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PHILADELPHIA-In a change in format, a panel of four area retail broker representatives at the International Council of Shopping Centers’ PA/NJ/DE Idea Exchange here at the Pennsylvania Convention Center discussed what retailers are hot and what makes them so. They also named names.

Whole Foods is among those on top, “because a hot retailer is one that brings others into the mix,” said Andy Kaplan of the Blue Bell, PA-based Goldenberg Group. “This is the kind of retailer that is key to filling the rest of a center.” Kaplan also put Target, Wal-Mart and a strong grocer on the list.

“We look for a ‘best of breed’ retailer that can generate traffic, generate sales and bring something that can differentiate our centers,” added Tim Rubin of locally based Pennsylvania Real Estate Investment Trust. Both men agreed that hot retailers know they’re in demand.

“They drive a hard bargain,” Kaplan said. A key position and better tenant improvements are in “a whole bag of goodies that can be negotiated. Yes, there’s favoritism. But, gaining these retailers benefits the others in a center.”

“The return on a deal with them may look weak until you look at what else they can bring,” agreed Rubin, likening them to a “loss leader.” He said that some popular restaurants can negotiate percentage-only deals, “but that percentage can be very good. When we give preferential treatment, we try to be open and honest about it with other tenants and explain the reasoning.”

One reason why Whole Foods rises to the top is that it’s also in a hot category: food in general and organic food in particular. Food in many forms is popular for malls, according to Rubin. That also includes fast-casual and upscale dining. “Fashion is still hot, too,” he added, citing the newer brand extensions of proven retailers.

Among others in the “best of breed” category, panelists agreed, are Bed Bath & Beyond, Ace Hardware, PetSmart, Staples and Old Navy, which Steve Gartner, moderator and president of Conshohocken, PA-based Metro Commercial Real Estate said, “is back in action. It’s been through trials and tribulations, but it’s a great tenant with a loyal following, and it plans to add between 50 and 60 units this year.”

PetSmart’s new in-store pet hotels, “add a great new concept, especially in suburban locations and around office environments,” said Jeff Lagowitz of Metro. “They’re like day care centers, and people who don’t like leaving pets alone all day can drop them off on the way to work.”

Steve & Barry’s University Sportswear, “has been very creative,” Rubin said. “There’s a different shopping experience every time a customer enters the store. It’s a destination retailer.” He also noted that, because of their size, up to 100,000 sf, “they can fill a dark anchor spot.”

The Christmas Tree Shops, an affiliate of Bed Bath & Beyond, “has somewhat of a cult following,” Gartner said. “They’re making a major push in the Northeast. They like ground leases on which they build their own store,” which he said averages about 36,000 sf.

Of Ulta, Kaplan said, “we love to have them bring in that upscale woman shopper.” This retailer likes lifestyle wings and malls and power centers, and, according to Rubin, also likes to be near a Dick’s Sporting Goods on the theory that while the male is in Dick’s, his female counterpart spends time at Ulta.

Home Goods is another retailer cited for “extreme customer loyalty” and merchandising that keeps customers coming back. “There’s something new in the environment all the time,” Lagowitz said.

Among the popular and expanding eateries, according to panelists, are Pei Wei, Famous Dave’s, Qdoba, and Panera Bread. “Restaurants represent another solution for outparcels,” Rubin said. “You can cluster two or three fast-casual restaurants and gain a following of customers.”

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