One Percenters Drop Six Figures at Long Island MallCarol Hymowitz
At Americana Manhasset, the salespeople know your closet better than you do. They call designers in Paris or Milan to find the perfect little black dress. They deliver soup when you’re ill.
Situated on Long Island’s Gold Coast, about 30 minutes from Manhattan, the open-air shopping center is one of several American malls that have figured out how to thrive by catering to One Percenters.
Americana Manhasset’s 60 shops sell the priciest status brands -- Dior, Gucci, Hermes, Cartier, Prada. Some customers spend more than $100,000 a year and five times that if they’re planning a wedding or buying fine jewelry. Danielle Merollo, the mall’s personal shopper, recently accompanied a client to a private Prada show in New York to buy a bespoke fur cape.
“Danielle always finds what I need,” said the client, Cynthia Rosicki, an attorney who also runs the Sparkling Pointe vineyard.
Even as middle-class Americans struggle with stagnant wages and demand deals that are hurting discount chains, wealthy shoppers are helping fuel sales at luxury retailers. Total retail sales are projected to grow 4.1 percent this holiday season -- the highest rate in three years, according to the National Retail Federation.
Still, with malls closing all around the country, the proprietors of Americana Manhasset can take nothing for granted. Each year the services get more lavish, the shops larger and more resplendent. Stores that aren’t hitting sales targets don’t get their leases renewed. While luxury retail is relatively immune to Web disruption, the mall is adding blogs and videos featuring the latest fashions to its website.
“We know our customers can shop anywhere -- and they travel a lot -- so we have to go overboard with service,” said Deirdre Costa Major, president of mall owner Castagna Realty Co.’s retail group.
Americana Manhasset shuns the word mall, preferring “premier shopping destination.” And with its limestone shopfronts, granite sidewalks and colorful flower beds, the place looks nothing like the original strip mall that opened in 1956 with a drive-through bank, ice-cream parlor, moderate-priced retailers including Lerner’s and Bakers Shoes and, later, a Waldbaum’s supermarket.
The shopping center might have ended up like so many other malls -- losing customers, teetering on the edge of oblivion -- were it not for the foresight of Frank Castagna, Castagna Realty’s chairman.
In the 1980s, Castagna concluded Americana could be more successful if it catered to the wealthy residents on Long Island’s North Shore. Increasing numbers of newly affluent professionals and entrepreneurs were moving to Manhasset, Great Neck and other suburbs within driving distance of the mall, and there was an abundance of old wealth in other Gold Coast towns, where the Vanderbilts and Roosevelts built their country mansions and F. Scott Fitzgerald set “The Great Gatsby.”
“I’ve lived in this area for 60 years, so I knew we had customers who wanted luxury products and no one else here was serving them,” Castagna said.
The trick was persuading locals to shop in the area rather than head to Madison Avenue boutiques or jet to Paris. Castagna took heart from Hirshleifers, a family-run store in the mall already doing a brisk business selling Armani and Chanel. As old leases expired, Castagna wooed top-tier retailers and Hirshleifers kept expanding. Renowned architect Peter Marino, the go-to designer for luxury brands, gave Americana a facelift; landscape architects added greenery and created a meadow around the shopping center’s perimeter.
Americana was among the first to link retailing and charity, now a popular practice at many department stores. In 1996, Castagna, a board member of a half dozen Long Island nonprofits, started Champions for Charity, which is held the first week of every December; customers direct 25 percent of the price of their purchases to local causes.
Americana sponsors a charity event almost every month. An Armani fashion show in September benefiting women’s health for the North Shore-Long Island Jewish Health Center, drew about 600 women who, after a three-course lunch, bought clothing they’d seen on models. A car show and contest in early October, featuring vintage Porsches, restored Bentleys and other luxury autos, raised more than $40,000 for Sunrise Day Camp, for children with cancer.
Castagna’s original hunch paid off. A designer boom that began in the Reagan years has continued almost unabated for three decades. In recent years, luxury retailers have benefited from the increasing concentration of income and wealth. In 2012, the top 1 percent of Americans held more than one-third of all U.S. wealth and the richest of these, the top 0.1 percent, with at least $20 million in assets, held 23.5 percent of U.S. wealth, according to economist Gabriel Zucman. Americana generates $1,800 in sales per square foot, more than triple the national average, according to the International Council of Shopping Centers.
“Luxury malls are doing better and not just because they’re targeting customers with a lot of disposable income,” said Mortimer Singer, a fashion-industry consultant. “The most successful have turned traditional malls inside out, replacing dreary supermarket-like aisles with outdoor spaces and offering food and entertainment as well as upscale fashions.”
Yet at 86, Castagna still spends part of each workday walking around stores to gauge what’s selling. He and his staff know that unless Americana Manhasset offers a shopping experience customers can’t get anywhere else, they’ll decamp to New York or to online luxury sites such as Net-A-Porter.com.
On a recent Friday morning, Tova Soto, a buyer and senior manager at Hirshleifers, arrived for work at 8 a.m., as soon as the store’s alarm system was turned off. She wanted several hours to prepare for a shopping visit from a longstanding customer, who was bringing along two friends.
Soto knew the sizes and tastes of each woman and canvassed the storeroom and store racks, handpicking an array of pants, shirts, dresses, coats and accessories. She and her assistant steamed and carefully hung the clothes -- selecting handbags, scarves, belts, jewelry and shoes to complete different outfits. The customers were ushered to spacious fitting rooms, where they each found themselves in “a store, within a store, designed just for them,” Soto said.
After spending three hours trying everything on, the women purchased a wardrobe full of clothes, including a gray Stella McCartney jacket for $1,935 and skinny gray pants for $800, a Brunello Cucinelli silver-trimmed cardigan for $2,745 and a $6,835 shearling coat and an Avant Toi top for $1,880. Two of the shoppers each purchased short gray suede Manolo Blahnik boots for $1,045 a pair.
Hirshleifers treated the women to lunch at Cipollini Trattoria, one of the mall’s two upscale restaurants. Like Toku Modern Asian restaurant a few yards away, Cipollini was packed. While the women ate lunch and visited with one another, Hirshleifers’ shoe salon stretched their new boots.
Like Soto, Americana’s Merollo is a combination personal shopper, stylist and therapist. She helped one customer furnish her home and buy a car, “because she trusts my taste,” traveled in September to Paris with another to see the fall fashion shows and once spent part of her own vacation in Italy searching for lace for a shopper.
“What I do most is listen, so I can figure out what a customer needs,” she said. Sometimes that’s a handbag and sometimes it’s handholding.
Jacki Rogoff has shopped at Americana for 25 years. Her favorite store is Hirshleifers, now managed by the founding family’s fifth generation. Rogoff, who runs a Long Island nonprofit, says buyer Lori Hirshleifer caters to her exacting tastes.
“You won’t find what they have in Saks Fifth Avenue, because they have close relationships with vendors so they get one-of-a-kind items,” said Rogoff, who recently purchased several pairs of Jon Buscemi leather sneakers, which sell for $865 and have golden padlocks dangling from the ankle straps.
Behind the scenes, Castagna continues to tweak the formula. A recent renovation of more than half a dozen brands features curated art at Dior and Chanel fitting rooms the size of studio apartments where customers can while away afternoons trying on clothes and having lunch. The Hermes store will triple in size. Banana Republic, one of the mall’s few mass-market chains, is making way for the more upscale Rag & Bone.
The proprietors are adapting to changing demographics. More than 25 percent of the mall’s shoppers are ethnic Chinese and Koreans living on Long Island or in Queens, who bring along relatives visiting from overseas. Americana has advertised in the World Journal, the largest Chinese-language newspaper in the U.S. More than half the center’s stores now employ at least one Mandarin-speaking sales associate.
Mindful of encroachment from the Web, Hirshleifers has partnered with the luxury site Farfetch.com so customers can buy some of its styles online.
For Rogoff, abandoning the mall’s personal service for the soulless experience of shopping on Web is unfathomable.
“Americana is like a fantasy land,” she said. “Shopping there is effortless and beautiful, with the reliability of a great car. It’s a destination.”