Two clothing stores announced plans this month to shutter their Oneonta locations within the coming weeks, falling in step with a growing procession of businesses leaving the area. McLaughlin’s, a downtown clothing store and boutique, and teen specialty apparel retailer Rue 21 the latest victims of the industry-wide phenomenon known as the “retail apocalypse.”
News of the fashion retailer’s plans to exit the Southside Mall ousted its neighboring tenant, Payless ShoeSource, from the spotlight of impending closure. Rue 21 is the third store to announce its departure from the mall since Bed, Bath & Beyond began liquidation sales in November.
Responding to a series of public claims that the Southside Mall is responsible for driving out its own stores with steep rental rates, mall manager Luisa Montanti told The Daily Star the allegations are “absolutely not true.”
The mall charges rent at cheaper rates than Main Street, she said; some storefronts run as little as $400 a month.
“You can’t even find an apartment in the area for that price,” she said.
Now in her eighth year as mall manager, Montanti began her retail career as an associate at the JCPenney in 1988. With stores closing left and right, “I feel the customer has no hope,” she said.
A struggling retailer’s decision to downsize has a nationwide impact, Montanti said, but the malls that house them are not to blame.
“When an entire company goes bankrupt, how is that the Oneonta mall’s fault?” she said.
Rue 21 filed for bankruptcy in September 2017 after closing 400 locations. Liquidation sales began March 1 for the store’s Oneonta and Johnson City locations, which are expected to close sometime in April.
“We’re sad to see it go,” she said.
The influx of customers accompanying the news of each store’s closure is ironic, Montanti said, and an added frustration to the deluge of closing-related customer complaints.
“Be realistic: who caused that? Yes, the big Amazon companies, but also the consumer that gave in to them,” she said.
In spite of the retail industry’s recent tailspin, the mall’s remaining stores continue to operate in the black, Montanti said, and many posted record-high sales volumes during the holiday season.
While struggling department store chain JCPenney announced last week plans to close 24 stores in 2019, the Southside Mall location remains one of the top-performing stores in the region, Montanti said. The mall’s TJ Maxx also continues to perform well, she added, attributing the store’s success to its ability to adapt in the face of changing customer demands.
“Customers don’t want clothes. They want an experience,” she said. “The shift is there, and retailers need to address it.”
Meanwhile, the mall is continuously evolving to better serve its patrons, Montanti said. In December, the Southside Mall Cinema introduced upholstered reclining seats in each of its nine theaters. This weekend, it will unveil a newly-renovated concession area. Mall newcomer Harbor Freight will open April 30.
“It’s so important to shop local, and I don’t just mean at the mall,” said Montanti, who also serves as board president of Destination Oneonta. “We live in a community that has a great variety of businesses. Main Street has brand-name shoes and clothes. You just have to pay attention to what the offerings are.”
McLaughlin’s, a longtime Main Street fixture, on Tuesday announced plans to close its Oneonta location.
“We have had great success over the years and felt honored to be a part of the Oneonta community,” company owner Scott McLaughlin said in a media release. “Unfortunately, with the current national retail trends, we feel it is in our company’s best interest to close that branch and concentrate on our main location in downtown Norwich.”
The store will begin liquidating its inventory March 14, with sale prices up to 75 percent off everything in stock. All sales are final, but credit slips and gift certificates may still be redeemed at the store’s Norwich location.
“We appreciate everything the community has done for us,” McLaughlin said. “But that’s retail, unfortunately.”
“Next time you do your shopping, make sure you take care of your home base first,” Montanti said, referencing an internet sales tax advantage that exempts online third-party marketplace retailers such as Amazon from collecting and remitting sales tax.
A proposal included in the state’s executive budget could close the loophole and generate an additional $390 million in annual revenue for local governments, according to a media release from the governor’s office.
“Those big companies don’t care about your roads, they don’t care about your schools. They’re not paying for it,” Montanti said.
Sarah Eames, staff writer, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 607-441-7213. Follow her @DS_SarahE on Twitter.
• Holiday season was mixed bag for retailers. Page 12