The well-known problems with anchor tenants in Juneau's foremost shopping malls might have given a misleading impression of the malls' health, say their merchants and marketing directors.
But the business decisions made by national corporations - such as J.C. Penney and Lamonts - have little to do with the economic climate at the Nugget and Mendenhall malls, they say. And while the loss of the nationals is a problem, it isn't critical yet.
While mall merchants face pressure from ``big box'' retailers such as Kmart, as well as the Internet, they say business isn't that bad, although Mendenhall Mall faces more of a struggle.
``We really have a low vacancy rate, in terms of a national average,'' said Sandy Beeson, longtime marketing director for the Nugget Mall merchants association. ``Our occupancy rate has been, like, 98 percent. It's really amazing.''
Last fall, Lamonts apparel chain announced it was going into Chapter 11 reorganization, although company officials said the chain would survive and continue operations at Nugget Mall, where it has been one of two anchor stores.
Previously, the Nugget Mall was rocked by the loss of its other anchor, when Rite Aid pulled out in the summer of 1998. About the same time, J.C. Penney left the Mendenhall Mall.
Both storefronts remain empty, although the corporations are still fulfilling financial obligations to the property managers.
The Jay Jacobs clothing store in Nugget Mall, while not an anchor, also shut down last fall, after the national chain filed for bankruptcy.
The loss of Rite Aid has not had as much impact on other businesses as feared, Beeson said. ``I've heard it was a tremendous Christmas for most of the stores.''
Beeson said that the constant scheduling of community events has been key to maintaining the traffic.
``It makes Nugget Mall a place to be on the weekends,'' she said.
Hearthside Books co-owner Susan Hickey said that with her business remaining steady after Rite Aid's departure, ``We realized we were a real destination.''
Brenda Andersen, new manager of Scentiments, said that this Christmas was an improvement over 1998, the first season without Rite Aid.
Still, ``They were missed, both as a shopper and a retailer here in the mall,'' Andersen said.
``A fully occupied mall would be good,'' said Susan Sutton, owner of the Hallmark greeting card store in Nugget Mall.
But Sutton said that Beeson has done well in marketing and that the merchants look out for each other by making referrals when they don't have products customers want.
At Mendenhall Mall, merchants have been concerned about business, said Mick Rarig, owner of Music in the Micks. ``They all grumble.''
The recent departure of two local clothing stores, Alaskan Dames & Alaskan Gents Consignment Shop and Lisa Davidson's, has added to concern about the state of the mall.
``It doesn't have a good vendor mix; it doesn't have something for everybody,'' said Vinessa Allen, owner of Belles Full Figure Fashions. Structurally, ``it's not wide open like Nugget Mall. It's not a straight shot up and down (the hallway).''
But the Mendenhall Mall does have the Superbear grocery store for an anchor, noted Susan Kaeser, marketing director for the mall's merchants. While a grocery store is ``an unusual anchor,'' Kaeser said, ``That probably brings in a lot more traffic than Lamonts does.''
Kaeser said that local merchants in the mall are doing a good job of carving out an identity.
``I think the role of the mall vs. the big box retailers is more specified merchandise,'' she said. ``The small retailers are unique.'' At Belles, ``you can find something there you're not going to find on every woman in Juneau.''
Retailers each have their own reason why they're in the mall.
Rarig's store Music in the Micks is in the Mendenhall Mall for the sake of continuity: He was manager of Music in the Mix when it was located there, and he kept the space and just slightly altered the business name to keep the connection with the customer base.
Allen said she put Belles in the mall to get walk-in traffic. And Jackie Leight said she moved her business, The Silk Garden, from her home to the mall to pick up more customers.
Still, merchants don't want to see the absence of an anchor go on indefinitely.
Allen said she hopes for a Toys R Us or Kids R Us outlet, so that ``every member of the family'' will be drawn to Mendenhall Mall.
``There's always a rumor of one sort or another,'' she said. ``At this point, it really doesn't matter. We do need an anchor to make the mall viable. The same is true at Nugget Mall.''
Reinhold Fluck of Rhine Rentals, property manager at Mendenhall Mall, could not be reached for comment.
At Nugget Mall, manager Bud Jaeger, an employee of Loveless Tollefson Properties of Bellevue, Wash., said that he is always on the lookout for a new anchor tenant, although nothing appears imminent.
A national spokesman for Sears Roebuck Co. said he could not comment on any plans that might be in development for a store in Juneau.
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