Online shopping can't stop Warwick Mall

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Aram Garabedian, managing partner of Warwick Mall, has read the stories and heard the statistics.

He’s heard how Internet sales are sucking the dollars out of retail stores and how malls are closing across the country and he’s seen – even been personally affected by, with the closing of the Sports Authority store at the mall – the contraction of big box stores.

But Garabedian doesn’t look on the changing retail landscape with doom and gloom. Rather, he says that retail is going through a renaissance and Warwick Mall is constantly changing to meet the challenge.

“I’m an optimist,” he said Tuesday over a chicken and fruit salad at LongHorn Steakhouse. Naturally, it was the Texas LongHorn at the mall. Garabedian is recognized just about everywhere he goes, and if he isn’t he talks to people anyway.

“It’s amazing,” he says, “people love talking.”

It explains Garabedian’s perception of Warwick Mall as far more than a place to go shopping, and perhaps its salvation from online shopping and the havoc it has brought to even the largest of retailers. This month, just across the Pawtuxet River at Rhode Island Mall, Sears will close its only outlet in the state.

According to the July 31 edition of Time magazine, there have already been 5,300 retail closings this year, with more to come as Payless Inc. will close 400 shoe stores as part of its bankruptcy plan. The Time article says there are about 1,100 malls in the country, however, according to estimates from Credit Suisse, about 25 percent of them are at a risk of closing over the next five years.

Garabedian hasn’t read the Time story. It’s not news to him. He knows that there is an estimated 26 square feet of retail space for every person in the country as compared to 2.5 square feet per person in Europe.

To put that in perspective, Warwick Mall, with one million square feet, represents one square feet of space per Rhode Islander, and that’s not counting Providence Place Mall, Garden City and the plazas lining Route 2 as well as smaller retail outlets throughout the state.

Garabedian’s formula for a mall is made up of five axioms. He puts his fork down and opens his hand to count them off. He starts with security, saying that people must feel safe. Convenience is next on his list, noting that free parking is an important amenity.

Variety comes next. “It’s what can I do while I’m there,” he said, pointing out that the mall experience not only offers a selection of retailers but also a selection of restaurants and frequent events.

Pricing and service complete the list.

Holding up his cell phone, Garabedian says, “everybody has them,” enabling them to access “all this stuff,” from the latest news to where they can buy the cheapest thing. He also remarks on a change in lifestyles and how young people, if they are marrying at all, have pets instead of kids. It’s the reason he believes that there are so many more pet stores.

How does this all tie into the future of Warwick Mall?

For Garabedian, it goes back to the renaissance. Some malls, he said, have failed to make capital investments and have become stale. Ironically, the flood of 2010 may have done more to secure its future than Garabedian could have ever imagined at the time. If Garabedian doubted the mall would reopen, he never expressed it. From the first hours when the parking lot turned into a lake and two feet of water filled the building, Garabedian focused on reopening. His optimism with signs like “count on us,” and his coinage of “Wowick Mall” as the reconstruction neared completion lent hype and a “we’re all in this together” sense that carried the mall long after it reopened.

Recalling one of his comments at the time, which also applies to the challenges posed by online sales, he said, “We’re not here to give in.” The mall was closed for 144 days, or as Garabedian likes to phrase it, “a dozen dozen days.”

There’s more to it than perseverance.

“We have a powerful base of anchor stores,” he says. “They advertise. That makes a big difference,” he said.

And while Amazon is a competitor, he points out that many shoppers pick up their online purchases from mall outlets, thereby bringing more people in the door. He notes that Macy’s, unlike other tenants, owns its own store. He doesn’t elaborate, but leaves the impression it’s a unique situation. Also, he notes that the mall has a good cross section of restaurants. He is especially proud of the food court and the carousel that he commissioned to have built, right down to the selection of the animals.

Unlike some other malls in the country, Garabedian observes Warwick Mall is in the midst of a densely populated area, giving it “an advantage.” The proximity of hospitals and colleges and universities likewise puts it in a strong position.

Without citing specifics, Garabedian looks to “work on new ideas to stay in our position.” No doubt that will include what Garabedian likes doing – talking with people whether he’s known them for years or they are complete strangers.

“We’re local yokels,” he says, laughing.

His gregarious nature has made him the face of Warwick Mall and a player on the Rhode Island stage, although, it seems he’s not thinking of running for the mayor of Cranston again or to return to the General Assembly, where he served in the House. He’s focused on the renaissance, one that hopefully will come without another flood.

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