Area malls foresee a little more cheer this season
Elaine Finney of Blythewood had a message for her 13-year-old and 7-year-old twins when she asked them to prioritize what they put on their Christmas wish lists.
"We've explained to the children that Santa Claus is on a budget this year," Finney said while shopping at the Village at Sandhill last week.
Columbia-area malls hope Ho-Ho isn't too frugal this season.
But they have seen their share of changes in their line-ups as shoppers stream through their doors beginning this week.
Columbia Place mall on Two Notch Road has been the hardest hit - losing a net of nine stores over the past year during a punishing recession.
Columbiana Centre in Harbison and Village at Sandhill in Northeast Richland have gained stores over the past year.
Holiday sales projections have hovered around break even - some with expectations slightly higher than last year, while others forecast slightly lower sales.
Tom Dornfeld, general manager of Columbiana Centre, expects above-average sales.
Columbiana was bustling last week, even on a weekday afternoon. The center - which has few empty spots - has lost six stores over the past year and gained seven.
Dornfeld said the first couple of weeks of the shopping season last year started out strong, but then sales fizzled. This year, he expects sales to stay strong throughout the season.
USC retailing professor Richard Clodfelter said projections were based on last year's dismal sales. He, too, expects this year to be better - by some.
"It's still not going to be a fantastic year," he said. "The unemployment rate's too high."
Columbia Place already had its decorations out last week and Santa Claus waiting for children to bring their wish lists.
But large sections of the mall are empty, including an entire wing on the upper floor near the former Steve & Barry's, which shut down shortly after the holidays last year.
Another retailer moved a store from that section to a more populated area near the food court.
In all, the mall has lost 17 retailers over the past year, including the two-story Old Navy store. The mall picked up eight new small retailers.
"They're losing the big ones and there's no way to hide that," Clodfelter said.
Macy's is the only major unique store that the mall has left.
"Macy's is the destination that people are at least going there for," Clodfelter said. "They can't find it anywhere else in Columbia."
Without Macy's it would be hard for the mall to sustain itself without some major revitalization efforts, he said.
"It's been a challenging year," said Columbia Place general manager Charles Gwinn. "We all knew it was going to be."
He said he has seen a slow improvement in sales start in recent months.
"We're going to be in for a better but still challenging season," he said. "People are in a better mood than they were last year and that has a huge impact on holiday sales."
A few miles away at the Village at Sandhill - where much of the population and some of the merchants have shifted in recent years.
Finney was shopping for Christmas decorations at the new Santa's Closet. It's one of two seasonal stores that opened there as the center lost five stores and gained 10 since the day after Christmas last year.
Finney said she was looking for several reasonably priced decorations instead of a house full of smaller ones.
And just like Santa, she said: "We will be spending less this year because of the economy."