THE SWELTER’S OVER, BUT THE MELTING-POT MARKET OF PLANO MAKES FOR SOME SPICY RETAIL SALES.
Byline: Patricia Lowell
PLANO, Tex. — Like the dateline says, Plano’s in Texas, just 20 miles north of downtown Dallas. But on the atlas of style, it’s a lot farther away. Indeed, the busy retailers in this growing town are apt to declare that the Plano woman is not even a Texan woman.
At least not lately. The city’s thriving economy has been a magnet for residential growth, attracting a diverse array of women who are more likely to be from out of state, if not out of the country.
Thus, not only has Plano become a destination for retailers looking to expand, it is also a fertile and challenging polyglot of intersecting trends and tastes, where retailers can experiment with less concern about affronting a dominant conservative mind-set about dressing.
“Beyond just the growth and the sheer number of customers now in the area, there’s been a change in the kind of customer who is living here,” said Barbara Donalson, owner for more than 12 years of Legends Boutique at Plano’s Preston Trails shopping center. “She’s no longer a Texas woman. More than likely she’s from another part of the country or even the world, and she’s very savvy about what she wants to wear.”
This diversification of the customer base has created tremendous opportunity for retailers to find their own niche and lure a specific customer out to shop.
“There was a time when retailing in North Texas was pretty much the same all around,” said Donalson. “It was a Southern area, most frequently thought of as an extension of Dallas, and customers wanted that conservative, colorful Southern look. Now, our customers have lived everywhere from Russia to South Africa to New York, and they don’t want to be pigeonholed into a regional look.”
That they want to land in Plano and can make good money here is good news for the area, encompassing more than 70 square miles. According to the Plano Economic Development Board, the average household income is almost $86,000 — a substantial increase over the national average of about $53,000 — and the city boasts one of the highest new home starts in the country.
The Plano Chamber of Commerce reports that more than 230,000 people call Plano home, and the majority of the residential growth in the last 10 years has involved families moving from out of the county and out of state. The lion’s share of that growth is professionals who work for area corporations such as EDS, Frito-Lay Inc., Ericcson, Texas Instruments and J.C. Penney.
The impact on retailing has been tremendous. Retailers across the city are seeing 10 to 15% increases in sales over last season, say industry insiders. The hot Texas summer did make for a slow August, but retailers report that the abatement of the heat is encouraging shoppers to leave their air-conditioned homes and venture back into the stores.
“We’re already up 14% over where we were last year, and we haven’t even hit October yet,” said one store owner. “And October is our best month.”
This all makes for a changing landscape. “I can remember 10 years ago when we were almost alone out here,” said Legends’ Donalson.
While the market defies pigeonholing, there are common threads. One is the dominance of sportswear, whether dressed up for business casual or made more comfortable for carpool driving.
“Sportswear and corporate casual are huge markets for us,” said Tim Lyons, spokesman for J.C. Penney, a company that plays dual roles in Plano. After moving its corporate headquarters here from New York in 1989, Penney’s became not only a large north Texas retailer, but the employer of a major client base as well.
“Lines such as Dockers and Crazy Horse are very highly profiled in our Plano locations because they fit the need of both the professional and the non-working customers.”
At Lester Melnick in Plano, the conservative suits that are so popular in Dallas and Fort Worth are just a small portion of the merchandise mix.
“In Plano, we don’t have a big demand for the career or work clothes,” said Leslie Diers, president of Lester Melnick. “Our Plano customer has a very busy life and she wants lots of clothes, only they are clothes for fun, for casual and for going out at night.”
Even niche specialty stores such as Largesse, which specializes in upscale clothing for the larger size woman, are not having a problem finding an audience in Plano.
“We opened four years ago and have not stopped growing,” said owner Roberta Bito. She added that even for the larger customer, color, trends and casual looks are key.
“The Plano customer is most likely in her mid-to-late 20s or older,” said Chantal Godfrey, general manager of Harold’s. “She’s a sophisticated shopper who likes sophisticated but contemporary looks, and she keeps up on trends that she can translate into her life.”
For fall, this means the Harold’s customer will be seeing slightly more tailored looks and lots of lightweight and hand-knit sweaters that are comfortable in the mild Texas weather and versatile enough to be dressed up or down.
Not everything is changing, of course. While new female professionals are the growth opportunity, retailers agreed that in north Texas, it’s those nonworking customers that spend most of the money.
Also, like much of the shopping in north Texas, the stores and mall areas here are focused on family, with lots of play places for kids, merchandising fixtures that double as play equipment, Internet access throughout and plenty of “family spaces.”
“We consider our Collin Creek location to be a great stroller store,” said Roz Pactor, vice president and fashion director of Foley’s. “We have a lot of early morning traffic in the store, with moms stopping by with their small children after dropping the older kids off at school.”
In 2001, Foley’s will open its second Plano location, at Willow Bend on the growth-intensive northern edge of the city.
The development has been so rapid in Plano that sprawl is already kicking in. Reports from Plano’s Economic Development Board show that population growth in the city is expected to slow from 19.2% in 2000, to 13% in 2005 and just 6.2% in 2015. The surrounding areas, such as McKinney and Frisco, are expected to inherit much of the population and retail overflow.
This summer saw the opening of Stonebriar Centre, located adjacent to Plano in Frisco, at the corner of Preston Road and 121. The retail complex consists of more than 140 stores, an NHL-size skating rink, an AMC 24-screen movie theater and 1.6 million square feet of shopping.
The anchor stores include Macy’s, J.C. Penney, Nordstrom, Sears and Foley’s. The mall is already the largest in the greater Dallas area, and when the adjacent shopping centers and strip malls are open, it will become the largest shopping destination in the Southwest.
Again, the business in this corner is catering to a different customer. As so much of the Plano juggernaut spills over into neighboring communities, there still remains a dramatic difference between the market in the up-and-coming extended suburbs and the well-entrenched customer in Dallas.
“The northern suburbs definitely draw from the north and west,” said Bobbie Kandas, merchandising manager for Pappagallo, which has six locations in the area. “Plano is about new homes, transplants, younger people. Dallas and even Richardson are more established, more conservative. And shoppers don’t generally leave their area to drive north to shop.”
Not that the retailer is starving for Dallas traffic up there. According to Kandas, even though Pappagallo’s 10-year-old location in Plano’s Preston Park Village is only 2,500 square feet (smaller than its typical 3,200 square foot stores), it produces as much annual sales volume and often more than the volume attained at larger stores.
“The Plano customer, no matter where she has moved from, generally likes color and an outfit look,” said Kandas. “She doesn’t want anything terribly subdued or somber. The city is just full of moms wanting to dress up. And they love accessories.”
Plano is also rich in young shoppers, including teens, who are looking for trendy clothes and lots of them. For this reason stores, especially at Stonebriar Centre, are focused on providing lots of “shoppertainment” for teens. From a deejay booth at Macy’s to combined shopping for boys and girls at Penney’s, stores are looking for ways to entice the ‘N Sync set into shopping and spending.
Right now, the only complaints among retailers are the usual challenges attendant to rapid growth. There are traffic problems along Central Expressway, the north Dallas Toll Road and Preston Road — the major access roads for the area — and a growing intensity of competition between retailers fighting for those discretionary dollars.
The trick to dealing with the competitive climate, according to one industry source, will be to maintain a franchise with a consumer who is tempted by dozens of other shopping choices. Some Plano retailers are routinely seeing 15% volume increases each season, but there remains a question as to how long that can be sustained, as growth inevitably slows while competition continues to flood the market.
“We believe that competition makes everyone better,” said Lyons of Penney’s. “And we feel that J.C. Penney is well placed here because we sell moderately priced merchandise in an area that is so focused on family life.”
It remains to be seen if Plano will suffer the fate of so many boom communities left with millions of square feet of unoccupied shopping space once growth slows and shoppers become complacent.
However, if Plano is anything like its big-city neighbor Dallas, the shopping and spending will continue for the foreseeable future. Dallas’s most famous shopping destination, NorthPark Center, is still going strong and is even adding a Foley’s, a Nordstrom, movie theaters and more in the next two years.
That activity just a couple dozen miles away doesn’t appear to worry merchants here much.
“One thing we’ve noticed about Plano shoppers is that they don’t really want to leave the area,” said Diers of Lester Melnick. “Chances are they’ve moved here from somewhere else and they are so impressed with how shiny and new everything is. They feel like they have everything they need right here and don’t really venture into Dallas or the downtown area to shop.”