Retail scale-up: How small local shops are moving up to major malls

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Erinn Trebaczkiewicz and Diana Tidswell are busy pulling samples from the stock room. Though September has ushered in the damp, blustery days of fall with haste, finding cold weather pieces for a collaborative photo shoot has been made complicated by The Skinny’s recent move.

Since opening its permanent location in Southgate Centre earlier this month, the modern lifestyle boutique has seen unprecedented success. With fall stock moving so fast, styling outfits to pair with neighbouring shoe maker Poppy Barley’s winter collection is no easy feat.

Diana Tidswell is the community manager for The Skinny.

Diana Tidswell is the community manager for The Skinny.

“We thankfully had a few samples in the back of pieces that we'll be bringing out in the coming months,” says Tidswell.

The Skinny and Poppy Barley are both recent additions to Southgate Centre, and part of a surge of locally based, independent retailers that have been setting up in shopping centres across the city this summer.

“It’s an interesting trend and I hope it’s a permanent one,” says Craig Patterson, director of applied research at the University of Alberta’s School of Retailing.

Though shopping centres have become synonymous with chain stores, this wasn’t always the case. Early malls of the mid-20th century had a good mix of tenants, says Patterson, until high rents and economies of scale made homogeneity the rule.

As the retail landscape shifts with the advent of online shopping, malls are recognizing the benefits of carrying smaller, local retailers, as a way to differentiate and rejuvenate themselves.

In August, Londonderry Mall announced a unique Shop Canada Runway initiative that saw 20,451 square feet of space set aside for Alberta-based businesses. The retail incubation program is a way for these retailers – two of which were solely found online – to test out a mall setting without the risk of signing a long-term lease.

It's also a way for the newly renovated centre to set itself apart.

The Skinny's new home in the Southgate Centre opened in September. 

The Skinny's new home in the Southgate Centre opened in September. 

So far, it seems to be working. Combined with $130-million worth of modernizations, the new stores have attracted a noticeably younger demographic to Edmonton’s oldest mall, says Vanessa Julio, marketing manager for Londonderry Mall.

“I think they’ve been craving something like this to come to the north side,” she says.

It was a similar opportunity that led to The Skinny’s permanent relocation.

When Tidswell received an email offering The Skinny the opportunity to set up a pop up shop within the Kingsway Mall in May, she thought it was a scam. The offer seemed too good to be true: a four-month lease in prime retail location next to modern fashion brand Aritzia and within view of the main entrance.

Poppy Barley is an innovative Edmonton business that's changed the way women buy boots. (Published April 25, 2013)

“I remember when I got the email thinking ‘Should I forward this to Erinn?’ Thank God I did,” she says.

Indeed. Trebaczkiewicz, founder of The Skinny, a women and children’s fashion boutique, admits she wouldn’t have had the confidence to commit to her current 2,400-square-foot space had she not first tested the waters at Kingsway. “It was such a good testing point to see if we could sustain the high rent and keep up with the traffic,” she says.

Some people – Trebaczkiewicz included – were surprised by the boutique's decision to open in Southgate. Though shopping centres offer the benefits of increased foot traffic, a diverse audience, and protection from the elements, there’s an inherent stigma to setting up amid box stores and food courts.

“Typically, as an independent brand you think 'I’m going to do street front',” says Justine Barber, co-founder of Poppy Barley, which opened its flagship store in Southgate Centre in August. “We definitely didn’t think at first we would be in the mall. It was more like we came around to the mall.”

Like its neighbour, the footwear company had outgrown its 500-square-foot showroom in the second floor of a Whyte Avenue building, and was trying to decide between a street front location or a space within a shopping centre.

With most of Poppy Barley's customers travelling from the centre, south or west of the city, Southgate was ideally positioned.

“So far it’s definitely been the right decision,” says Barber. “We’re seeing the numbers support the risk.”

Prior to the pop-up, The Skinny was operating out of Vacancy Hall in the Mercer Building on 104 Street. Though the retailer had outgrown its home about a year prior, Trebaczkiewicz had a hard time leaving such a fun, collaborative space.

“I like Londonderry Mall because it feels like a neighbourhood mall. It’s still small, but it’s big. Kind of like Edmonton,” says Edmonton-based designer Kelly Campbell, who founded Kelly Wollf and C’est Sera.

“I like Londonderry Mall because it feels like a neighbourhood mall. It’s still small, but it’s big. Kind of like Edmonton,” says Edmonton-based designer Kelly Campbell, who founded Kelly Wollf and C’est Sera.

“We would bounce ideas off each other or share each other’s shops on our social media feeds. We would do events and shoots together. All that cross-promoting was amazing,” she says.

But it doesn’t have to stop. Nor will it.

In addition to last week’s photo shoot, The Skinny plans to host book club meetings and movie nights, and will continue to put on GATHER with The Skinny events – modern crafting for parents and children – within its mall setting.

“I think those events are what makes us stand out,” says Tidswell, who is responsible creating a community behind the brand. “We’re not a small boutique in the sense that we’re in a boutique location, but we want that feel.”