Consumer spending picks up as new stores open

2014-03-16T00:00:00Z 2014-03-16T00:56:08Z Consumer spending picks up as new stores openJoseph S. Pete, (219) 933-3316

Consumer spending has been making a comeback, and big stores have been cropping up lately in Northwest Indiana's retail sector.

Whole Foods' announcement it would open an supermarket in Schererville could help bring more upscale retailers to the region, said Mikah Pollak, an Indiana University Northwest assistant professor of economics. Stores that cater to affluent customers often follow each other's lead, and Whole Foods in particular is regarded for its demographics-crunching and site selection.

"They have a reputation of being at the vanguard of economic development," Pollak said.

The nerve center of region retail — the super-regional Southlake Mall in Hobart — reverted last year to being the Southlake Mall after an 11-year run as Westfield Southlake Mall, a name that few people liked and fewer used. Australia-based shopping center giant Westfield Group sold 1.3 million-square-foot mall and six other malls to an affiliate of Starwood Capital Group for $1.64 billion.

Starwood, a Connecticut-based private investment firm that also owns hotels and beach resorts, promised to bring fresh ideas and stripped the Westfield name from the sign on U.S. 30 a few days after closing the deal.

New stores have opened in the bustling retail trade area around the mall. Jo-Ann Fabric and Craft Stores opened a new location at 1916 E. 80th Ave. in Merrillville Plaza. Weiss Entities planned to open a 16,000-square-foot super-sized Wise Guys Discount Liquors across the the mall. Owner and President Don Weiss said it would be more than five times as large as the current Wise Guys store in Hobart, and have at least three times as much selection.

New stores flocked to other retail areas, including where projects were delayed for years during the downtown. A developer revived plans to build a $12.5 million 100-room Hampton Inn in Oxbow Landing in Hammond, where Buffalo Wild Wings and Hammond Station and Brewery also are planned. WalMart announced plans to build a superstore next to the Cabela's on the other side of Kennedy Avenue.

Chipotle Mexican Grill, The Vitamin Shoppe, Massage Envy Spa and Physicians Urgent Care opened in an outlot of the 603,812-square-foot Highland Grove Shopping Center, one of the largest in Northwest Indiana.

Further south in Schererville, new retail projects really took off. Construction finally began on Schererville's Shops on Main lifestyle center, which was proposed in 2007 and then stalled during the Great Recession. Gordmans, Ross Dress for Less, HomeGoods, DSW Designer Shoe Warehouse and Whole Foods all announced they would move into the 350,000-square-foot retail center.

Planet Fitness moved into the Boulevard Square redevelopment of the former Menards building at 1000 U.S. 41, which developer Al Krygier planned to transform into a strip mall with "junior box stores" such as clothing and furniture shops. Albert’s Diamond Jewelers President Josh Halpern also planned to transform the area around the former Krispy Kreme at 320 Indianapolis Blvd. into a Shoppes on the Boulevard shopping center that would be home to as many as 11 new stores and restaurants.

Such developments are encouraging signs of the region's overall economic health, Pollak said.

Established retailers in Northwest Indiana fared well during the all-important holiday season. Nationally, shoppers spent $265.9 billion in November and December, an increase of 2.7 percent according to ShopperTrak. That increase beat analysts' expectations, and ShopperTrak believes retail sales will rise by 2.8 percent during the first three months of this year.

"We will continue to see the trend of steady sales increases as consumer confidence rises and the economy progresses," said ShopperTrak founder Bill Martin. "And, while foot traffic will continue to slow due to changing consumer patterns — with more shoppers purchasing online or researching products online before heading to stores — retailers must remember an overwhelming majority of all retail sales in the U.S. will occur in brick-and-mortar stores. Retailers who deliver a seamless customer experience both in the store and across all channels will emerge ahead of the rest."

Over the course of the year, household purchases rose by 0.5, according to the U.S. Department of Commerce.

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