Thursday, April 24, 2008

Columbia's Retail Scene:Bracing for a Shaky Economy

Don't let President Bush fool you with his propaganda, the economy is tanking nationwide and the national retail chains are taking a big hit as well as some of the locals. Columbia and Howard County have always been somewhat sheltered from economic woes. Being located so close to D.C. a huge percentage of residents are Federal Government Employees where lay offs are about as common as a sighting of Bigfoot. Not only do residents work directly for the Federal Government but residents work for companies that are contracted by the Federal Government. Massive layoffs that plague other parts of the Country don't land at our doorstep. Still, we're not bulletproof and sky high rents, stiff competition, and national chain bankruptcy have shown their faces in Columbia.The evolution of retail can also be blamed for vacant storefronts that have popped up in Columbia. As I mentioned in the previous post, Wilde Lake Village Center lost both a Giant Supermarket and Produce Galore in the past two years as well as Great Clips and Ridels Flowers. Kimco, the center's owners say that they can't find a replacement supermarket but I'm stubborn as a mule in thinking that they got the Maple Lawn Style redevelopment idea and ran with it. I think that if the economy were in better shape a full service supermarket would come to Wilde Lake. Another evolution of the retail world has been in the way we rent videos. Netflix has hit the ground running as a video rental mailing service.
Blockbuster has been closing down retail stores left and right and restructuring their operation to focus on mail video rental to compete with netflix. Hickory Ridge, Wilde Lake, River Hill, and Long Reach have closed their Blockbuster locations while Dorsey's Search is still open but the Kimco website has it listed as a vacancy meaning they're looking to close up shop.In the big box scene, there are signs of crumbling as well. The Comp USA chain has gone bankrupt meaning the inevitable closure of their Columbia Crossing location despite it being one of their busiest locations.
SCAN furniture declared chain wide bankruptcy and closed their Dobbin Center Store. I'm unsure if all locations were closed but that SCAN never seemed that busy.
Also on the furniture front, I predict Haverty's will close its Dobbin Center location in the coming year as will Offenbachers. Their parking lot is deserted all hours of the day and if even if they're doing well through catalog and online sales there's no point having a show room that no one will go to. That section of Dobbin Center's parking lot was so empty that a Chevy Chase Bank was built on it. Dobbin Center has always been stuck in the middle of the retail tide. Is it a big box center? Or a shopping center? This has made it tough to attract and retain tenants on either end of the retail spectrum and gets overshadowed by its newer big box opponents across the street. Speaking of new big box centers the new Gateway Overlook still has a vacancy between Costco and Office Depot. Office Depot doesn't seem to see much business either. Suffering from the identity crisis that it does Dobbin Center has gone through many anchors. It started with a Bradless then a KMart and finally a Wal Mart which has fulfilled its role as anchor tenant. On the other side there's been a Hechinger, Uptons, and Haverty's which as I said previously said predict will close it also took a long time to get. In the back of the center there was an F&M drugstore which left and was replaced by SCAN and it took a long time for them to get SCAN. Ross has been the sole anchor tenant that's put down any roots. Another important fact about Dobbin Center is that it will soon have Columbia's only Blockbuster.Snowden Square has dodged a bullet in the economic woes of retail America. Best Buy, perhaps the center's biggest draw moved down the street to the new Gateway Overlook that could have spelled the end for PetsMart and DSW which replaced a Borders that moved to Columbia Crossing several years ago. But Snowden fought back with a Fielene's Basement, the only one in the area which has filled void left by Best Buy. Another closure that seems inevitable is the United Artist Theaters behind Snowden. Muvico at Arundel Mills and AMC 14 at the Mall have chipped away at its customer base. United Artists did this to General Cinema 3 and Columbia Palace 9. I'd give it another year or two before they close up shop.
Columbia may be experiencing the nation's economic woes on the retail scene but with our proximity to D.C. massive job layoffs may surpass us.