The Tacoma Mall has a new manager, and he’s one of corporate owner Simon Property Group’s rising stars.
Kurt Webb has been with Simon just a smidge over two years. In that time he’s been assigned to progressively larger properties, staying mere months in each place, until being offered the Tacoma job this fall.
“As you climb the ladder of (Simon) malls, Tacoma is near the top,” Webb said in a recent interview. “This one we knew would be a longer stay.”
Webb, 31, started as general manager in October. He takes the place of Steven Heim, who went to Northgate Mall in Seattle after more than a decade in Tacoma.
Indianapolis-based Simon is now the nation’s largest publicly held real estate holding company, with 220 properties in the U.S. alone. It owns four other malls and outlet centers in Washington, but at 1.3. million square feet, Tacoma is Simon’s largest property in the state.
The mall, which opened in 1965, is a significant part of the local economy. Webb said the mall doesn’t have exact figures on how many people work there, but said it’s significant, with 180 businesses plus the major department stores.
Plus, the mall retailers and those on the surrounding properties once owned by Simon generate 20 percent of Tacoma’s total annual sales tax revenues — about $8 million a year, according to city data.
The mall property itself was assessed $2.1 million in county property taxes this year.
In the past few years, several high-end retailers have opened at the mall, including Coldwater Creek, Sephora, Coach and Apple. Webb says the mall has more changes in store next year, including the addition of five new stores in the first few months and potential cosmetic improvements of the mall’s north side.
With publicly traded companies being rather guarded about information flow, Webb couldn’t share details of either the new tenants’ identities nor the scope of the aesthetic changes. He did say that some of the new tenants would fill a gap in mid-priced women’s clothing created when Ann Taylor Loft and The Limited closed.
“We would like to be able to sell things to the mom who brings the 12-year-old girl to the mall, not just to the girl,” he said.
Here’s more from our interview with Webb, which has been condensed and edited.
Q: You’ve moved up through Simon’s ranks pretty fast. How did that happen?
A: After college I did some residential property management for about 18 months. My brother had worked for Simon and recommended it as a job that would allow you to see the country. And we have.
My first job was in Leesburg, Fla., where I managed a small struggling mall. It had a skeleton staff, so you had to learn everything. I was out there mulching on the weekend. It was good training. After 11 months, I moved to Austin, to oversee three of Simon’s community lifestyle centers. After 8 months there, I moved to Midland, Texas, and after 8 months there, I came to Tacoma.
Q: How does the Tacoma Mall compare with the Midland one?
A: Tacoma is twice as large but generates the same sales number per square foot. Folks in Midland are doing well with the oil industry. (Property-specific sales data is considered proprietary, but Simon’s average across the country is $562 per square foot.)
Q: Can a person shop at the mall and still shop a locally owned business?
A: I estimate about 25 to 30 percent of the businesses in the mall are locally or regionally owned. Many of them are kiosks, in the mall’s common areas, but not all — Alley Kat, for example, and some of the jewelers. It’s a fine balance. A lot of people want the local but also want the name-brand items.
Q: Is there an advantage to being a small fish in the big pond of national retailers?
A: Each store reports sales to us. If they’re struggling, we look for ways to help. Once people are in the mall, it’s the store’s responsibility to pull people in based on merchandising and service. For some local owners, we may provide more support since they don’t have that corporate structure.
Q: What are other local touches a person can see at the mall?
A: We recognize that we’re a key part of the community. That’s why we want local organizations to partner with us. The Salvation Army has its Giving Tree and gift-wrapping station here. We have a menorah on display from a local temple. We allow a scholarship foundation to promote their organization. And we have a food drive at the center court. These are all free. That’s a big deal, because a mall is designed for every space to drive revenue.
Q: About those kiosks. Some of the folks working there can be … aggressive.
A: Agreed. Less than a year ago we tightened our policies. We reduced the number of warnings a business could receive. Any action we take is based on customer feedback. We understand it’s a concern and it’s important that customers have a good experience.
We also are working with the operators on better approaches. You’ll notice that those offering samples now have them on trays. They aren’t allowed to offer a sample until after they make eye contact and say hello, and receive some sort of indication from the customer that they might be interested.
We’re working on reading body language — for example, if someone walks the farthest away they can, it’s an indication they don’t want to be engaged.
Q: What else is the mall doing to improve the customer experience?
A: We’re offering a special service through the holidays, where off-duty security officers will help people to their cars with their bags. We have a program we’re calling “Surprise and Delight,” where we surprise random shoppers with free gifts from stores. We do this between 10 and 20 times a day. We’ve given away certificates for free appetizers and other things like that. We’re hiring more customer service agents to simply stand at the maps and help people find what they want.
I try to spend at least an hour a day walking the mall. I also try to personally respond to customer comment cards. I talk to two or three customers a week by phone.
Q: Did the shooting at the Clackamas Town Center in Portland last week change anything about how the Tacoma Mall handles its security?
A: We don’t discuss security measures. We were deeply saddened about the tragic events there and feel so badly for those affected. It’s just very sad.
Kathleen Cooper: 253-597-8546