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Death Of The Lifestyle Center


In troubled times, luxury merchants are early casualty.

It was a nice idea, but it didn't last.

During the boom, real estate developers raced to build what they call "Lifestyle Centers" - shopping areas that merge the thrill of purchasing a $700 Coach (COH) handbag with simpler pleasures like watching screaming children run through a towering water fountain.

The Wall Street Journal reports that construction of these trendy urban hamlets of consumerism replaced that of traditional enclosed shopping areas. Instead, developers rounded up small-time retailers like AnnTaylor (ANN), Talbots (TLB), Chicos (CHS) and Linens 'n Things to fill up the storefronts in the hopes that their collective allure would seduce shoppers away from Big-Box rivals like Wal-Mart (WMT) and Costco (COST).

But alas, it was not to be. The dream of sipping a Starbucks (SBUX) double half-caff non-fat vente pumpkin spice latte while lugging sagging shopping bags around the duck pond is no more.

Together, the economic slowdown, real estate slump and credit crunch have thwarted this nascent craze, forcing developers to scrap plans for new centers. Shoppers are spending more at the pump and less on the frills that were the open air mall's stock-in-trade - which means tough times are ahead for peddlers of the non-essential.

Retailers like the aforementioned Talbots and Chicos are canceling expansion plans, while Linens 'N Things and, more recently, Steve and Barry's are just plain calling it quits.

But many analysts say the jig would have been up, in any event. Consumers' financial woes are just the final nail in the coffin of Lifestyle-Center mania. One builder told the Journal most of the choice locations had already been snapped up, since the open-air malls are most popular in and around urban centers.

Plans for new construction were already stretching the limits of the model, expanding to such teeming metropolises as Brighton, Colorado and Boise, Idaho.

But many developers are being forced to limp through the completion of existing projects, though their creditors now fear that they may not be able to make good on their debts.

Developers, having taken out loans with "lease-up periods," hoped to jam retailers into leases during the building phase. But many new developments are only partly occupied.

As consumers cut back and trade down, such swanky shopping opportunities are becoming less desirable. Costco may not be sexy, but it's damn cheap.

The craze's slow demise is only one symptom of a broader trend: The rejection of reckless spending and conspicuous consumption. As strapped buyers turn away from the excesses of rampant consumerism, lavish malls -- and the luxuries they traffic in -- just aren't needed.
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