The raspberry-colored walls are up — as is the large “American Girl” sign with stars dotting the “i”s.
When the highly-anticipated store opens later this week in Chesterfield Mall, lines of devoted fans are expected to snake outside the store as they wait to buy $100 dolls. But many parents haven’t waited for the grand opening to book children’s birthday parties there, with reservations already scheduled for several months out.
The store’s arrival — and the diehard following it brings along — is being welcomed with open arms by Chesterfield Mall. The shopping center has struggled in recent years with declining sales and a lower occupancy rate than many other area malls.
Katie Reinsmidt, spokeswoman for CBL & Associates, the mall’s owner, said the mall has already been moving in a positive direction this year with a rise in both traffic and sales.
“I think things are turning the corner,” she said.
And the American Girl store can’t do anything but help bring more visitors and buzz, she added.
“Other retailers at the center are anticipating some additional traffic — it will definitely have some cross benefit,” she said. “There’s nothing like it in the mall today.”
That’s what Angie Sicard hopes. Her specialty toy store, Toy Tyme, caters to both girls and boys.
“Families are going to spend so much on girls (at American Girl), that the boys are going to want something, too,” she said. “So they are going to come to our store” or other retailers in the mall.
Wade Opland, American Girl’s vice president of retail, said retailers near new American Girl stores usually see a double-digit sales lift regardless of whether it’s a cookie store or clothing store.
“We’re like the Apple of girls business for a mall,” he said, referring to the high traffic and sales that Apple brings to mall-based stores. “That’s why we’re so sought after.”
Whereas most mall stores pull from an area of about 20 miles, American Girl stores draw customers from a 150 to 200-mile radius, Opland said.
The Chesterfield store is one of three stores American Girl will open this year; the other two slated to open later this year are in Miami and Houston.
But while the retailer, which began as a direct-to-consumer catalog company, has been growing its bricks-and-mortar footprints in recent years, it doesn’t expect to have more than 20 stores nationwide, Opland said. The Chesterfield store is American Girl’s 12th store nationwide and will be the retailer’s only store in Missouri.
The retailer was drawn to Chesterfield Mall for its “premier” mix of stores and because it is in the midst of a growing community with many young families, Opland said.
“Part of our strategy is we want to put these stores where mom, girls, and families live,” he said. “At Chesterfield Mall, we’re in a prime location where mom can see us and it has a plethora of parking.”
The 10,850 square-foot store, which has an exterior entrance to the mall, is going into the space formerly occupied by the restaurant Wapango.
CBL’s Reinsmidt said Chesterfield Mall has a great location in an area with attractive demographics.
“But Chesterfield had unfortunate luck going into the recession,” she said. “Pretty much anytime a national bankruptcy announcement was made, there was one of those stores at Chesterfield.”
Borders and The Sharper Image are two examples. And some retailers — such as Abercrombie & Fitch, which shuttered its store in Chesterfield Mall earlier this year — have been paring back their number of mall stores nationwide, she said.
In late 2009, the mall began inviting local artists to fill some empty spaces in the mall as part of Artropolis — similar to ailing Crestwood Court’s now mostly-defunct ArtSpace.
By the end of 2011, Chesterfield Mall’s store space was 93 percent leased, up from 84 percent in 2007, according to CBL’s annual report.
But even though it has fewer vacancies, the mall’s sales per square foot in those mall stores (not including anchors) dropped 17 percent to $270 during that same time period. By comparison, sales per square feet at other CBL malls in the area range from $475 at West County Center to $400 at St. Claire Square to $364 at South County Center.
Reinsmidt said one of the challenges for Chesterfield Mall is that there is a lot of space to fill — nearly 500,000 square feet of store space not including anchors. That is more than any of CBL’s other four malls in the region.
And when the mall’s previous owner, Westfield, refurbished the mall in a $71 million project in 2006, it added more store space with a wing that includes the movie theater, food court, stores and restaurants like the Cheesecake Factory.
“They expanded the small shop space rather than contracting it,” she said.
With so much space, many of Chesterfield’s stores are a bit larger than in other malls, which lowers the mall’s sales-per-square-foot number, she said.
“The stores are really profitable and have great volumes,” she said.
As some stores leave, new tenants continue to come to the mall. Francesca’s Collections opened in the last week or so. And Monsoon, a London-based children’s retailer, is planning to open a store there this summer.
And, of course, there is American Girl. It plans a “soft” opening on Wednesday followed by a grand opening celebration on Saturday and Sunday.