South Bay malls turn to open-air shopping during COVID-19
The open-air market has been a success for Westfield Valley Fair. Photo by Lorraine Gabbert.

As COVID-19 shut down malls, Westfield Valley Fair reinvented shopping with an open-air market.

A row of red and white popup tents beckon customers to peruse the latest fashion, watch an art demonstration or grab a snack from a food truck. Luxury brands like Cartier, Tiffany & Co. and Versace offer viewings by appointment in cabanas inside the mall. This is Westfield Valley Fair’s solution to the state shuttering malls on July 15 due to a rise of COVID-19 in Santa Clara County.

“Participating retailers are thrilled because it keeps guests thinking about their brand,” said Sue Newsom, senior general manager at Westfield Valley Fair. “Everyone’s trying to do the best we can to service the customer and keep businesses going. This was a way for us to do it thinking outside the box.”

The market, open 1 p.m. to 7 p.m. Friday to Sunday, was Newsom’s brainchild. The idea came to her one day during a conference call with executives. The open-air market started July 24 with seven retailers and now it boasts close to 30. Newsom said the longer the malls are closed, the more people will come out to the open-air market.

Newsom said the market, which offers everything from accessories to beauty and athletic wear, has been a positive experience for both customers and retailers alike.

“There’s just a great synergy and vibe,” Newsom said. “People have enjoyed it. It’s been really nice to see that excitement.”

“It’s a very cool way to have shops stay open and still be able to maintain their businesses,” said Lowell Su, shopping with his wife, Lillia, and three-year-old son Lincoln. Photo by Lorraine Gabbert.

Customers such as Lowell Su said they like the open-air feel of the market and the nearby food trucks.

“It’s a very cool way to have shops stay open and still be able to maintain their businesses,” said Su. “It seems like a good way to do things.”

The market has been so successful that Westfield Oakridge has followed suit, opening its own on July 31.

“We have seen an incredible turn out from the community and very supportive and eager guests ready to shop,” said Julian Esposito, general manager of Westfield Oakridge. “As we navigate this ‘new normal,’ we are looking for creative ways to serve the community, our guests and retailers and deliver a fantastic and safe shopping experience.”

Esposito said the mall’s expanded patios have helped restaurants accommodate more guests and bring on more servers and team members.

Malls in Santa Clara County briefly opened June 15 to a flock of eager customers, but were shuttered again after the county landed on the state watchlist for a high number of COVID-19 hospitalizations. They’ve largely remained closed since mid-July.

   

Westfield has posted COVID-19 related signage at its South Bay malls reminding customers to social distance, wear masks and use hand sanitizer. The malls currently have limited indoor operations.

At Westfield Valley Fair, department stores such as Bloomingdale’s, Macy’s and Nordstrom continue to operate, as well as retailers with outside entrances like CH Premier, Louis Vuitton and Prada, which are open by appointment. Other retailers offer curbside pickup.

Restaurants, such as California Pizza Kitchen and Din Tai Fung, offer outdoor dining, and ice creamery Salt & Straw is open on the plaza.

Newsom said the open-air market has given retailers an opportunity to make up for months of lost sales while following Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines.

“We’re holding everyone accountable to adhering to those standards,” Newsom said. “There’s a small percentage of having to ask people to wear their masks. Usually someone has a mask and just forgot to wear it.”

The new outdoor setup also has helped retailers usually stuck inside their stories mingle with one another.  

“They’ve made partnerships and relationships through this,” Newsom said. “When you’re in your store every day you don’t get that opportunity.”

“In moments of challenge, people come together,” said Ginhee Rancourt, founder of Young Art. Photo by Lorraine Gabbert.

Ginhee Rancourt, founder of Young Art, which provides art lessons to children, agrees camaraderie is a great motivator.

“In moments of challenge, people come together,” Rancourt said. “This is going to be successful because of the retailers’ spirits of optimism, courage and innovation. It’s a lot of work lugging out your stuff, but we’re really dedicated.”

Monique Fuentes, store manager for Coach, said she is happy to see customer traffic increasing each weekend.

“This is what we have to do,” Fuentes said. “This is what we do for a living and to be closed indoors is not fair. You have to be creative and think of other ways to survive. People want to be out, and this is a safe place for them to be. The open-air market has been successful. We’ve gotten lots of new buyers.”

Coach staff Stephanie Calderon, Adriana Gomez and Monique Fuentes merchandise at the open-air market. Photo by Lorraine Gabbert.


Re-imagining itself is nothing new for Westfield Valley Fair, which recently spent $1.1 billion on a phased redesign, including landscaped outdoor plazas, 100 new stores, Bloomingdale’s, health and wellness amenities and a full-service doctor’s office.

The general managers of Westfield Valley Fair and Westfield Oakridge said they plan to continue their outdoor markets until the state and county allow in-store shopping malls to fully reopen.

“It has been fun to see everybody pulling together collectively as a team,” Newsom said. “It’s taken something that has been challenging and made something great out of it.”

Contact Lorraine Gabbert at [email protected]

 

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