YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio – Traditionally, area shopping malls are known for national chain stores and large retailers. As these companies navigate headwinds forced by changing consumer habits such as online shopping, local merchants see more opportunities to establish storefronts in malls as these indoor complexes shift to a more community-oriented business model.
“Local shops do quite well,” says Joe Bell, spokesman for Cafaro Co., which owns the Eastwood Mall in Niles. “Their whole secret is a niche product – something out of the ordinary.”
Bell estimates local owners operate between 25% and 30% of the retail business at the Eastwood complex, taking into consideration locally owned franchises.
Specialty stores such as Everything Buckeyes, Hubbard Music, Truth Fashion Boutique and Tri-Healthy CBD are just several of the regional or locally owned shops inside the mall, he says. The list also includes landmark retailers such as Reyers Shoe Store, which relocated to Eastwood from downtown Sharon, Pa.
“It’s happening more and more,” Bell says. “National bankruptcies have made room for smaller local and regional retailers.”
Still, Bell notes big retailers such as J.C. Penney and Boscov’s, which opened its doors at Eastwood in September, are indispensable to local merchants since they draw shoppers into these big retail centers. “There’s a symbiotic relationship with the bigger stores since they create traffic that benefit local ones as well,” he says.
Renee Malutic says her business, MiMe Global LLC, a gift and service retailer that prints personalized 3D full-color figurines of yourself, loved ones or pets, says interest in her business has increased since Boscov’s opened in early October.
“It’s now an anchor store here and it’s helped with foot traffic,” she says, since MiMe sits near the Boscov’s entrance.
“People are catching on and we’re getting a lot of repeat customers,” she says. “Our business is up 30% this year.”
The shop is able to take 200 photos in a single click of more than one person at once – a family of four, for example – and then transmit the digital image to a 3D printer. The printer then builds 3D personalized figurines for purchase.
Since COVID, the business has diversified into selling materials used in 3D printing and smaller, desktop 3D printers used for home or school, Malutic says.
Most important, Malutic says, the business model of her company is geared for a mall presence. “We prefer being in a mall. We’re a destination place. And the amount of foot traffic offsets the need for advertising.”
The company is considering an expansion into the Cleveland area as well as along the boardwalk of Atlantic City, N.J., she says.
Andy Agona, store manager at Sports Obsession says the location of his shop in the Eastwood Mall has allowed it to thrive since it opened in 2007. Initially established in Erie, Pa., the sports memorabilia shop, whose owners are from western Pennsylvania, expanded to Eastwood and then to a site in Grove City, Pa. They recently opened another store in Buffalo, N.Y.
“Ever since we came back after the pandemic, business has been great,” Agona says. Many chain retailers are limited as to what they can sell in terms of team memorabilia, he says, while Sports Obsession has a much wider latitude to stock jerseys, hats, mini helmets, Nascar collectibles, and other products that represent numerous professional and collegiate sports programs.
“We have no limits to what we can carry and bring in,” Agona says. “A lot of people are buying the last of the Indians stuff,” as the Cleveland baseball team changes its name to The Guardians effective next season. “[Cleveland] Browns stuff sells good, and [Pittsburgh] Steelers stuff always does well here.”
Despite jammed-up global supply chains, Agona says Sports Obsession is already well stocked for the holidays. “We got way ahead of the game. A lot of companies came to us and urged us to order inventory early,” he says. “By Oct. 1, this place looked like it normally would during Christmas time.”
Other local shops at Eastwood Mall have felt the sting of COVID but are slowly gaining traction.
“When we reopened, it was like starting from scratch,” says Beth Brinton, owner of Busy Bees Pottery and Art Studio. The business is a hands-on arts and crafts shop where customers can paint, decorate and create their own pieces of art. “We have about seven different media they can work with – from glass fusing to clay to jewelry making.”
The idea for the Busy Bees stems from Brinton’s love of art, she says, though she’s not a trained artist herself. Instead, her concept provided the perfect combination of artistic creativity and entrepreneurship. “I’ve always loved art. [She pauses briefly.] It’s the biggest inspiration,” she says. “But not being a professional artist, how do you do something with art?”
Busy Bees is open seven days a week and also hosts art classes, provides rental options for parties, and holds sip-and-paint sessions during the evening hours, Brinton says.
Perhaps there’s no better example of a locally owned mall shop than the Youngstown Clothing Co., an apparel store dedicated entirely to all things Youngstown and the Mahoning Valley.
“We started selling online and did some pop-up events in 2016,” says co-owner Matt McClure. That same year, the company set up its first kiosks in the Southern Park Mall during the holidays. Business went so well that Youngstown Clothing opened its permanent store there in October 2019.
“It’s worked out great in the mall,” McClure says. “They’ve worked with us since we started.”
The shop specializes in T-shirts, hats, and sweatshirts that carry a distinctly Youngstown theme. There are shirts that display features of Mill Creek Park, Youngstown State University, and traditions such as “Spaghetti Sunday.”
Throwback apparel features designs related to Idora Park and the Youngstown Pride basketball team, which existed during the 1980s and played in the now-defunct World Basketball League.
“I always say that we don’t have the pro sports teams here. But what we do have is the rich history and the nostalgia,” McClure says. “And those are the things that make you feel proud to be from this area.”
McClure says that Washington Prime Group, owner of the mall, has always been conscious of Youngstown Clothing’s status as a small business. “They know we’re a small business and not a big box. But I also feel like that’s where malls in general need to go.”
Local establishments, McClure says, are garnering more interest as more customers move away from large retailers, as many move to support ‘shop local’ movements. “People are very conscious and we’re thrilled to be a part of it.”
Pictured: Busy Bees in Eastwood Mall offers hands-on arts and crafts, says Beth Brinton.