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In just four years, Eastern Hills Mall’s identity has changed. It’s gone from a retail befuddlement – a struggling, low-occupancy mall seated in the area’s highest household income demographic – to a resurgent shopping center, boasting popular brands and no store vacancies.

The transformation is so dramatic that even deadmalls.com had to reverse its panning of the Clarence mall from years ago. Russ Fulton, a Hamburg native, who spent 20 years at Walden Galleria as marketing director, became the general manager of the mall on Transit Road four years ago. He’s mixed national retailers with local, encouraged retailers to carry the most-wanted brands; brought in services and entertainment, creating a community hall with a DMV, SPCA, blood donation center and a locally owned theater.

On his watch, the mall went from 60 tenants to full capacity of 90 stores, 30 percent of them locally owned; and annual mall traffic has increased by 20 percent to 4.5 million.

Q: Why did you come to Eastern Hills, a mall that was essentially viewed as dead by many?

A: When Eastern Hills was built in 1971, it was the Walden Galleria of Western New York. It was the premiere shopping center, throughout the ’70s and ’80s. But when Galleria was built in 1989, it declined. With the surrounding area’s household income and the great amount of vacancies, I saw a great opportunity to take over the general manager position and turn the mall around.

Q: Were you at all apprehensive about taking the position?

A: Absolutely. We had just been through that huge expansion at Galleria, adding the Cheesecake Factory and Regal cinemas. When I was considering the job offer, I drove to Eastern Hills every night for a month. I just kept looking around and thinking, ‘what am I doing?’ I had grown Galleria, I was there for the groundbreaking; it was my baby.

Q: How and why did Eastern Hills lose business and its standing to Galleria?

A: The Galleria was bigger, newer and had more stores. And it brought new brands to Western New York, so our Western New York shoppers became more brand conscious. It became a difference in stores and brands.

Q: How have you been able to counter that?

A: The Bon-Ton and Macy’s now carry Dooney & Bourke. Bon-Ton has Coach. You can get a custom Brooks Brothers shirt. You can go to Sephora ... But it’s not just about the national stores – Macy’s, American Eagle and Aeropostale – it’s also about the local merchants, it’s about how you can grow your local business here and be mingled with national retailers, which gives local stores huge credibility.

Q: How would you describe your overall strategy to grow and improve the mall?

A: We’re in the Williamsville-Clarence-Amherst area. We’re looking to be like a town center for that area. We’re now calling ourselves Eastern Hills Mall and Commons, because it’s not just a mall, when you have SPCA and DMV. We’re calling it a community rebirth. We are like a downtown, but enclosed.

Q: How has the community responded to the changes?

A: Every day people stop me and thank me because it was their mall, and they saw that decline and it was hurtful to the community. We eat up a huge portion of Transit Road, and no one wants to see that go dark. I don’t want to paint an all-rosy picture. The No. 1 request is still those brands. It boils down to the re-educating of our shoppers. We need to do a better job letting them know that we don’t have a Coach store but you can get a Coach bag. We don’t have an Apple store but you can get all Apple products and services here. It’s really an education now.

Q: What about Canadian shoppers? How do you attract that business?

A: We’ve started Canadian marketing, if you will, to invite them in to say we’re a million square feet of some great retailers.

Again, brands – Canadians are very brand focused. Since putting that out there, our Canadian traffic has increased double digits in a 24-month period. It’s a beautiful thing for me to pull in here on Saturday and see six to eight buses, and they’re all from Canada. It’s icing on the cake, it’s gravy on the potatoes. It’s all those things because we already have a great local shopper base.

email: esapong@buffnews.com