Though Westfield World Trade Center opened to significant fanfare last August, several stores remain empty within the elaborate Oculus building, pointing to trouble for the lower Manhattan mall.
A recent report showed that upward of 20 percent of the Westfield mall’s available storefronts remain vacant within its 365,000-square-foot retail space. Though developing a mall in today’s tumultuous retail climate is not without its challenges, Westfield was confident it could lure consumers with its collection of luxury brands, proximity to a highly populated tourist area and direct access from the New York City subway system. Now, the mall is struggling to find its place in a region of the city dominated by commuters, professionals and tourists visiting the World Trade Center memorial — demographics that may not be particularly intent on shopping.
A spokesperson at Westfield asserted that the mall is “off to a very strong start,” despite its lack of a full retail roster, and plans to fill the remainder of the spaces by 2019, as it continues construction of an expanded part of the mall located under 3 World Trade Center. (Westfield declined to share sales and foot traffic data.)
“We have an outstanding mix of retailers, and great response from consumers,” the spokesperson wrote in a statement. “With any project of this size, there a stabilization period to ensure that the right shops are in place. We are moving through that period quickly, and we are confident that Westfield World Trade Center will be one of the most productive centers in the U.S.”
The project, which took nine years and $1.4 billion to develop, may face difficulty at the whims of retailers reassessing their brick-and-mortar strategies, said Brennan Wilkie, svp of customer experience strategy at InMoment, a customer experience management firm. Though Westfield has placed a concerted focus on in-store tech, luxury brands are increasingly turning to ephemeral pop-up shops or e-commerce platforms that offer a more customized shopping journey.
“Large shopping centers are always going to fill a utilitarian need by providing ease of access to brands,” Wilkie said. “But we know that consumers today are craving experiences that align more with their lifestyles. When you think about Westfield, you have this giant mall — but consumer interest is more in personalized experiences, which you’re more likely to find in boutiques and bespoke stores in local communities.”
Westfield’s inability to open the remaining stores is also likely a result of “its conflicting environment for consumers,” Wilkie said, as a result of its location next to the World Trade Center memorial and museum. In short, saddened visitors paying their respects to the lives lost during the September 11, 2001 terrorist attack may not feel keen to pop into Dior, while harried commuters are focused solely on getting to and from trains.
To add to its uncertain identity in the area, Westfield is in the process of filing a lawsuit against Port Authority and Silverstein Properties — the owners of the plot where the mall is located and the World Trade Center, respectively — to maintain its bright red signage on the property. Silverstein described it as “crass branding” that doesn’t fit the aesthetic of the area and gives “the distinct impression of an enclosed suburban shopping mall, rather than the grand public space that it was intended to be,” in a statement to the New York Daily News.
Wilkie said Westfield faces the added difficulty of proximity to competitors like Brookfield Place — a similar luxury mall located less than half a mile west — which may fare better due its location near the waterfront, free from ties to the World Trade Center tragedy.