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30 stores open at expanded Fashion Outlet mall

The Fashion Outlets of Niagara Falls unveiled its $71 million expansion Thursday, giving consumers their first look at 175,000 square feet of new shopping space.

The mall’s new owners, California-based Macerich, hope the expansion and campus-wide mall makeover will lure Canadians away from their own new outlet mall in Southern Ontario and bring back hometown shoppers that might have turned away years ago.

“Our big thing we’re working on now is reintroducing ourselves to everybody,” said Michael Powers, the mall’s marketing manager.

After Thursday’s soft opening, 30 stores are open and ready to go, including Helly Hanson, Clarks, Crocs, Dress Barn, Sperry Top-Sider, Perry Ellis, White House Black Market, Janie & Jack, Vera Bradley, Disney Store and It’SUGAR.

Another five stores are under contract but won’t open for another few weeks, including women’s clothing boutique Francesca’s, Gold Toe Socks, Torrid, men’s clothing store Sarar and Forever 21. About 20 more retailers are still being sought or are under negotiation.

The expansion juts out of the southwest corner of the mall, along the Niagara Thruway and Fashion Outlet Boulevard. It begins near the Nike store, where a ramp flanked by stairs leads up to a slight elevation, and loops around to Brooks Brothers and Bebe.

There are three new entrance points to the new wing from the exterior of the mall – two on the Fashion Outlet Boulevard side and one in the rear facing toward Military Road.

Anchoring the new wing is Saks Fifth Avenue OFF 5th, which has had a presence in the existing mall for years but doubled its store size in the new-wing location. Forever 21, an unofficial anchor located just inside the new wing’s Fashion Outlet Boulevard entrance, is a newcomer to the mall and operates in its non-outlet format. That store will open Nov. 1.

Some stores, such as Samsonite, Puma and Saks, already had a presence in the mall but moved from their locations in the original mall to the new wing. That leaves some empty space throughout both the old and new portions, putting the mall’s overall occupancy rate just under 80 percent.

“Our leasing team is working feverishly night and day to fill in the blanks,” Power said.

Macerich, a California-based real estate investment trust, bought the mall from AWE Talisman in 2011 for $200 million, but just took over operations at the beginning of this year.

First on Macerich’s list, in addition to the new build, was revamping the overall existing space and improving parking and access to the mall.

The main exterior entrance has been remodeled with a new stone facade. All exterior buildings, including the attached strip malls and the Marshall’s plaza, got a new coat of paint, and all entrances have new Fashion Outlets signs.

Inside, new tile floors and paint frame the corridors and large, white, orb-like planters are scattered throughout. Tables with electrical outlets serve as charging stations for patrons to plug in their phones or other electronic devices. All seating throughout the mall has been replaced with sleek, modern-style furniture, including in the food court and lounge areas. Wi-fi has been added throughout the facility.

Individual stores, which control their own facades, were not included in the update.

Parking was expanded with 700 new spots surrounding the new wing and the lots were stripped, repaved and reappointed with additional signs directing shoppers. The parking updates may address local shoppers’ main complaint about the mall – that it is so busy with tourists and Canadian shoppers that they can’t get in or find a place to park.

That has kept Grand Islanders Mary and Ralph Vescio away through the years, but they showed up Wednesday to take a peek at the new layout.

“This is very close to us, but we honestly don’t shop here very often,” Ralph Vescio said. “Especially at Christmas, it’s just a zoo.” The Vescios are hoping the added space will alleviate some of that congestion.

With its new owners, the mall said it wants to “roll out the welcome mat for everyone.”

“With the store mix, we’re looking for names that appeal to everybody – we’re not skewing Canadian or American,” Powers said. “We want to be the place everyone wants to shop.”

The mall’s sprawling layout – the expansion brings it to 700,000 square feet – also could scare shoppers away. Several shoppers – Canadian and American alike – said they were overwhelmed by the sheer scale of the mall, and what some called its “confusing” configuration. “It’s a unique design, to say the least,” Powers said.

But it’s not the size that matters, retail experts said. Outlet shoppers, who travel from a much wider radius than community mall shoppers, expect outlet malls to be big. What matters more is that there is enough support and direction to guide shoppers along.

“The issue is how helpful you are to the customer,” said Arun Jain, a marketing professor at the University at Buffalo School of Management. “You have to provide more information and be more customer-centric.”

The mall has tried to address those factors in a few ways. It has released an iPhone app that helps users navigate the mall and is even capable of directing shoppers back to their cars. A second customer service desk has been added just inside one of the new wing’s main entrances. And there are the increased signs in the parking lot outside.

But even without the updates, several Canadian shoppers at the mall Wednesday said they have remained loyal to the Fashion Outlets over shopping centers north of the border – including the new Outlet Collection at Niagara in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont. They cited the variety of retailers, greater selection, a wider range of clothing sizes – and, of course, the prices. Even with the Canadian dollar at 89 cents American, the deals and lower taxes still make the trip over the bridge worthwhile, they said.

“I’ve been to the new outlet and it’s very nice, but it’s not a good value for an outlet mall,” said Lindsay Falconer of Hamilton, Ont.