Set in a field in the countryside far from the town’s population center, Barracks Road Shopping Center opened a handful of stores in 1959, anchored by a Kroger supermarket. Sixty years later, the center is the crown jewel of Charlottesville retail, hosting over 80 shops, restaurants, and experiences that attract customers from well beyond the city. Despite the robust growth of online buying, e-commerce accounts for only 11 percent of total U.S. retail spending. Turns out, people still like to shop till they drop.
In the mix
In competition with easy, cheap, ‘round-the-clock online shopping, how has Barracks Road stayed viable, and vital, in Charlottesville? It’s all in the mix, says Dierdre Johnson, VP of Asset Management for owner Federal Realty Investment Trust, as she lists key factors. “Location, an attractive mix of stores valued by the customers, best-in-class merchants in their category, and an amenitized environment,” she says. “We continually evolve with the customers.”
Catering to UVA students, tourists, and townies, Barracks Road hosts a collection of local, regional, and national merchants whose offerings span a range of appetites and budgets. “A person wanting a burger can find a drive-thru option at McDonald’s or a gourmet alternative at Zinburger,” says Johnson. “Fink’s Jewelers carries fine designer selections but Lou Lou has the latest trends for someone on a budget.” Merchant variety means efficiency for the busy shopper, and services such as a post office, Fedex, and dry cleaners allow for checking off lots of errands in one location.
Beyond variety and convenience, however, Barracks Road offers something less tangible and more affecting: an experience. “It’s a ‘lifestyle center’ type of shopping mall, similar to Short Pump Town Center in Richmond,” says Lindsey Sinozich, marketing director at Fink’s Jewelers. Outdoor seating, a fountain, and canopies welcome visitors, while recent fitness studio additions such as Zoom, Orange Theory, and Club Pilates mean that customers can do even more without driving all over town.
In stark contrast with the anonymous, sometimes uncertain online shopping environment, Barracks Road counts on the heightened experience of in-person buying to draw customers in.
“When you make a big purchase, you want to be treated like you’re making a big purchase,” says Sinozich, “so we emphasize having a knowledgeable staff and high level customer service.” Customers often “pre-shop” online and come into stores to try on clothing, shoes, and jewelry, or to get assistance in choosing something unique.
Home décor and gift shop Folly stocks items in a wide price range, including one-of-a-kind pieces like an artistic floral arrangement set in a 19th century French base and glass. “A lot of the things we have here you can’t buy online, or it would take a lot to find them online,” says co-owner Beth Ann Kallen. “For some of our more expensive items, you really want to see it in person.”
The place to be
Retail tenants are the lifeblood of any shopping center, and Barracks Road’s merchants are shrewd and experienced business owners. Lease rates for store space in the center are among the highest in Virginia, running over $30 per square foot plus a percentage of gross sales above certain levels, but shop owners say the “traffic” is worth every penny.
“We were initially in a space on West Main, but when we decided we wanted to really build our brand, we knew we needed increased visibility,” says Kallen. “The foot traffic here is huge, and parking is plentiful. We knew that the people shopping here were the customers we wanted to attract.”
The Happy Cook’s Monique Moshier, who has owned the store for 14 of its 41 years in the center, says she couldn’t imagine being anywhere else. “Barracks Road is so quintessentially Charlottesville,” she says. “This is the place to be for holiday shopping, and other times of year we have a lot of customers who need quick in and quick out. We’d never consider, say, the Downtown Mall because of the lack of parking there. People are not going to buy heavy, expensive cookware and schlep it to their cars.”
Oliva’s Robert Johnson is one of about a half-dozen independent owners in Barracks Road, and he remembers visiting the center as a boy from Nelson county. His upscale olive oil and balsamics shop is aimed at the center’s affluent, health-conscious shoppers, and Johnson says his customers are loyal.
“We draw from Lynchburg, Harrisonburg, and Culpeper, and we have lots of people coming through going to the airport, or waiting for someone with medical appointments at UVA,” he says. “Charlottesville has a very unique vibe, much more sophisticated than an average college town.”
Key to Barracks Road’s long-term success is the center’s efficient management by Federal Realty Investment Trust. “The only constant in retail is change,” says Johnson, “so it’s essential to adapt our offerings.” Federal keeps pace with trends, such as bringing in boutique fitness retailers and “healthy fast-casual” dining options, and adding short-term parking spaces for easy take-out dining.
“The thing I like most about Federal Realty is that they know how to run a shopping center,” says Moshier. “It’s a well-run organization, and from landscaping to snow and trash removal, it’s all done perfectly and on time. They decorate, run community events like the holiday parade, and help us with sales events.” The realty company launched a large-scale facelift for Barracks Road in 2011, just ahead of competitor Stonefield’s construction on Rt. 29, redoing its roofing, facades, columns, outdoor spaces, and more.
In the “clicks versus bricks” contest for shoppers’ dollars and hearts, Barracks Road merchants believe there will always be demand for the in-person experience. “Hopefully retail will never completely die out, because in the end, it’s something fun to do,” says Folly’s Kallen. “Let’s go shopping!”