Report Card On Franklin Mills

Posted: May 27, 1990

On the eve of its one-year anniversary earlier this month, Franklin Mills mall was basking in the national spotlight.

In a lavish two-page spread in an April edition of Women's Wear Daily, a leading national publication covering the retail industry, a mall official said sales were averaging $300 per square foot - a figure comfortably above

average, according to retail analysts.

And nine days before the May 11 anniversary, a segment on the CBS Morning News extolled Franklin Mills as "the shopping mall of the future." Shoppers laden with packages spoke enthusiastically about the mall's great discount prices, and store owners bragged of a booming business.

On the big day, the mall's developer, the Washington D.C.-based Western Development Corp., threw a birthday bash in the mall's grand court complete with a five-foot cake and live oldies music from the popular Greaseband.

"Franklin Mills is being received by the country, the region and the Philadelphia economy in a very big way," said Patience O'Connor, Western's vice president of management and marketing, a week after the celebration.

A year after its opening, O'Connor said, "the picture is that the center is doing very well. . . . It's a place that the community can really be proud of."

But that community offers a far more mixed assessment of the mall's first year.

Many Northeast civic leaders and residents are quick to point out the mall's virtues - chief among them the wealth of jobs the huge discount shopping complex has provided for local teenagers.

Some problems anticipated by residents also never materialized. Traffic generated by Franklin Mills never reached the nightmare proportions envisioned a year ago. And after a brief lull when the mall first opened, local merchants say business has bounced back.

But a recent spate of muggings and other crimes in the parking lots outside the 49th Street Galleria has tarnished the mall's image as a fun, safe place to shop, some civic leaders say. Others complain that Franklin Mills, touted as "the world's largest value shopping mall," has failed to deliver on promises of top-quality merchandise at bargain prices.

And while mall officials project annual sales in excess of $400 million, some merchants are grumbling that booming business on the weekends is not enough to make up for a dearth of sales during the week.

"I think it's probably too early to tell" whether Franklin Mills is a success, said Councilman Brian O'Neill, who helped bring the mall to the former site of the Liberty Bell harness track at Knights and Woodhaven Roads.

"The first year is always going to be the toughest, but I think (mall officials) have accounted well for themselves during that time," O'Neill said. "It's not perfect, but I don't think anyone ever thought it would be."

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As evidence of the mall's success, mall officials produce an impressive list of figures.

The mall is 87 percent leased, and has signed commitments that should bring it up to 95 percent occupancy by the end of the year, they say. About 14 million shoppers visited the complex in 1989, three million of them on bus trips from as far away as North Carolina. About 17 million are expected this year.

Between 4,000 and 5,000 people are employed at Franklin Mills, depending on the season. Sales this year are projected at $400 million, mall officials say.

O'Connor said sales at Franklin Mills average $300 per square foot of space.

The average for off-price chains - those that sell all brands - is $265 per square foot, according to Tom Kirwan, editor of Value Retail News, a Clearwater, Fla.-based trade journal for the off-price industry. Outlet stores owned by manufacturers average $233 per square foot, Kirwan said.

Based on O'Connor's figures for sales per square foot, Franklin Mills ''appears to be doing real good, especially for a mall that just opened a year ago," Kirwan said.

O'Connor declined to give the total sales figure for the mall's first year, saying "sales information is very confidential."

Among the stores scheduled to open this summer are a Maidenform lingerie factory outlet, a Remington outlet, an American Tourister outlet, an Alexander Julian clothing outlet and a Ruby Tuesday's restaurant.

Officials with Marshall's discount clothing store are contemplating leasing part of the space now occupied by Reading China & Glass, which filed for bankruptcy-court protection in March after renting more space than it could handle.

"We see off-price malls as the wave of the future and think they're going to continue to grow and become destination centers," said Karin Whiting, national spokeswoman for Marshall's, which is based in Andover, Mass.

Many shoppers, too, say they are impressed by the mall - the bright, cheery ''theme park" atmosphere, its cleanliness and the bargains.

"I love it," said Evelyn Eglowitz, 74, who took a bus trip to the mall with a group of senior citizens from Windsor, N.J., on a recent Friday afternoon.

"I like the environment - the lights, the flowers. Everything is so colorful, so alive," said Eglowitz. "You don't even feel like you're in a mall. And the prices are good, too."

But others are not as enchanted.

Several customers interviewed recently complained that the mall's twisting, 1.2-mile, single-story layout was confusing and tiring.

"It's a long distance in either direction and a long way back to your car," said Gail Unger, 32, of Cranbury, N.J., as she shopped at the mall for the first time with her mother, Carol Unger, 55, of Princeton, N.J.

The Ungers, self-proclained bargain hunters who frequent the discount outlets in Reading, said they were disappointed by the prices at Franklin

Mills.

"I'm not tremendously impressed," said Gail Unger, who was stocking up on children's clothes for her 2-year-old daughter. "The selection is somewhat the same in all the stores."

"I would come back, but I'm not rushing back," said Carol Unger.

There are other signs that the mall is not doing as well as Western's rosy portrait might suggest.

O'Connor conceded that several tenants were negotiating with Western to get out of their leases. She put the number at "no more than four" and declined to name the stores.

"The tenant doesn't think it's performing well, and we don't think they're performing well," O'Connor said.

Casual Male Inc. is closing two of its stores at the mall - Casual Male and Sweats FX. The company, a nationwide chain, is reorganizing under Chapter 11 of the Federal Bankruptcy Act and officials "determined that these stores are not going to be necessary as part of the reorganization," said the firm's attorney, John Pfeffer.

On a recent weekday afternoon, several managers complained of unusually sluggish business on weekday afternoons.

Business "is not what we expected at all," said a manager at Pacific Party Co., who asked not to be identified. "From Friday to Sunday is great, but the other four days are terrible. I think they built the mall up to be something it's not. I think they got in over their heads."

At Marty's Shoes, manager Harry Amin said "business is not so bad on the weekends but it doesn't help with the slow days during the week."

A few stores away at I. Goldberg, assistant manager Chris Mager asked a visitor to take a look around the vast army-navy store, which was empty except for the staff and two customers. "It's like this every day except the weekends," Mager said. "It really needs to pick up during the rest of the week."

I. Goldberg manager Doug Levy recently organized monthly meetings of merchants in the mall's northern end to discuss strategies for boosting business, among them holding a blood drive and other activities to introduce more people to the mall.

"It's a new mall, and you're going to have growing pains," Levy said, shrugging.

Before its opening in July, many residents thought the 49th Street Galleria would become a drug-ridden hangout for delinquent teenagers who would mug and intimidate shoppers. Debate over the project pitted neighbor against neighbor, split the city's labor movement and threatened approval of zoning for the $15 million amusement arcade, which billed itself as a provider of "wholesome family entertainment."

But all was quiet after the opening - for a while.

This spring, residents blamed the Galleria for an increase in violent crime at Franklin Mills, and police told stories of teenage gangs battling for territory. In one incident on April 6, a 15-year-old was robbed of his baseball cap and jacket by a gang of 10 teenagers in a parking lot outside the Galleria.

A meeting of residents and Galleria officials called by a Parkwood civic organization in April produced more complaints than solutions. At one point, a civic leader suggested bringing in the Guardian Angels to help curb crime at the mall.

Then, several weeks ago, Galleria officials announced plans to curtail the arcade's operating hours, hire more security guards, and institute a dress code to weed out undesirable patrons.

The concessions have been greeted with hope by many.

"There have been problems, but at least they're being addressed," said Harry Brecker, an officer with the Parkwood Area Planning Council and a representative on the Franklin Mills Advisory Council, which serves as a liaison between Western and the community.

Other leaders suggested that the problem of crime at Franklin Mills has been blown out of proportion. "Wherever there are lots of people, you're going to have the potential for problems," said Frank Riccio, vice president of the Somerton Civic Association. "I think it's unfair to zero in on Franklin Mills when you have many of the same problems at other malls."

O'Connor said that Western takes the community's concerns "very seriously."

"We believe, however, that because of our experience managing shopping

malls that we will be able to address any problems," she said.

Still, the controversy has tarnished the mall's image among some shoppers, according to Charles Murphy, executive vice president of the Northeast Philadelphia Chamber of Commerce, which represents 500 businesses.

"Unfortunately the problems up there have turned some people off," Murphy said. "They're afraid to go there in the evening."

Said O'Neill: "Some people are skeptical, but it's up to Western and the Galleria to turn that around."

A year ago, many predicted that the area's small businesses and older malls would suffer as the largest mall in the region siphoned off customers.

But so far that hasn't happened, area merchants say.

"There was a slight drop in sales when Franklin Mills first opened, but after just a few months, sales bounced back and in some instances went up," said Roger Deswert, manager of Roosevelt Mall at Cottman Avenue and Roosevelt Boulevard.

Deswert attributed the initial drop to customer "curiosity" about the new mall. "Once you satisfy that curiosity, you tend to be a creature of habit and go back to your old shopping habits," he said.

Barry Godsey, assistant property manager for Woodhaven Mall in Bensalem, said the shopping center had been "holding its own" despite losing Radio Shack to Franklin Mills at the end of April.

Godsey and Deswert cited the older malls' convenience and longevity in the community as reasons they have been able to survive competition from the mammoth Franklin Mills.

"We're a community mall, and we don't try to be more than that," Godsey said. "People in the community see that Franklin Mills isn't convenient. We're an easy walkthrough, an 'L' shaped pattern, easy come, easy go."

Even so, Godsey said that Woodhaven Mall is undergoing "a major sprucing up" to better compete with its more modern neighbor a half mile away.

Likewise, manager David F. Filippone said Neshaminy Mall - three miles away in Bensalem - recently added a food court to lure customers.

At the Knights Road Shopping Center across the street from Franklin Mills, managers say the new mall has actually helped boost business.

"People will stop by here on their way back from the mall," said Rose Daveggia, manager of the Robindale Bakery.

"I'm not going to lie," said Daveggia. "At first I was intimidated and a little bit frightened."

Now, she said, "The apprehension has disappeared."

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