Empty storefronts, crime and safety issues. Those are just a few of the problems in both San Francisco and Portland, Ore., that has prompted major retailers and mall developers to exit the market in recent months.
That includes Nordstrom, which closed its 312,000-square-foot San Francisco flagship after 35 years as well as a Nordstrom Rack. Westfield abandoned its downtown mall as a result of plunging foot traffic, and more than 39 stores including Whole Foods, Anthropologie, Office Depot and others have all ceased operation since the start of the pandemic, according to CNN.
The situation in Portland is not much better, where rising shoplifting rates led to the closure of three Target stores as well as a Walmart, a Nike community store and a longtime REI unit, among others.
But don’t tell that to the Mitchell family.
The luxury Connecticut-based retailer is investing in excess of $10 million to renovate and update three of its stores — the Wilkes Bashford flagship in San Francisco, the Marios flagship in Portland and a Wilkes outpost in Palo Alto, Calif.
“We’re investing in three big projects at the same time in cities that the media has portrayed as not bouncing back from the pandemic,” said Bob Mitchell, co-chief executive officer of Mitchells Family of Stores.
“But we see great opportunity in Portland and San Francisco. Last year we saw a great recovery in those stores. We just finished our fiscal year and Portland had a record year this year. There are still people there, the hotels in San Francisco are full again, there are conventions, so they’re definitely coming back.”
As a result, Mitchell said, “it’s time to invest before the tide turns fully. This will allow us to capture and grow our market share when others are not investing.”
On Thursday night in Portland, the Mitchells will host an event in conjunction with the Italian Trade Commission to celebrate the completion of the renovation of the Marios store. Guests will see that the women’s department has been expanded by 3,500 square feet and includes a larger Brunello Cucinelli shop, increased designer ready-to-wear offerings, a bigger shoe and bag area and an expanded jewelry selection on the first floor.
The men’s area is also getting a refresh with new Zegna, Cucinelli, Isaia and Munroe shops along with a larger luxury sportswear area.
Mario Bisio, founder of the store who is still involved in the business, said Portland still “has work to do like so many cities in the U.S., particularly on the West Coast, but the will of the city and the people is to clean it up and live, work and support businesses downtown.”
He said that although the situation has required the store to keep its doors locked for the last three years and add “an old-fashioned doorman, that’s how we’ve overcome it. And we’ve had two record years. Not a day goes by that people don’t thank us for being here.”
Turning to San Francisco and the Wilkes Bashford flagship, Mitchell said “three of the seven floors are getting a complete renovation. The entire store will look brand new.” The flagship spans 21,000 square feet over seven floors.
The Wilkes renovation is expected to be completed by the end of the month and will include a total revamp of the women’s designer floor with shops for Kiton, Cucinelli and Akris. In men’s, there will be expanded Cucinelli shop and Zegna shops along with a new luxury sportswear presentation. “We’ll be updating and refreshing the other shops,” he said.
Although Palo Alto hasn’t been hit with the same macro issues as the larger cities, the Mitchells also set their sights on building an entirely new store in that community. Currently, the Wilkes Bashford store is located in the Stanford Shopping Center, a Simon property, in 9,000 square feet. But by next September, shoppers will find a spanking new 23,000-square-foot store on the other side of the center where it will be near other luxury stores such as Neiman Marcus, Tiffany, Cartier, Loro Piana and Zegna. The store will also include a 2,000-square-foot VIP private shopping area.
“We feel Palo Alto never had enough square footage to do our assortment judgment,” Mitchell said, adding: “This will be the largest new multibrand specialty store in the U.S. When we’re done, it will be more like Westport and Seattle.” It will also mark the largest investment the company has made since building the Richards store in Greenwich, Conn., in 2000.
The Westport, Conn., Mitchells store was the first to be opened by the family in 1958, and the business now counts nine stores around the country under a variety of nameplates including Richards.
He said Palo Alto “continues to be important to us and our partners. We have a great base there and we know how to service a wealthy customer.”
He pointed in particular to the businesses’ “time-tested strategy of having the best, long-term sales associates and global brands in visually dynamic stores” as the reason for “producing record results.”
Although Mitchells Family of Stores does have an online presence, Mitchells said the “primary goal of our technology is to stay connected to our customers and drive them into the stores. It’s there where we can create an experience for our customers — that’s our calling card and where we can differ from the competition.”
Mitchell said that when the company’s fiscal year ended in September, it managed to post “another record year. It slowed down a bit this fall, but we’re up against the biggest comps we’ve ever had.”
Looking ahead, Mitchell said that while the renovations and relocation are the big news right now, the company continues to seek out ways to expand its footprint.
“There’s nothing imminent, but the one market we continue to explore is Florida,” he said. “We feel it should be one of our markets.”
He said since the pandemic, many of the company’s customers in Connecticut have been spending more time in Florida where they can work remotely and save on taxes. “And we need to follow the money,” he said.
In addition to Florida, the company has also identified Texas as ripe for expansion for the same reasons, he said.
Buying existing complementary stores has been the Mitchells game plan in the past. The family has added Richards in Greenwich in 1995, Marshs in Huntington, N.Y., in 2005, Wilkes Bashford in 2009 and Marios in 2015.