You bet. Here, a photo of S&S Plaza on Anna Maria Island in Florida. It’s one of hundreds of thousands of local strip centers. Of course, we love the classic sign, and that’s why we posted it. A sign gives identity, but so do other things that you do. In a time when rents are falling, the brand of a local shopping center is more important than ever. Yet you cannot afford to do expensive makeovers; the cash is just not there and borrowing seems a challenge.
Here are some quick ideas to perk up your “brand.”
- Start with the basics. Have someone not connected with the shopping center do a little secret shopping. Pay them $50 for a hour’s work to go and make a list of EVERYTHING they see wrong or unattractive about the strip. Have that give that list to you. Add this new punch list to your old punch list. Or better yet, PAY an architect for a one-hour consultation at the property. Tell the architect you can’t afford a big redo, but do want to see if there are any cheap ideas that he can tell you RIGHT NOW to perk things up.
- Keep the old sign, even if it is ugly. Of course if it is really awful, you need to do something. But often, sign regulations do not allow a replacement of sufficient size, so you are stuck. But even if the sign is merely outdated, you will want to stay with it. Perhaps it might attain local “classic” status like S&S? Whether or not it is as cool as the one here, the sign is your identity and it is OK to stick with it. Change isn’t always good. That being said, if you lose a tenant, get the sign down quickly.
- Pay attention to landscaping. This is totally obvious but needs to be said. Namely, a small investment in plants can make a difference. And consider native plants. Find a local expert at one of the native plant societies or LOCAL nurseries who can help you find native plants to re-landscape dead spots. The reason? Native plants require less water, and less maintenance. They also give your shopping center a pleasing feeling. On top of that, you can turn it into a p.r. opportunity. When the plants are put in, ask the nursery to list the varieties, and post the list on your website, with links to the nursery and your local garden club. Tell your tenants about the list, and send the list to the local garden columnist at the paper as way to educate the community.
- Approach county economic development folks and planners. The people who do this sort of work for a living don’t have as many new projects to attract or new projects to plan. So call and tell them that you are the owner or broker, and you are working on new landscaping, and trying to bring in new sorts of tenants. Ask the county planning staff if there are any nearby investments in new highway medians or sidewalks, and thank them if something new is happening. You want to call these folks FIRST and have them on your side. Then when the time comes that you need something, even if county rules conflict, they can help you figure a fair way around them. They can always make exceptions but will only do it if you are friendly.
- Have someone around. Do make sure there is a maintenance guy who comes by frequently to check on things. Even if they can’t afford to do those big things that tenants need, just making sure that light bulbs are changed quickly and gum is removed will be enough to keep tenants feeling like someone cares.
- Preserve old tenants. We came across a retail center here who evicted some long-term tenants because they wanted to jack up the rents to keep margins up. One was a 40-year-old barber shop. Big mistake; the shop moved around the corner and the shopping center now has an empty tenant. What you want is long-term consistency. This is obvious but it often gets forgotten.
- Find itinerant tenants (or vendors) to fill out empty leases. We are not fans of too many nail shops and such, and can’t stand those trucks that come and sell carpets. But are there other temporary businesses that will help drive traffic? Is there a frozen drink pull-cart that can lease out a corner of the parking lot? Can you hold a Saturday craft fair or artist show? Be creative. And remember, its not just about driving traffic that day, its about creating an image for your shopping center, so think about what sort of events will help your “brand”. So don’t just have a radio station there giving out hot dogs. Make sure when they come, there is something useful to promote, like an artist festival.
- Watch the temporary signs. Tenants will want to put all sorts of ugly temporary signs out. Make sure they are out just for a day. That being said, I often pass a shopping center that has tenants switch out small 2X3 plastic signs that say things like “$1 cupcake special” and the like. As long as there aren’t too many, it is fine. If there is a disagreement with a tenant about ugliness, allow them to stick it out there, and see how it works for a few days.
- Create a content-rich website. Pay attention to the words you are going to put on it. Words attract search engines. Do not use fancy Flash graphics or anything extreme. It adds to cost and Google can’t find it. Instead, give the basics to the public. Make sure each tenant gets a page, with a few paragraphs about each. Then tell the history of the shopping center. Something like this: “Built in 1983 by Joe Smith & Co builders, it was later sold to Fred Jones, Jim Smith and Joe McCoy, who now operate it as JMS Associates.
- Take those leasing signs down. So you need one tenant for 1,000 square feet and you still have a giant FOR LEASE sign in the parking lot. You fool! Yes, it is great advertising for the broker, but the broker gets benefits for ALL the properties. If you are the broker, you still need to take it down. Unlike a house “for sale” sign, a “for rent” sign that is up tells the customer that your shopping center is lacking something, namely tenants. A horrible message from the road, and it detracts from your main signage. Of course, a banner/sign in the window of an empty storefront is fine, and expected. And if you are opening a new center, or completely rebuilding an old one, you will want the sign out for a time. But only when there is major leasing activity.
So these are the ideas. Be optimistic, and when you are finished with your plan, do drop in on your tenants and tell them what you are up to.