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Published July 31 2012

West Acres Turns 40: A business balancing act (Part 3 of 4)

FARGO – What’s the most valuable product at West Acres?

Easy: You are.

The shopping center’s 120-plus stores sell everything from swanky suits to pricey electronics to head-turning diamonds. But the mall’s owners don’t make a dime off those things.

Instead, they make money selling stores access to the 20,000 shoppers West Acres attracts each day.

“Our direct customers are stores, but our mission is to attract shoppers,” said Brad Schlossman, the West Acres chief executive.

That puts the mall, essentially a well-compensated matchmaker for merchants and customers, in the business of keeping the two related but distinct groups happy.

A sparkling experience

For Rusty Papachek, the mall’s general manager for the past 14 years, that means dwelling on the details of the mall experience – a tidy parking lot, sparkling window glass, friendly security guards.

Oh, and the bathrooms. Employees check on those every 15 to 20 minutes.

“We get a lot of great comments on the restrooms,” Papachek said.

Every morning, Papachek and operations manager Brad Barke start the day by touring the property and looking for anything that needs work. They have a sharp eye for anything out of place, from grass that needs mowing to contractors parked in the wrong spot, but they also try to put themselves in the shoes of a customer coming to the mall for the first time.

“We try to see through their eyes what they see,” Papachek said. “You can’t take back someone’s first impression.”

After the customers leave each night, the operations staff works to make it look like they’ve never been there at all. On a typical night, a half-dozen maintenance workers spend about three hours sweeping and scrubbing the floors, cleaning the carpets, and getting the mall as close to mint condition as possible for the next day’s visitors.

“It’s keeping everything on an even keel so everything looks the same every day,” Barke said. “It’s never done.”

The nightly cleaning spree isn’t just a point of pride – it’s a key pillar of the business plan. In an era in which shoppers can buy every item in the mall with a few clicks online, West Acres has to offer something more.

“It’s the experience,” Papachek said. “We don’t want them just to come and shop.”

Safety first

West Acres contracts its security operations to Advance Security, which staffs four officers at the mall.

In a relatively trouble-free mall with low shoplifting rates, their jobs have more to do with helping out customers with directions than running down miscreants.

“Ninety-five percent of their job is public relations,” Papachek said.

The highest security priority is for lost children. It only happens once or twice a year, but when it does, officers and mall employees mobilize in a hurry.

Kirby Sandvik, branch manager for Advance Security at the mall, said the child is usually found within a minute.

When West Acres first opened, it was outside Fargo city limits – and outside the jurisdiction of Fargo police. So Fred Anderson, the mall’s first operations manager, became a sheriff’s deputy to help out.

It wasn’t exactly the Wild West – “You don’t hear many bad things that happen at West Acres,” Anderson said – but he dealt with his fair share of shoplifters and the occasional ill-intentioned character.

In one incident, a security guard banged up his shoulder tackling a streaker who was running through the mall in the buff on a dare.

Anderson hauled the offender, a man in his 20s wearing a cowboy hat and nothing else, into the mall office and gave him a stern once-over.

“Well,” said Anderson, a former Navy serviceman thoroughly unimpressed by the antics, “don’t you look cute.”

Waiting, wishing, evolving

Shoppers may stick around for the clean restrooms and the streaker-free environment, but there’s little doubt they come for the shops. And it’s Jim Ross’ job to give the people what they want.

The mall’s leasing manager is responsible for making sense of the constant ebb and flow of stores into, out of and around West Acres.

“There’s leases that are expiring every year,” Ross said. “It’s a puzzle.”

It’s also something of a conundrum: The mall wants stores to be happy enough to stay, but needs them to leave to free up space for additions.

Ross said steady turnover is key to the mall’s health.

“It needs to change,” Ross said. “That’s what keeps it fresh and fun and exciting.”

Few things get mallgoers more pumped up than the addition of a hot new store. In the lead-up to Forever 21’s October 2010 opening, 20 to 30 people a day were asking the mall when the store was coming, and hundreds more buzzed about it online.

But getting to that point requires patience, careful planning, and a bit of luck. Ross can’t simply call up Retail Central Casting and order a new Gap on the double.

The company has to be in expansion mode, and Fargo has to fit into its geographic plans. If a chain hasn’t come to Denver or Minneapolis yet, it’s not likely to skip straight to North Dakota. The right co-tenants, the peer group of stores retailers look for in choosing locations, have to be in place. The mall has to have an opening, and it has to be the right size and in the right location.

Sometimes, that means playing musical stores. To add Hollister, the mall had to shuffle around a half-dozen other tenants.

“It seems like there’s always something we want and the timing isn’t quite right,” said Schlossman, the chief executive.

The process of adding Forever 21, Ross said, took nearly a decade.

Complications aside, there’s no shortage of interest from new tenants. There’s no official “waiting list” because of the myriad factors involved, but the mall is in constant contact with retailers about future possibilities.

After four decades of success, selling the mall to retailers isn’t hard. Its stores average $520 in sales per square foot, better than the industry average of about $350. At times, Ross said, the West Acres branches of some stores have been the top performers in their respective national chains.

The mall keeps its own wish list of stores. Ross was tight-lipped about what they are, but did say trendy global clothing giant H&M is one of them.

Don’t hold your breath on that one just yet, though: Until 20,000 square feet free up, there’s no place to put it.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Marino Eccher at (701) 241-5502