ESCONDIDO — Store closures are increasing at Westfield North County in Escondido, with business owners citing the pandemic, departure of major retailers and mall ownership’s poor management as contributing factors.
“It’s terrible, it’s just been devastating to watch,” said a store owner, who requested The Coast News not publish her name. “It just breaks my heart, it’s a beautiful mall and it’s really well done but…the outlook right now is pretty bleak.”
Since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, regional economic experts say that the mall has suffered from a marked increase in tenant vacancies, along with a substantial reduction in foot traffic at the shopping center.
From larger department store chains to smaller retailers and singular establishments, a sizeable number of the mall’s businesses are being forced to close or are on the brink of shutting down, according to Erik Bruvold, CEO of the San Diego North Economic Development Council.
“What’s happening with the North County fair is that it’s clear to me that it’s not going back to the way it was,” Bruvold said, noting that the mall was already seeing these unfavorable patterns even before the onset of the coronavirus in 2020. “The mall really is in a challenged space right now…the pandemic accelerated these challenges by a number of years or even decades.”
Westfield North County’s troubles stem not only from the economic impacts of the pandemic but also from a number of other factors, including the shopping center losing some of its big-name retailers that had drawn shoppers and benefited the mall’s other businesses, Bruvold said.
“With the loss of places like Nordstrom’s and Sears, the smaller retailers suffer from not seeing the foot traffic spillover from these larger department stores,” Bruvold said. “With the way consumer behavior is, people come into the anchor department stores and then they see these other businesses and want to shop there too, but now instead you have this unvirtuous cycle, with the big chains leaving, the smaller places suffering, and then, in turn, more businesses leaving.”
Sears and Nordstrom both closed in mid-2020. Other businesses at Escondido’s Westfield that have closed recently or are preparing to shut their doors include Abercrombie and Fitch, Starbucks, Souplantation, Hallmark and Yankee Candle.
“Nordstrom was a big loss, there’s no question about it…they really brought in some of the quality buyers,” said the store owner, who has operated a store at the mall since 1992. “The thing is that these large anchor stores generate destination traffic, those shoppers are coming into the mall and those places gave them a reason to stay and shop.”
The regional shopping center has also been hit hard by both labor and supply shortages that are creating difficulties for businesses nationwide, according to James Rowten, president of the Escondido Chamber of Commerce, who said that these challenges have been further exacerbated by the onset of the Omnicron variant of the coronavirus.
“We’re seeing quite a few more vacancies in the mall…this latest hit from the pandemic has really impacted so many of our businesses — it’s tough to get staffing, supplies, and to just keep the doors open,” Rowten said.
JC Penney Hair Salon, which operates on Westfield’s first floor, has been overwhelmed by a combination of staffing issues, supply shortages and other problems related to the pandemic, according to store manager Amy Bailey.
The salon has been operating with 33 fewer staff members than a typical holiday season and has recently been running critically low on key supplies, including hairstyling essentials such as coloring, and fabric materials for the store’s shoe department, Bailey said.
“We didn’t even get the amount of hiring done for the holiday that we would normally be able to get pre-holiday…and for the people, we do hire, they’re overwhelmed because they’re too few and there’s too much work so they don’t last very long,” she said. “It’s a huge challenge trying to have a staff and also making sure we even have the products we need.”
According to the anonymous store owner, the mall’s decline also has to do with a lack of proper administration as well as Westfield managers’ poor marketing strategy.
Heavy rent increases for tenants have pushed several smaller establishments in the mall out of business altogether, the store owner said. The store owner added that the complex’s managers have not been strategic about leasing space to tenants in a way that keeps the shopping center vibrant and attractive as a whole to customers, instead of leasing out vacant units without regard for the impact on the mall’s overall composition.
“They’re not leasing it the right way, they’re not looking at what they can do to bring the vibrancy of this place back and have a good mix of tenants…they rent units just to get them rented and not to make healthy choices of tenants, they just want the first person willing to pay,” the storeowner said.
Additionally, the store owner added that a lack of attention to detail by Westfield North County’s managers has hurt the mall’s ability to market itself. At Target and JC Penney’s for instance, the store owner said that both stores only have one exit that leads buyers out of the complex entirely, instead of exits that redirect customers back into the mall, which reduces foot traffic for the surrounding businesses.
Another issue is that the mall fails to update changing hours for its stores online, which results in customers being frustrated and confused about when businesses are actually open.
“They’re not managing it well, they’re not having good marketing practices…like they’ll tell you what the hours are and then you come in and it’s something different that shows you that they’re not paying attention…it’s like the management has just given up,” the store owner said.
Westfield declined to comment for this story.
To address these challenges, Rowten said the Escondido Chamber of Commerce has been actively working with Westfield to improve the mall’s promotion strategies.
With many of the center’s stores also being hit hard by increasing consumer preference for online shopping, the chamber president expressed that it’s important that the city step up its efforts to educate Escondido residents on the importance of buying local, as a way of supporting not only the mall but other struggling establishments throughout the city.
“What we have to do is educate people to say there’s a real benefit to having the online convenience with shopping but that comes at a great cost…we have to really raise our voices and tell people that there’s a reason to shop local and there are convenient ways to do that, and by doing that there can be a revival in this community when it comes to the importance of shopping local,” he said.
To this end, Rowten said that the chamber has been working with Westfield on a new mobile app unique to the mall that will streamline the online shopping experience for customers.
The app will contain a directory of the mall’s different businesses that will compare products and prices at different stores and allow people to reserve items in advance of coming into the mall and picking them up.
“We’ll be sharing information with this app that will allow people to shop local…it’s a challenge but if we all work together and understand that significance, we have a real community here and it’s all possible,” Rowten said. “We have to stem the tide of [closures] and bring relief to our businesses at the mall…but overall we’re optimistic because there’s a lot of growth and prosperity to be realized in Escondido.”
EDITOR’S NOTE: This article has been updated from its original version.