retail watch | Nov 4, 2021 |
The American Dream mall is slowly filling up—but not with home retailers

You can go skiing, dive into a giant pool, grab a gyro and shop for more clothing than you know what to do with—but the one thing you’ll have trouble doing at the American Dream megamall in New Jersey is buying home furnishings.

The retail destination, which opened two years ago and occupies more than 3 million square feet—albeit at least half of it still unused—is the second-largest shopping and entertainment complex in America (behind only Mall of America in Minnesota). Yet even as it finally starts to fill in and fill up, home furnishings retailing is severely underrepresented.

The home category has never been a mainstay of modern American shopping malls, which are overwhelmingly dominated by apparel, footwear, jewelry and accessories, with a few department store anchors and the ubiquitous food court thrown in to complete the mix. But at least a few national home brands usually show up, in addition to retailers like Macy’s, Dillard’s and Bloomingdale’s, which also feature home furnishings.

But none of these are present at American Dream, located about 10 miles west of Manhattan. The complex owner, Edmonton, Canada–based development company Triple Five, goes out of its way to bill the property as more than a shopping center, claiming more than half its space is intended for non-retail tenants. And from what’s currently open, that is clear. A huge amusement park, a water park, indoor skiing and an ice rink dominate the facility, which also features a food court and other restaurants scattered throughout.

A recent tour of American Dream on an October weekday afternoon revealed a quiet behemoth that was sparsely populated, with even fewer people carrying shopping bags indicating they had actually made a purchase.

Inside, finding a place to buy a sofa, kitchenware, sheets and towels and a nice rug is no easy task. The only traditional department store anchor is Saks Fifth Avenue, with home offerings largely restricted to some tabletop pieces and a decorative pillow or two. Elsewhere in the mall, home pickings are slim. None of the Williams-Sonoma brands found in many malls—its kitchen namesake, Pottery Barn, West Elm and assorted youth spinoffs—are represented, and it’s unclear if they will be.

Primark, the fast-fashion retailer out of Ireland, has one of its few U.S. stores in the mall, and it includes a home department that features bed and bath, candles, and assorted gift and tabletop products. Still, the store is in the area segmented for deep-discount fashion retailers. Jonathan Adler, the millennial favorite who started as a potter but has branched out into all kinds of home decor accessories, is represented with a store, too—though that may be because Adler is also responsible for some of the signage and in-mall furnishings in common areas (which are very creative and nicely styled).

A few other home products are scattered elsewhere: the Amazon 4-Star store has some functional kitchen and household items. There’s a Bath & Body Works outlet, a couple of places with candles, a blanket or two and some tabletop at Hermès, a throw at Johnny Was, and assorted odds and ends at stores like Spencer and the Nickelodeon amusement park gift shop. But the only store dedicated to home merchandise listed in the online directory is Lovesac—the direct-to-consumer modular furniture and bean bag seller that’s moving into physical retail—which has a shop-in-shop in the Best Buy.

Taken together, the home offerings are pretty dismal. In all fairness, with more than half the space in the mall still vacant, perhaps more home is on the way. One can hope. Since American Dream was announced nearly two decades ago, the project has been widely bashed. The fact that it is open at all—and looks quite good in its public spaces and amenities—is pretty remarkable. But the vision was born back when the retail business was very, very different, and the rise of e-commerce, a pandemic and supply chain issues haven’t done it any favors.

Does the lack of home at American Dream say more about the state of home retailing in general, or about the mall’s failure to lure home brands as tenants? At the moment, probably the latter. Whether American Dream will ultimately be a success is still impossible to know right now. But ask if the home sector is ever likely to be well-represented there and the question is, unfortunately, easier to answer.

Homepage photo: Courtesy of Triple Five Group

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Warren Shoulberg is the former editor in chief for several leading B2B publications. He has been a guest lecturer at the Columbia University Graduate School of Business; received honors from the International Furnishings and Design Association and the Fashion Institute of Technology; and been cited by The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, The Washington Post, CNN and other media as a leading industry expert. His Retail Watch columns offer deep industry insights on major markets and product categories.

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