Lessons from the hottest retail spots in Los Angeles

There is an oft-cited myth in Los Angeles that the Grove gets more visitors than Disneyland.

“That’s probably not true,” a spokesperson for Caruso, the developer behind the outdoor mall in downtown Los Angeles, told BoF.

Still, it seems true: The Grove is hugely popular with Southern California natives and tourists alike, and is living proof that malls aren’t dead.

In fact, Los Angeles is dotted with thriving brick-and-mortar retail concepts, most built in the last more than two decades, even though hundreds of malls have closed across the country. The revamped Brentwood Country Mart has the distinction of having the first permanent Goop store. The Shops at Sportsmen’s Lodge touts Los Angeles’ most popular retailer as its prime tenant: Erewhon Market. The platform, a 75,000-square-foot commercial alcove in Culver City, is almost completely hidden from street view. And The Grove really is like an amusement park with its own trolley system and a dancing fountain.

In the city’s busiest malls, brands can take months or even years to occupy an empty site. And even as spaces open up, their landlords can be wary of tenant quality, often opting for new and diverse brands over big retailers like the Gap and Victoria’s Secret.

If you go, you’ll make it all day. We park, we shop, we spend time.

This is in stark contrast to struggling malls and retailers that have yet to adapt to consumers’ changing lifestyles. Most often, these centers have the same layout, with huge department store anchors and the same stable of antiquated chains.

Foot traffic data shows that people prefer these new ways of shopping to traditional malls. According to Placer.ai, more than 605,000 people visited The Grove in April – compared to 158,500 visits to the indoor mall Beverly Center, just a mile west, even though the Beverly Center is actually a luxury mall, with tenants like Balenciaga, Prada and Golden Goose.

Outside of Los Angeles, there are successful outdoor retail developments such as Highland Park Village in Dallas and Old Orchard in Skokie, Illinois. But what is it about Los Angeles that regularly turns clusters of restaurants, clothing stores, and fitness clinics into must-visit places? And can the formula be duplicated elsewhere?

“In these places, it’s not like you drop into the Old Navy and then leave,” said Gabriella Santaniello, a Los Angeles-based retail consultant. “If you go, you’ll make it all day. We park, we shop, we spend time.

Old mall, new mall

Nestled in the foothills of the Malibu hills and across the highway from the beach, the Malibu Country Mart (unrelated to the one in Brentwood) is one of Los Angeles’ pioneering retail stores that exemplify the growing gap between large aging malls built in the 1960s. the 1970s and 1980s, as well as newer, typically open-air malls, mostly built after 2000, which offer a distinctive mix of grocery, fashion and wellness, and entertainment venues.

Andie, a New York-based online swimwear brand, recently opened its first store at Malibu Country Mart after months of waiting to open and then competing with other aspiring tenants for leases. The six-year-old company has had exposure to more traditional malls such as the nearby Glendale Galleria in Los Angeles and Fashion Island in Newport Beach but has always turned down the opportunity, according to founder and CEO Melanie Travis.

“We just don’t want to get lost in a big mall,” Travis said. “Malls like Malibu Country Mart don’t drag you down like going to the store [old-fashioned] shopping center with fluorescent lighting.

Unlike the suburban malls operated by Macy’s, JCPenney and Sears a few years ago, the newest open malls have no department stores at all. The Shops at Sportsmen’s Lodge, a 95,000-square-foot shopping mall developed by real estate developer Midwood and opening in 2021, features an Equinox gym and an Erewhon convenience store as its largest tenants.

Inside the shops at Sportsmen's Lodge, an outdoor mall in Culver City.

The idea is that shoppers in the area can go to Equinox in the morning, pick up one of Erewon’s famous $20 cocktails after a workout, and casually browse the mall’s slender but inviting list of stores, including Reformation, Vuori, small-format Fred Segal and the Next Health wellness studio. Later, shoppers may be forced to stop for lunch at Roberta’s – one of four Bushwick pizzerias outside of New York – or at Kismet, a local favourite.

“Coming out of Covid, we’ve all been confined to our homes for two years and people want a social experience,” said Ron Bondy, Midwood’s vice president of retail leasing. “And when we go to a certain place, it not only meets your needs, it also says something about who you are.”

For Travis, it was Whole Foods that sealed the Malibu Country Mart deal.

“A mom who shops at Whole Foods is a mom who buys Andie,” she said. “It couldn’t be a more perfect destination.”

The platform has no anchors at all. Most of its stores are around 800 square feet, and the first tenants were Aesop and Blue Bottle Coffee, two brands that appeal more to wealthy millennials than a department store.

“People went to Sears because Sears had a great selection of stuff,” said Joey Miller, who co-founded Runyon Group, the real estate firm behind Platform, with business partner David Fishbein. “When they go shopping today, they do so for curatorial purposes. For the sake of perspective and entertainment … we long ago admitted that the assortment belongs to the Internet.”

Food before fashion

Bondy began his search for tenants at Sportsmen’s Lodge with food and drink rather than retail. After all, young consumers are spending more on experiences, including dining out. A recent Morning Consult poll found that Gen Z respondents spend 40 percent of their monthly spend on food – more than on clothing and entertainment. For many of this generation, restaurants signal personal taste and style more than clothing brands.

“Food followed fashion, and now fashion follows food,” said Bondy. “We were very careful when choosing our food range because we didn’t want to be obvious. We wanted to be cool and very LA.”

Bondy added that Midwood had leased restaurants like Sugarfish and HiHo Cheeseburger in Los Angeles.

“The road to success is bumpy and expensive,” he said. “We really felt that if we made the right decision up front, we would connect with a local client and the rewards would come to us later.”

Visitors to Sycamore like to highlight its French dining options: Tartine Bakery, Gigi’s bistro-style restaurant, and Mr. T, a French eatery inspired by street food.

“Specialty restaurants and gourmet food stores are key,” said Santaniello. “This is what allows you to take a break from the everyday shopping center. This is no ordinary shopping.

Special tenants

Developers use the same specific approach to their clothing tenants.

“The way we approach leasing is mostly based on curiosity, constantly reading interesting travel magazines, fashion magazines and blogs,” said Fishbein of Runyon Group. “We’re looking for things that don’t yet exist in regular Los Angeles stores.”

Fishbein and Miller run their own high-end clothing boutiques in Platform called Teller and The Optimist. They made the decision to avoid the pitfalls of a traditional department store, but still offer shoppers an experience of discovery. The platform also houses Monocle Magazine’s only brick-and-mortar store in the US, as well as an independent women’s clothing store, Wyeth.

Teller, a Runyon Group boutique on the platform.

The platform reserves space for seasonal pop-ups; its current resident is Plant Daddies, a local potted plant design company that sells exotic potted plants in large, showy pots.

“I saw some of my Instagram followers go to their showroom and they were two up-and-coming young guys changing the houseplant game in Los Angeles,” said Fishbein. So he sent them a cold email and within a few days the Plant Daddies were on the Platform checking out the space.

Social programming

Good restaurants and interesting shops are not enough to constantly attract shoppers; there must be a solid list of activities ranging from live entertainment to children’s programming.

The platform employs a community manager and annually organizes about 200 events, shopping events in cooperation with automotive fairs. The Grove has an ongoing partnership with Apple TV+, where every Thursday morning in May, the streaming network hosts two-hour sessions for children, including puppet shows and storytelling. Another Caruso property, Americana at Brand, hosts weekly fitness classes for moms and their babies in pushchairs.

“Good malls create a community,” Santaniello said of Caurso and other properties. “It builds retail, restaurants, music. They run events, have common areas that are inviting, and there are pop-ups. They always make it interesting and I like that too.”

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