Downtown Shopping Stinks

But let’s try to remain hopeful despite another store closing.

Gaviidae in downtown Minneapolis
Photo by Caitlin Abrams

The minute I heard that Saks Off 5th would anchor the new Twin Cities Premium Outlets opening this month in Eagan, I had a sinking feeling its downtown Minneapolis days were numbered. Sure enough, Off 5th will close its Gaviidae Common store in January—a decision the retailer said was actually made last year, when Hudson’s Bay purchased Saks. That means Macy’s—what’s left of it—becomes downtown’s only remaining department store. I’ve heard city officials try to put a positive spin on downtown’s latest departure, saying that it’s time for more boutiques and premium retail. Right! Like, say, Neiman Marcus, which is currently being converted into office space for 300 CenterPoint Energy employees. Or Saks Fifth Avenue, which turned its Minneapolis store into the Off 5th outlet because not enough Minnesotans were willing to pay full price.

A decade ago, Saks converting to an outlet felt like an embarrassment. Now we’d gladly settle for last season’s Diane von Furstenberg over the rumored replacement: Walgreens. Don’t get me wrong, the idea of an upscale Walgreens selling luxury cosmetics and sushi isn’t bad, especially for those of us who work at the end of downtown farthest from Target. But to lose Off 5th in the process is a huge bummer. As discount department stores go, Off 5th is a good one for aspirational shoppers, and it’s even better—dare I say it—than Nordstrom Rack. But more than anything, Off 5th provided a place to buy designer brands (which you see less and less of at Macy’s) in the heart of the city. And at 40 percent off, it was even compelling enough to drive in from the suburbs.

Now, with the opening of the first outlet center right in the middle of the metro area (Eagan), featuring more than 100 stores including a J.Crew Factory Store, Cole Haan outlet, and Brooks Brothers Factory Store, those discriminating bargain hunters will bypass the city to shop in the suburbs. As do most Twin Cities consumers.

And bringing them back downtown to shop will become that much more challenging.

There is some reason to be hopeful. Not long ago, we were complaining about not being able to buy groceries downtown. Now we’ve got everything a high-rise dweller needs, from groceries to sundries to the dangling promise of Walgreens self-serve frozen yogurt. I understand that it’s important to lay that foundation, especially with an influx of new downtown residents expected.

A $50 million facelift is planned for Nicollet Mall beginning next summer. I’ve heard it’ll be pedestrian friendly. I’ve heard “woodsy.” I have not heard much about what is going to restore downtown Minneapolis as a shopping destination. With boutiques flocking to the North Loop, downtown is going to have to focus on national and international retailers—preferably ones that are known to engage shoppers. Wouldn’t an Apple store be great on Nicollet Mall? And there’s plenty of square footage for Uniqlo, the hot Japanese fast-fashion brand that has been opening large stores—30,000 square feet or more—on the coasts. It’s got to be unique to the market. Special, like the magnificent JB Hudson store. It needs to be exciting to justify the extra effort of parking downtown.

A more dynamic downtown retail district is worth pursuing. Because even if your main reason for going downtown is to work, eat, catch a show, or see a game, shopping is the thing you do before, after, and in between. It creates energy on the streets (skyways?) and a vibrancy that reflects on the metro area as a whole.

The winter market event that will replace the Holidazzle parade this year on Nicollet Mall could be a good start. Let’s give it a chance and show that we will go downtown for a cool experience.

Until then, see you in Eagan.