Columbia-based Edens banks on shopping centers that bring people together

When Edens CEO Jodie McLean recently arrived in Columbia after a flight from New York, she went immediately to Trenholm Plaza to meet her mom and a close friend at Rosso Trattoria Italia.

They met at the restaurant, located in one of Edens’ five Columbia-area shopping centers, “to connect over the table,” she said. “The number one place where all of us can connect is over the table.”

McLean spent more time at Rosso that evening than intended, because there were several other conversations to be had with people who were there, she said.

The gathering was reflective of Edens’ approach to masterminding the next new wave of retail centers in the country, by building community. As many shopping centers nationwide seek to redefine themselves in the digital age, building a sense of connection and community is more important than ever, McLean said.

Edens, which develops and operates shopping centers across the country, was founded in Columbia in 1966 by Joe Edens. The company has more than 120 retail centers in markets such as Miami, Atlanta, Charlotte, Houston and Washington, D.C.. The company has regional headquarters offices in six cities, including Columbia.

Four years ago, after considerable research, Edens executives set out to change the company’s conceptualization of the shopping center experience from a Stepford Wives, cookie-cutter approach, where all large-scale shopping centers felt and looked alike, to smaller, more personable locations where people would want to spend more time.

“I think our purpose is more crystal clear than it’s ever been,” McLean said. “I really don’t think it’s changed that much from Joe’s original vision 50 years ago.”

The company’s business philosophy of operating shopping centers as the Ray Oldenburg-inspired “third place” in a community beyond home and office is very much emphasized, McLean said.

“We think a lot about our merchandising mix, we think a lot about ... the values of our communities, what do the people there need, and how, in thinking through these merchandising needs, are we both meeting people’s needs and meeting people’s desires,” McLean said.

“It’s just been so crystallized right now, because the other great institutions where people used to come together routinely and spend time in conversation and connection have waned a little bit – mostly because everybody is so busy in their everyday lives.

“I truly feel like our places are the living room of our community,” McLean said.

Twenty-five years ago, when McLean came into the business, Edens’ shopping centers were built and operated to function as “necessity retail,” McLean said.

As communities evolved, retail centers also had to change, she said. “We have an epidemic in this country of isolation and loneliness, which seems crazy, since we all are connected on our cell phones.”

That can be isolating, McLean observed.

“So, what our communities need is that human connection. They need to be able to have that interaction with someone that is really personal,” McLean said, whether that interaction is for 45 minutes or 2 to 3 minutes. “That’s what our places have to serve.”

In December 2012, when 20-year-old Adam Lanza killed 20 first-graders and six adults in Newtown, Connecticut, an Edens retail center became a gathering place for the local community in the aftermath, McLean said.

In Columbia in 2015, Trenholm Plaza lay in the heart of the path of local damage from the October flood. It, too, became even more of a community gathering point after the flood, as residents and others turned to each other for recovery, McLean said.

“Our places have to serve all those needs of our community in a warm, safe environment.”

Forest Acres businessman Jack Oliver, president of the Forest Acres Restaurant and Merchant Association, said Trenholm Plaza “attracts people from all over” to shop. Trenholm Plaza’s mix of unique stores, popular restaurants and grocers are key contributors to the city, Oliver said.

Richard Coutuie, who purchased Rosso Trattoria Italia last March, said landing a spot in Trenholm Plaza was not simply a matter of finding enough money to do the deal.

“I had to go through an interview process” with Edens, beginning with the company’s restaurant consultant, who oversees all restaurant concepts at Edens’ properties across the country. Then he had to meet with various company vice presidents, he said.

“It’s important to them to have a certain level of (comfort)” with the purchaser of a business in an Edens development, Coutuie said.

“They’re very particular about what they want in their places, and it took a while to go through the process,” he said. “In the end, it just shows the true care that they have to make sure that they have the right things and the right people going into their shopping centers.”

A Chicago native, McLean attended boarding school for four years in Connecticut before coming to Columbia, where her godfather, former USC president James Holderman, recruited McLean to come attend the USC Honors College.

She graduated in 1990, but in her senior year conducted an independent study of entrepreneurs to learn how commerce evolved and operates in America, she said. That’s how she met Joe Edens, who started his company in a B-grade, one-man office on Beltline Boulevard in 1966.

McLean began to work for Edens as an analyst on what she thought would be a two-year stint, after which she planned on returning to Chicago. “The rest, I guess, is history,” she said.

One lesson Edens taught her was that in any transaction, character was the most important thing brought to the table.

“I think we have this great, sound foundation on which we have been built. The vision and the values are the bedrock of this institution. What that means is we have this great foundation in which we can go through constant and continuous change faster than ever.”

Change in retail has been the one constant over the years, because retail is a reflection of society – the consumers that make up the base around you, McLean said. “So, to have a career in retail means you have a career in an ever-changing world.”

Technology is a big part of that constant change, McLean said, but not the biggest part.

Online shopping currently accounts for approximately 8.5 percent of all sales, the Edens chief said. That is expected to grow by 9 to 11 percent annually and settle in at 16 to 18 percent of all sales, she said.

“The biggest change that (digital technology has) impacted is the consumer and the blurring of the lines of our consumer,” McLean said. “Our consumer’s time now is more scarce than ever.

“So we spend our time ... thinking foremost about how our community members want to spend their time,” including, why the consumer would want to spend their time at an Edens-designed shopping center, McLean said.

“And when they are with us, how do we make sure we’re a place where really interesting conversations can happen between people and bonds and relationships can form,” she said.

“I think we have this wonderful opportunity to go straight into communities and make a direct impact, by inspiring people to spend time together.”

Roddie Burris: 803-771-8398

Edens’ Columbia-area shopping centers:

▪ Trenholm Plaza, 4840 Forest Drive

▪ Shoppes at Woodhill, 6090 Garners Ferry Road

▪ Columbiana Station, 150 Harbison Boulevard

▪ Cross Hill Market, Devine Street at Cross Hill Road

▪ Lexington Pavilion, 5109 Sunset Boulevard, Lexington

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