot of small, intimate shops down here where the business owners are often in the stores themselves. It’s a friendly atmosphere and very diverse and fun. You have a real community here.”
    Ryan believes downtown’s vibrancy will only strengthen in coming years.
    “We’re right between the university and the soon-to-be-developed waterfront,” he said. “And neither of those places are ever going to go away.”

Steady flow of customers a big draw for tenants

    A steady flow of customers.
    That’s a common answer to why many businesses choose to locate at Bellis Fair mall.
    After scouting out different sections of town, Tracy Cooper, director of operations at Maggie Moo’s Ice Cream and Treatery, said it’s the same conclusion local franchise officials came to last summer when they decided to open at the mall.
    “This was the one spot in Bellingham that always seemed to have people and Canadian tourists,” Cooper said.
    Robert Newell, manager at Ben Bridge, an original mall tenant, concurred, adding that the Seattle-based jeweler typically tends to open retail stores in malls, such as Bellis Fair, because the numerous options they provide historically draw a large number of customers.
    “Malls draw a lot of people because they offer multiple options,” he said. “You can go shopping, go to the movies and get food all in one place. They’re a real draw.”
    While leasing costs at the mall may be a little higher in than other areas of town, the almost-guaranteed year-round traffic it gets, and the more than 1,000 people who work there (also potential customers) can make any extra costs worthwhile for some.
    While mall officials say Bellis Fair isn’t in direct competition with downtown, Fairhaven and other parts of the city and county, shopkeepers acknowledge there are advantages to being located at the mall, including:
    The Canadian tourist buses that make scheduled stops there.
    On-site security officers.
    A central mall-management team that aids businesses when they run promotions.
    Numerous, well-publicized events throughout the year that are held on mall property.
    The extra promotional help and on-call management is something some merchants enjoy, Cooper said.
    “You wouldn’t have those relationships outside a mall setting,” she said.


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