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Malls turning to innovative popups to fill empty storefronts

ORLANDO — After spurning malls for decades, Toys "R" Us is setting up shop inside plenty of them with its new Holiday Express outlets this June.

"After testing them successfully last Christmas, we're going coast to coast this year," said Dave Pilot, the big box toy store giant's vice president of property development.

The so-called popup stores — no frills, quick-hit shops to capture peak-time demand — was one of several innovations designed to fill the growing number of empty shopping center storefronts that were outlined Friday at an International Council of Shopping Centers conference.

Joining such temporary holiday season mall old-timers as Hickory Farms and Christmas decor stores, Toys "R" Us sees a chance to grab a niche unfilled since the demise of KB Toys. If a small Express store takes off, the store can become permanent. Otherwise, it will close after the Christmas rush. The retailer will put them in malls near its free-standing stores 10 times the size to capture a different audience.

It's the same strategy Chico's FAS Inc. will use to accelerate growth of its young Soma Intimates chain. The Fort Myers company plans to deploy 40 to 45 temporary Soma stores this year, including a few in Tampa Bay malls. Setting up a popup shop costs a fraction of a full-line store. The deals are negotiated in weeks, not months, and come with a permanent-looking sign.

The fixtures fold up so stores can appear or vanish in days.

"They look good enough that customers won't know they are temporary until they're gone." said Jeff Gaul, Chico's vice president of real estate.

The first seven, however, did well enough to be converted to full-time status.

Other ideas range from filling retail space with services like day surgery and medical treatment clinics to updated versions of mall game arcades that vanished in the wake of PlayStation and Nintendo.

Instead of just video games, Nickels and Dimes, a onetime arcade chain, now offers miniature golf, laser tag and food.

"We have a (plush toy) crane set for malls that only takes 28 square feet," said Ron Kostelny, president of the Carrollton, Texas, chain.

To restock a troubled mall in San Leandro, Calif., management at Madison Marquette staged a competition with local government and schools to create new businesses with a $25,000 grant and free storefront as top prize.

"It was a takeoff on reality shows, sort of American Idol meets Shark Tank," said Kurt Ivey, senior vice president of marketing.

After culling 120 applicants, 66 would-be entrepreneurs pitched their ideas to a live audience that chose five finalists. With donated help from experts, finalists honed business plans. The winner was a gourmet tea and coffee cafe called TeachBar that offers classes in such thing as computers. Madison Marquette was also a winner; it filled not one storefront but three more that were created in the competition.

Zebra Health Care Solutions is a Golden Valley, Minn., venture offering access to investors, government grant writers and experience moving doctor clinics closer to where patients live.

"Getting away from the high costs of a hospital setting is a big trend that will get bigger if health care reform provides health coverage to 40 million more people," said Mark Lichtman, managing partner.

Mark Albright can be reached at albright@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8252.

Malls turning to innovative popups to fill empty storefronts 03/12/10 [Last modified: Friday, March 12, 2010 9:31pm]

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