A host of national chains have recently built their first Idaho installations or are planning to do so in 2013. They include the upscale Austin-based grocery chain Whole Foods, which opened in Boise in November, and the Spokane-based Rosauers, which opened its first Treasure Valley store in Meridian last spring. The Colorado chain Natural Grocers by Vitamin Cottage also opened its first Idaho store in 2012 near the Boise Towne Square Mall.
Seattle clothing and accessories retailers Nordstrom and H&M opened at the Boise Towne Square Mall in November, and the Oregon-based Joe’s Sports and Outdoor opened its first Idaho store last summer in Meridian.
Plenty of retailers have plans for 2013. Dave and Buster’s, a Dallas chain of restaurants and arcades, is opening on Milwaukee Avenue this month. Idaho’s first Noodles & Co. recently opened on Eagle Road, and two more are in the works.
A big driver of all this activity is the Meridian Town Center project at Fairview and Eagle roads. Almost a dozen stores have opened recently or will be opening soon at that new open-plan shopping mall, including the clothing retailer Gordmans, which is new to Idaho. Others are ZoomCare, a pay-as-you-go health care provider based in Hillsboro, Ore., and the Atlanta chain Chik-fil-A, which are both very recent arrivals to the state. The Washington-based Big Al’s amusement center entered Idaho there last summer.
For years, Idahoans have had to travel to distant cities to reach major retailers such as Nordstrom or Nordstrom Rack. They still have to travel to Salt Lake City or Portland if they have their heart set on furnishing their homes with Ikea.
It’s tempting to look at the influx of new-to-Idaho retailers as a sign that the economy is roaring back, at least the sector that works closely with bricks and mortar, and that’s why big-time chains are moving in.
The economy is coming back, slowly. But there are more complex factors at play. One is that CenterCal, the Meridian Town Center developer, is investing in a type of project that’s proven to be a significant draw for the big boxes and smaller stores that will be populating it. CenterCal has built similar outdoor “lifestyle centers” where customers move around a park-like setting outdoors, with fountains and public events. Studies show the indoor malls that stormed the public imagination in the 1970s are declining in popularity, and these newer installations are gaining ground.
CenterCal’s shopping centers in neighboring states are very successful, according to local real estate brokers. That gives out-of-state retailers added confidence as they consider the Boise market.
Another thing is that Boise has grown quickly. The U.S. Census Bureau ranked Boise’s Metropolitan Statistical Area, or MSA, as the fourth fastest-growing in the nation in 2005.
A closer look at the retailers targeting Boise shows that they’re expanding widely, in Idaho and elsewhere.
Dave & Buster’s has lost money over the last three years, but the company says it has big expansion plans “into new and under-penetrated markets.”
The Omaha, Neb.-based clothing and accessories retailer Gordmans Stores, Inc. is also on an expansion kick, opening nine stores in the first three quarters of last year – a 12 percent increase in stores for Gordmans – including two in the Denver MSA. Gordmans entered four new markets, including Boise, late last year. The others were Indianapolis, Salt Lake City and Ogden, Utah.
Boise is small game for H&M, a huge Swedish clothing and accessories retailer that opened 300 new stores in 2012. Not only did H&M enter Idaho for the first time, but the company also opened its first stores in Latvia and Malaysia. It’s opening its first store south of the equator when an H&M store goes into Santiago de Chile next year, with a Lithuania store following closely.
If these companies see potential in Boise, maybe others will, too. There are plenty of national companies that still don’t have a presence within hundreds of miles, such as Trader Joe’s, Ikea, Saks Fifth Avenue, Restoration Hardware, and, more prosaically, Atwoods Ranch and Home and Menards hardware. This could be the time that they finally test the waters. Interest rates are low for commercial loans; Idaho labor costs and rents are still cheap. And some very big names already have shown confidence that the valley has customers who are seeking something different.
Anne Wallace Allen is managing editor of the Idaho Business Review.