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A litmus test for high-end stores

International Plaza has a reputation for being the area's go-to mall for experiments in retail.

By MARK ALBRIGHT, Times Staff Writer
Published August 21, 2007

The Golden Gate Bridge inside the Dockers store at International Plaza.
[Brian Cassella | Times]
[Brian Cassella | Times]
A selection of casual to formal men's clothes for sale inside the Dockers.

TAMPA -- When Levi Strauss & Co. created a store to recast its Dockers brand as more than just "nice pants," the jeans giant signed up International Plaza for the first test.

"We loved it because it's a boutique type mall -- from high-end designers to Forever XXI -- in a more manageable size market than, say, Miami," said Kerry Cooper, senior vice president of Dockers retail. "We need many types of malls to learn what works before building a chain."

The recent opening is just the latest sign that the Tampa mall remains a magnet for concept stores for retailers' new ventures, experiments and tests.

In its 6-year life IP has already served as launchpad for more than a dozen first-of-a-kind prototypes. Among them: the first Ballard Designs store, the first Lladro in a mall and the initial experimental batch of Apple stores, Abercrombie & Fitch's Ruehl and the first Robb & Stucky furniture store in a vacant department store. This fall, IP will be the first mall location for Fit2Run, a new type of athletic shoe store from a co-founder of Champs Sports.

In addition, Bay Street, IP's restaurant row, has been an influential proving ground for outdoor signature restaurant districts at malls.

Levi Strauss sees its Dockers San Francisco stores as a way to showcase head-to-toe Dockers dress for men and women.

The store is broken into sections showing Dockers in four dress occasions: work shirts, belts and pants, weekend (T-shirts and shorts), golf (performance fibers) and dress (slacks, ties and blazers).

The other four test stores will be top-tier malls in downtown San Francisco; Tyson's Corner near Washington. D.C.; King of Prussia, Pa.; and a New Jersey suburb of New York.

Earning the reputation for test stores didn't happen overnight. It's part of a strategy employed by IP managers at Taubman Centers Inc. to offer stores other malls don't. The strategy paid off, with International Plaza providing the Florida debut to 16 retailers.

Most mall operators assign leasing teams to individual malls. Taubman assigns them to retailers to match store needs to a 27-mall portfolio. The company is more aggressive in enforcing so-called "kick out clauses" with tenants whose sales performance doesn't meet a specified standard. Taubman also is patient and picky about who gets prime space. The center court spot Ballard took was empty for five years.

"We merchandise our malls like department stores merchandise and adjust space in their stores," said Susan Kay, a Taubman vice president of leasing. "As buying tastes shift, we adjust our mix of stores."

The strategy is why IP sales exceed Taubman's industry-leading $560-a-square-foot average.

But taking more swings means more whiffs, too. All the added home decor stores face fallout from the housing slump. The restaurant ventures exposed the mall to fickle food fads. Kahunaville, a sprawling Polynesian restaurant that featured dancing waiters serving paper umbrella drinks, crashed within three years. Sushi and seafood buffet Todai didn't last much longer. Profusion, a Montreal restaurant family's first venture in the United States in a money-losing partnership with football player Keyshawn Johnson, ended when Johnson left the Tampa Bay Bucs. Most of the vacancies have been filled.

A luxurious St. John's Knits boutique left to be replaced by a new prototype for Burberry that features a plasma TV window.

But Apple and Robb & Stucky both proved at IP that other stores can run up department store numbers (about $25-million to $50-million in the Tampa Bay area) in less space.

Retailers' searches for test store spots defies uniformity. Typically they want solid incomes in specific lifestyle demographics in top-tier properties with a regional draw. Then they zero in on where the space is and their own requirements

For instance, Atlanta-based Ballard narrowed the field to 14 malls. Clinching the deal for IP was Taubman's willingness to rip out an exterior wall for a customer pickup door.

"We deliver through UPS, so we're learning how to handle people who take home their purchase," said Mike Ippolito, Ballard president. "We'll test the Tampa store with another in an open-air center in Jacksonville with no customer pickup."

For Dockers, the Tampa store will answer questions such as the wisdom of putting the women's section in back of the store and how Sun Belt shoppers buy into a store linking Dockers' sense of style to San Francisco. The place looks like a South Market loft with a teak floor, redwood counters and fitting rooms painted the color of the Golden Gate Bridge.

Levi Strauss joins the growing ranks of apparel makers creating their own retail chains. (An 86-store Dockers chain for outlet malls is run by a licensee-supplied factory seconds and last season's overruns).

Dockers San Francisco stores are geared to help shoppers discover that the $1-billion brand is more than khaki pants in department stores.

"It's the entire breadth of Dockers, including what we sell in Asia and Europe," said Cooper.

Staff Writer Mark Albright can be reached at or (727)-893-8252.

International Plaza prototype stores

  • Dockers San Francisco: Not just khakis but a whole range of blazers, shirts and accessories for men and women. Part of Levi Strauss & Co.
  • Ballard Designs: Opened this summer, offering a European country look for home furnishings. Part of Barry Diller's IAC/InterActiveCorp, which owns HSN in St. Petersburg.
  • Lladro: Handcrafted porcelain figures and furnishing accents from Valencia, Spain, first time in a mall.
  • Apple Store: Among the initial experimental batch of Apple retail outlets. Now there are 13 in Florida alone.
  • Ruehl: Abercrombie & Fitch's unit - not to be confused with company's Hollister teen brand - aimed at more grownup apparel.
  • Robb & Stucky: Fort Myers company's first furniture store, operating in once-vacant department store.
  • Fit2Run: Coming this fall, a new type of athletic shoe store from a co-founder of Champs Sports.

[Last modified August 20, 2007, 22:59:18]

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