Experiential Shopping with Al Urbanski of Chain Store Age

In this two-part episode, Trademark’s VP of Experience, Chuck Steelman, sits down with Al Urbanski, Real Estate Editor at Chain Store Age, to discuss the building blocks of experiential shopping. Al gives a peak behind the journalist curtain to share what properties across the nation are doing to better their retail experiences. He and Chuck talk about CSA’s Top 10 Retail Center Experiences of 2021 list and how Trademark’s Galleria Dallas earned its No. 3 spot. Learn what still surprises Al about the industry, even after 10 years working with it, and the top 10 list.

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Chuck Steelman: This is Chuck Steelman, Trademark’s Vice President of Experience. Today, I’m speaking with Alan Urbanski, Real Estate Editor and Manager of Chain Store Age Magazine. Al is actually our very first media guest, and today he’s going to explain his unique perspective of the industry, and we’re going to dive into what made Trademark’s Galleria Dallas number three on Chain Store Age’s list of Top 10 Retail Center Experiences for 2021.

Hey, Al, you currently serve as the Real Estate Editor for Chain Store Age, the country’s oldest retail focus publication. Can you please share your background and how you got to where you are today and a brief overview of CSA’s current editorial focuses?

Al Urbanski: Yeah, absolutely. And good to be with you, Chuck. I’ve been in this business quite a long time, and I mostly have covered sales, marketing, consumer products, and retail. It’s only been five years ago that I took over the real estate beat at Chain Store Age. And I just got to tell you, from my perspective, and I’ll tell you about the magazine, I find it to be the best, most fascinating thing I’ve ever covered with the greatest people, of which you’re one of them, Chuck. But seriously, real estate people, in all areas of real estate and commercial real estate, are just like passionate people. And I think, for many retailers watching this, real estate people have to have the vision 10, 15, 20 years ahead of time because a lot of money and planning goes into buying and building those spaces. And so that’s a good lead in for this because that’s kind of what’s going on now – there’s a recharge. And as for Chain Store Age, yeah, they’ve been around I think 98 years, focused on operations. So, we don’t write a whole lot about marketing, but we’ll write about financial issues, expansions, we have a trade show that’s coming up this month called SPECS that’s for the construction trades, architects. So, we’re involved in kind of a lot of what you are, what’s coming up.

Steelman: Well, you’re the first member of the media that we’ve actually had as a guest on the Trademark Podcast. From your perspective of the industry, what do you think needs to change most in brick-and-mortar retail? And what do you see as the future of brick-and-mortar?

Urbanski: The thing that’s funny, I’m just going to tell you because I’ve interviewed a lot of CEOs of retail real estate companies, a lot of this was not new to them. The changes they’re making now, they’ve been thinking about it for years or doing it. You guys at Trademark had been doing it. I mentioned Joe Coradino, PREIT, seven years ago, he set some strictures down for sales per square foot and he’d sell them all if they didn’t make it. But what’s changed now is, and nearly all of these ladies and gentlemen who run these companies have told me this, there was a good and bad with COVID. Because the bad we know – they had to shut down, file Chapter 11, deal with all that stuff – but it actually gave them time to sit down and do things they talked about doing for five, ten years. Steve Levin, he said, you know what? It was kind of good because we wanted to do this thing, do more omnichannel. He said but we were too busy, and we started a task force and got it done. So, I think that the future of brick-and-mortar retail is solid as long as it finds the best way to mesh with online and advance online retail. And I think you know this, you see this by seeing a lot of direct-to-consumer brands coming into your units I’m sure.

Steelman: Chain Store Age recently announced its Top 10 Retail Center Experiences for 2021. Trademark’s Galleria Dallas was named number three on that list. Can you please share more about this award? Like what was the criteria and how did you guys find and determine the centers that were named on the list?

Urbanski: So, we started this five years ago; it was when I came into this arena. One of the good things, and actually there was an example of this on our list, like when you’re brand new to something, everything’s new. So, a lot of things that you think, oh well, we didn’t do that, but I said, well, wait a minute, I don’t think that people are paying as much attention to this in magazines and websites, and that is it’s all about experience. It’s all I kept seeing. So, this is not new to developers such as yourself. You just can’t put sales and products out there anymore in this age, you have to give people a good time, a good experience, other reasons to come there. So that’s how the award started. The way that they’re picked, it’s kind of like the Miss America contest – if you want to be Miss America, you’ve got to enter.

Steelman: I got to have a talent, too.

Urbanski: You’ve got to enter. We put up a call to nominations on our website. And so, this year I think we got about 43 nominations for the 10. And really, it was a simple thing. Look, the editorial staff gets the list of nominations, I might give them some tips about certain things. I also appeal to them that I would like to get every sub sector of retail real estate covered – malls, outdoor, mixed-use – and just give me your top 10 list, and I put them all together and that’s how it happens.

Steelman: Well, we were excited to be on the list, especially to land number three. So, it was very exciting for Trademark to celebrate this win with Galleria Dallas.

Urbanski: You had votes from every one of the judges. And one of the things, a couple of the things you did great, but what I thought was what’s the top experience of the year? Christmas. That’s where you make most of your money; make sure you do that real well. And you guys do.

Steelman: I will say of Trademark Property, all of our centers, especially this past year when we were dealing with the pandemic, really did a great job because we thought about, you talked about the experience, and that’s one of the things that we really wanted to make sure we preserved is the magic of the holiday season and to keep those experiential moments for families and children alive because that’s really what makes a difference. Why would I want to risk coming out to a center if I’m not going to have this emotional experience with my family and Santa? So overall, all of the properties that Trademark has in our portfolio did an excellent job with holiday, and especially at Galleria Dallas with that 95-foot-tall Christmas tree right in the middle of the ice rink, which is the tallest indoor tree in the United States. So, it’s always fun and festive to be inside Galleria during the holiday season.

Urbanski: What’d you guys did was make it a must to go there.

Steelman: That’s true. When you see the tree, it’s just automatically one of those things that gets you super excited about holidays. And it’s the perfect backdrop for a photo. Everybody’s looking for a great social media moment, and so, why not be photographed in front of the United States’ tallest indoor Christmas tree?

Urbanski: Yeah, I lived in Manhattan most of my life; every year, I’d make sure I went down to Rockefeller Center to see the tree.

Steelman: Well, Trademark Property is making a conscious effort to consider diversity and inclusion. Are you seeing this trend across the industry? And did this trend weigh in to the Top 10 rankings?

Urbanski: Yeah, it weighed in on its own, it’s something that wasn’t on a list that we looked for. But I think it’s just really, truly a subset of local. And this, I think, is one of the big changes in the old mall and the new mall. You went into a mall, it was all the same specialty retailers, you can pretty much count on what was there. Younger people, millennials, gen-Zers are bored by that, not good. So, everyone’s going local. So, you folks did it in Dallas. That was a great thing that you did, it was fashion – was it the fashion event?

Steelman: Yeah, well, we did several things I think that kind of falls into this category, but most importantly, I thought the Black fashion movement pop-up shop that we did was great, where we were able to bring in a lot of local African American fashion designers, but we also invited designers from all over the United States where customers were able to come in and meet the creators or the founders of a brand, shop the collection, and it made a significant impact on those individuals’ businesses. And that’s what I thought was so successful for me. It attracted thousands of people into the center during Juneteenth weekend. But most importantly, Trademark Property was able to take smaller brands and give them an opportunity to sell in one of the nation’s top centers at Galleria Dallas. So, I think that is what I think is so critical and exciting about this movement, being able to celebrate diversity in a way that you can change the course of someone’s future by making their business more impactful.

Urbanski: Absolutely. And I mentioned that PREIT in Philadelphia does it at Macerich, at Fashion District. They have a whole section that are essentially local, but they tend to be a lot of merchants who live in Philadelphia, and it’s fantastic. And actually, in there – I had been at an event in another one of their malls where a woman had come out that I was talking with, and she said being in this mall, she was doing a mail order business with socks, she said like a bunch of my friends were like, wow, you’re in the CherryVale Mall? You’ve made it big! And she said the attention they get is great. The other thing that’s going on though, just to mention, there’s a developer named David Bramble – I don’t know if you’ve heard of him, but he’s a very interesting guy based in Baltimore – he did a project in Baltimore that was just phenomenal. It was an old – I don’t know if you know Baltimore, there were some sections that are just not redeveloped for 40 years – and this was like an old plant, an old warehouse and construction plant. He bought it, worked with the city to get funding, they got a supermarket in there. The place is called – oh, I forget the name of the center, but the Streets was the name of the grocery center. They have Chipotle in there. They’ve got LA Fitness. And they’re going to keep doing more of these. So, I think you’re going to see this happening all across the country. I really don’t think it’s still part of that local brand.

Steelman: When I think about diversity inclusion, during the pandemic, we started a series called Talent Talks, which was a virtual opportunity for people to Zoom in with Galleria Dallas and meet a designer or meet a celebrity or learn about makeup trends. And we were actually excited that we hosted a Spanish-speaking virtual experience with Mexican actor Mark Tacher, and it was our most successful Zoom that we did during the shutdown. And we saw that when we were able to attract hundreds of Spanish speakers to participate in something, we thought this was a really exciting thing to see. And of course,  during Pride, we partnered with the Turtle Creek Chorale, which is a local men’s chorus in Dallas. So, they were able to do their very first performance since the pandemic right in the middle of Galleria Dallas, and then we were able to celebrate their organization and what they do all in the month of June, which was a great way to, again, show that we are committed to making a difference in the area of diversity and inclusion.

Urbanski: Yeah. Well, I mean, you guys do a lot of events. That’s the other big word – activation, right? So, when you just had sales in the old days, and now, you’re having an event once, twice, three times a week, reach out to everybody that’s in your catchment area and beyond.

Steelman: Yeah, you’re right. And I love the fact that we look at experiences as what can we do to attract people that you can’t do online? So having these types of experiences and activations really are the difference that separates brick-and-mortar, to me, from online. And it allows customers the opportunity to shake the hand and meet a designer, to have a glass of champagne with their favorite friend while they’re shopping and having a good experience. Well, the Top 10 List focuses on centers that go beyond shopping excellence and focuses on the guest experience. In your opinion, what makes for a good retail experience? And what elements are needed that centers need to incorporate to have a successful guest experience?

Urbanski: It’s funny that I do this job. I’m a typical classic male shopper. I know what I want. I’ve bought the same jeans for the last 30 years. I know where they are. I know a few other things I want. I know the store I’m going to, and to me, it’s a military mission to get in and out as soon as possible. However, since I’ve been touring these facilities and looking at it from a portion of what you folks do, what I think makes a great retail experience as I’ve seen in all these centers is do I want to go back there? It’s like you got to get me there, that’s one. But I think the main thing is get me back. And so, it’s special things that are there. So, I’ll think of Crocker Park, west of Cleveland – and I don’t know if you know Bob Stark that created Crocker Park, he is an incredible guy – but it’s just a cool place to be. It’s like being in a town. If you were in Ohio and you just drove through this town that was Crocker Park, you’d to go, hey, this looks like a cool place, let’s stop and have lunch and check it out. So that’s it. Surprise me and make me want to come back.

Steelman: Over the years, what has been the most surprising thing to you about the list? And were there any new surprises this year on that Top 10 Retail Experience list?

Urbanski: I would say there was only one surprise. And I told you before, I try to get every sector in. One of the sectors that doesn’t nominate themselves a lot are neighborhood centers, grocery anchored centers, although there are some that are incredible and do new things. We had Mellody Farms, I forget the name of the town in Illinois, but it’s north of Chicago, but it’s Regency Centers and they just built it; I think it opened in ’17. But it was an upscale neighborhood and they said we want to do an outdoor center. But their markings are most of those centers, people drive into them, they drive to one big box store, they come out of there, they get in their cars, drive to the next big box store in the same center. We wanted to make it a community center. So, they kind of did it inside out and have green space, playgrounds, art exhibitions, things like that. And what they had done – and they did research beforehand asking people in the area what they were looking for in a center, so I thought that that was great. And I think that’s something we’re going to see a lot more of, a little more intensive research on the demos. And people are picky, as we know, and online makes them pickier.

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