Charles Square: Catering to the Elite

"What, You Haven't Been to Charles Square?" asked the voice on the radio in last spring's advertisement campaign to promote the Cambridge's newest indoor mall located on Bennett St. next to the Charles Hotel.

Since its grand opening 20 months ago, the Charles Square shopping complex has stumbled over some rough obstacles, some of which are still being smoothed out: four shops have moved out; the mall is situated out of the Harvard Square traffic flow, and some perceive it as overpriced for the college market.

But proprietors there say Charles Square is emerging finally as a sophisticated, stable shopping arena which is cultivating its own clientele.

And other local businessmen say Charles Square mall--along with the Charles Hotel, luxury condominiums and office space--has extended shopping, business and residential opportunities to what was previously a little used commercial part of the Square. "Their presence enhances the rest of Harvard Square," says Sally Alcorn, executive director of the Harvard Square Business Association.

Brian Delaney, manager of Pier One Imports onEliot Street across from Charles Square, agrees."We're no longer in dead space. Now we're a bufferzone," he says about one of the first "propertyprojects" in Cambridge.

Customer Flow Problems?

In the past year alone, four stores--Goods,Sweet Stuff, Harlyn's and New Zealand Sport--haveclosed, while 19 current retailers have remainedthe mall's prime draws.

"Goods oriented their products toward adifferent clientele. They carried junky thingslike Urban Outfitters, which are fun, but we don'tneed another one," says Nancy J. Venti, owner ofThe Papermint, located on the lower level ofCharles Square.

Some managers at Charles Square speculate thatthese closings were due to management troubles.But most say that the stores which failed dependedupon a heavy flow of customers walking throughoutthe mall.

"Some stores needed to be in a high trafficarea," says Crabtree & Evelyn General Manager MarkHochman. Crabtree & Evelyn, which sells floralscents and toiletries, also has a store in FaneuilMarketplace but, according to Hochman, bothlocations are successful. What distinguishesCrabtree & Evelyn from Sweet Stuff and Goods--twoformer tenants of Charles Square also located inFaneuil Market--is the shop's reliance on"destination shoppers," Hochman says.

"We have people who come here [Charles Square]for one particular store," Hochman says. "We havea different clientele than in Faneuil Hall. We mayget less people, but the average sale is higher,"he adds.

Other managers agree with Hochman's assessment."The stores that have their own following willsurvive, but other stores like Sweet Stuff won'tmake it here," says the manager of Talbot's, awoman's clothing chain with 100 stores across thecountry.

"We just weren't getting the people," saysSweet Stuff's assistant manager Donald O'Hare, whoworked at the Charles Square confectioner's beforeits closing last May. O'Hare attributes the lackof traffic in the mall to the Square's location,which is one of the problems even the successfullyestablished businesses are still facing.

"People still have the psychological blockwhich prevents tham from making that walk fromHarvard Square," says Katharine Duff manager ofthe woolen goods store Simon Pearce. Despite thedistance, however, Duff says that judging fromSimon Pearce income figures, business is improvingeveryday. "We're going in the right direction. Themall is just taking longer to get started thanpeople thought, she says.

"The location is horrible," says one storemanager. "People in Belmont and Cambridge stilldon't know we're here."

Still Starting Up

But Raoul F. Moore, the property manager ofCharles Square Limited Partnership, says thatattracting customers to a new location presents aninevitable challenge with any new retail center."There's always a start-up period," he says.

"In any retail center you have to feel thingsout to find out what works and what doesn't. Theshake-out of tenants is not a surprising thing.Now we know what works," Moore says.

Many of the so-called "destination stores,"like Banana Republic, Laura Ashley, and Talbot's,attract customers to other shops which may nothave as large a draw, managers say. "We bring alot of people to this mall," says BananaRepublic's assistant manager, Susan L. Glidden.That store, with 65 other retail spots across thecountry, sells exotic, high-priced safari wear.

Katherine L. Maxwell of In-Wear Matiniqueagrees that the mall would do better if otherstores that have their own draw were added to theretail collection.

And this is precisely the direction the mallwants to take, Charles Square management says.

"We're focusing on the mid- to high-end ofwomen's ready-wear fashion. We want to be known asa fashion center, and we're being selective aboutwho we bring in," Moore says.

Many merchants and managers feel that the mallalready has an image as offering expensive,upscale merchandise. The mall boasts an "uppercrust selection of shops" says Tim Giarrosso, whoworks in Christmas Secrets, a seasonal shop. Themall seems to attract customers who shop the upperend of posh Brattle St. in stores like Ann Taylorand Crate and Barrel, says Venti, of thePapermint.

But others dismiss the elite image. "People arefinding out that, yes, it's beautiful, but it isalso affordable. There are things here foreveryone," says Hochman, of Crabtree and Evelyn.

New Advertising Gimmick

In its current advertising campaign, CharlesSquare has changed its tune. "When Was the LastTime You Shopped Charles Square?" the voice on theradio asks this fall. With businesses moreestablished, and increased customer awareness, themall is slowly becoming a success story.

Tremendous public relations efforts, retailexperiments and several "Best of Boston" awardshave played considerable roles in improving themall's customer attraction.

"We want to make Charles Square part of HarvardSquare, not a separate entity," says JanetPrensky, vice president of Aigner Associates, themall's public relations firm. Prensky's group hasbeen responsible for free summer jazz concerts inthe courtyard and fashion shows at the Ocean Club.

Two Spaces Still Open

Within the mall itself, management is in theprocess of choosing two retailers to fillvacancies, and the three which are occupied onlytemporarily. The Harcus Gallery and ChristmasSecrets are two short-term businesses designed toattract customers as well as test what types ofmerchandise are well received, Moore says. HarcusGallery sold out its first show and ChristmasSecrets was asked to return this year after lastyear's season, he says.

In August, Boston Magazine awarded CharlesSquare "Boston's Best Kept Secret" in its annual"Best of Boston" awards issue. Several stores inthe mall were honored with special awards, such as"Best Accessories" to Honore jewelry store, "BestPaper Goods" to the Papermint, "Best NighttimeBar" to the Ocean Club's Regatta Bar for thesecond year in a row, and "Best Christmas Party"to the entire mall, also for the second year in arow.

Merchants are proud of their awards--and oftheir products-- and they say patient efforts arebeginning to reap benefits.

"I'm doing a wonderful business," Venti says ofher second stationery store, the Papermint. "Mystuff is high quality, and I give my customer'ssatisfaction," she says. Venti's business hasdoubled in the last two fiscal years.

"I've done very well, and we're not arecognizable store," says Sydney Moss, owner of LePli health spa. "We're closing out our membershipbecause we are filled with 600 members," Mossadds.

Laura Ashley, a women's clothiers, has promotedits new location through direct customer contactin their other stores. "We've been doing wellsince day one," says the store's manager.

Because of their successes, both Zabin's, achildren's clothing store, and Talbots haveexpanded into the mall.

Retailers cite the underground parking garageand the proximity of Charles Hotel as enhancingsales. The validated parking is a "big help" inattracting customers to the mall, says Hochman."We get a lot of tourists from the hotel," saysGlidden of Banana Republic