HAMILTON TOWNSHIP — No one had to tell Lauren H. Moore Jr., the Atlantic County Economic Alliance executive director, that the Sears department store in the Hamilton Mall was closing last year.

The Economic Alliance’s office is across the hall from the second-floor entrance to what was Sears. The store’s name no longer hangs above the entranceway.

“The evolution of brick-and-mortar retail and what the Hamilton Mall is experiencing is happening nationwide and globally. This is no unique circumstance that the Hamilton Mall is experiencing by any stretch of the imagination,” Moore said.

The Hamilton Mall, which opened in 1987, is facing one of the most challenging periods in its history as it deals with online competition and other brick-and-mortar competitors that have sprung up.

JCPenney, the second of the mall’s three anchor stores, will close July 5. Macy’s, the third anchor store, has no plans to close, but the chain will be closing eight locations this year nationwide.

When anchor stores close, it affects the mall’s value, which in turn decreases the amount of money the mall is paying the township.

The mall had a value of $90.78 million in 2017, but it was reduced to $75 million last year. The mall value was reduced again to $50 million this year. There is another active tax appeal for 2019 for the mall, said William M. Johnson, the township tax assessor.

The Township Committee last month unanimously introduced its 2019 budget, which calls for a two-cent increase in the local property-tax rate.

Officials cited a $400,000 loss from a tax appeal by the mall as the main reason for the increase.

Even with Sears closed and JCPenney shutting soon, the mall is still a successful operation as the only enclosed mall in either Atlantic or Cape May counties, said Crystal Rodriguez, the mall’s marketing manager.

Sears pays rent to the mall for its location, while JCPenney owns its area of the mall. Neither company has told the mall yet what it plans to do with the space it occupies, Rodriguez said.

Brick-and-mortar retailers have to deal with more people ordering their goods online annually, but the Hamilton Mall has the additional burden of competing against a tremendous amount of retail in a small geographical area.

When the mall was almost brand new 30 years ago, its only major competition was the Festival at Hamilton across the Black Horse Pike and the then Shore Mall and the English Creek Shopping Center in Egg Harbor Township.

Since that time, there has been an explosion of retail around the mall, including a Walmart and several shopping plazas — Consumer Square, Hamilton Commons and the 270,000-square-foot Gravelly Run Square, which has two stores open and is still under construction.

More retail can be found seven miles away at the almost 250,000-square-foot Oak Tree Plaza that opened in 2017 with a new 24-hour Walmart SuperCenter and is still adding businesses; and 13.5 miles away at the only outlet mall in Atlantic County, the 71 stores and restaurants of Tanger Outlet Atlantic City, commonly known as The Walk, which opened in 2003.

Outlets appear to be much more of a robust segment than traditional retail, said Lisa Wagner, principal of The Outlet Resource Group, a consultant, marketing, license and design company.

The change took place after the 2007-09 recession, Wagner said.

“Consumers found that they could still get the brands that they wanted, and that they had become accustomed to, but at a better value in outlets, so we have seen a great expansion of the outlet industry since the recession,” Wagner said.

The stores still in the Hamilton Mall, especially the ones operated by local, independent operators, are not just sitting back and letting online and other brick-and-mortar retailers steal their customers.

They are cultivating their own niches and working with mall management and on their own to ensure their patrons stay loyal to them.

Level Up Entertainment, a store for comics, games, toys and more, is gearing up for Free Comic Book Day on May 4.

After being in Tilton Times Plaza in Egg Harbor Township, the business has grown during the eight years Level Up has been at the mall, said co-owner Gregg Mester, 40.

“The mall has helped us tremendously just by having the walking traffic in the mall. It helps us a ton with marketing. They want us to succeed, and they want to succeed, so they have been really helpful, especially with our big events,” Mester said.

Level Up has its own niche as the biggest comic book store unless someone drives to Toms River, Ocean County, to the north, or Berlin or Cherry Hill, Camden County, to the west.

Christina Sweiderk, 27, opened Blink Beauty & Wellness in 2017 in the mall, when she had a whole host of other choices to establish her business.

“I needed the foot traffic to build up the clientele. I had a Black Friday start. I picked up my first eight clients that day. I was out there hustling and talking to everyone and really bringing them in,” Sweiderk said. “In a strip mall, I think I would have gotten lost because they would have driven right by me, whereas people are walking by to shop (in the mall).”

Sweiderk, who has been successful enough at the Hamilton Mall to open a second location in the Staten Island Mall in New York, believes she will be OK in the future with Sears closed and JCPenney closing because she offers the niche services of full-set and fill-in eyelash extensions.

Sisters Jaime Hannigan and Lisa Muratore, co-owners of White Lotus, have expanded their mall specialty business from just a jewelry and clothing store to offer health, wellness and metaphysical products such as candles.

Even if Sears were still open and JCPenney was not closing, White Lotus is always pivoting and moving and evolving in its own direction, said Hannigan, 35, of Egg Harbor Township.

Since the store opened, it has done its own digital marketing and is always trying to bring in revenue streams. The sisters attend 50 to 60 events annually, including festivals that attract 20,000 to 60,000 people.

They guide traffic from those events into the store.

“From a bigger perspective, it’s not about what’s opening and closing around you, it’s about understanding your demographic and your marketing and learning how to drive people into your store,” Hannigan said.

Staff Writer

Twenty years as a staff writer in the features department, specializing in entertainment and the arts at The Press of Atlantic City.

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