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New retail centers face ever-increasing pressure to open for business as quickly as possible. Sometimes, this means hoisting grand opening banners just a few yards away from wet paint, drying concrete and other telltale signs of unfinished construction. With so-called “soft” openings becoming more common, marketing professionals are adopting a variety of new approaches, from shopping center previews to mini-grand openings.

Regardless of the terminology used, the intent is the same — putting a positive spin on openings where construction is phased or perhaps not fully complete at the scheduled opening date. “Why open even a week or two before grand opening?” says Michele Rothstein, vice president of marketing for Chelsea Property Group, Roseland, N.J. “As long as you have critical mass, let shoppers enjoy the shopping experience.”

Although many marketing managers shy away from the soft opening label, partial openings are not necessarily a bad thing. “We need to consider our customer, the retailer,” notes Scott Schroeder, corporate marketing director for Beachwood, Ohio-based Developers Diversified Realty Corp. “We need to ask ourselves what's best for them.” Good developers, Schroeder adds, continually strive to help retailers “work out the kinks” and get their employees trained and ready for the grand opening.

A host of factors ranging from construction delays to the financial pressure on retailers has contributed to the surge in soft openings. “When we're open, we're open, and our feeling is that we need to be ready,” Rothstein says. “At the end of the day it's all about the stores. It's not about the bands playing. It's about the merchants.”

A sneak preview

Bethesda, Md.-based Lerner Corp. coordinated a two-phase opening for its Dulles Town Center that included both soft and grand opening marketing strategies. Due to contractual obligations, Dulles Town Center opened its doors in April 1999 with ongoing construction and fewer than a dozen stores. Additional store openings were staggered over the next several months prior to the grand opening in August.

Dulles Town Center spent considerable time and effort planning two separate openings — the soft opening or preview and a grand opening. Ongoing communication and attention to detail proved key to producing two successful campaigns. Mall managers wanted the public to be clear about the difference between the preview and the grand opening. “We were very careful about how we presented everything and how we worded everything,” explains Joan Bauer, the center's marketing director.

The shopping center sent out press releases and newsletters disclosing information about the preview opening, as well as emphasizing what was in store for the future grand opening. Marketing materials invited shoppers to come back for the grand opening. Dulles Town Center also gave out coupons offering a free gift for those who returned for the grand opening. “So we were always very clear that this was just a soft opening, and there were many new and exciting things coming to the grand opening,” Bauer says.

In addition, Dulles Town Center held back on launching a major media campaign until closer to the grand opening. Many malls will do a teaser campaign between soft and grand openings. “We purposefully did not do that because we didn't want to blur the lines between the two,” Bauer says. “We wanted to keep them separate.”

Phased openings

Soft openings can be used to promote the arrival of new stores both before and after a formal grand opening celebration. In November 2000, for example, a huge grand opening event inaugurated the 1.4 million-sq.-ft. Arundel Mills mall in Anne Arundel County, Md. However, a major anchor at the center, Bass Pro Shops Outdoor World, is not scheduled to open until fall 2001. So Arundel Mills and Bass Pro are planning a second “mini-grand opening” to mark the addition of the 135,000-sq.-ft. store.

“We will have another grand opening because Bass Pro is such a huge player and such a unique retailer,” says Anne Lipscomb, group vice president of marketing at Arlington, Va.-based The Mills Corp. The staff at Arundel Mills will work closely with Bass Pro on promotional advertising and activities to celebrate the opening. The mini-grand opening will feature sports celebrities, demonstrations and tournaments, as well as a formal ribbon-cutting ceremony. “It will include everything you do for a grand opening, only on a smaller scale,” Lipscomb notes.

Bass Pro also participated in the shopping center's original grand opening festivities with a small retail space that featured some of Bass Pro's signature sale items, access to its catalogs, and information about the new store. “It at least gave people a sense of what was coming down the road,” Lipscomb says.

Balancing interests

The decision to hold a soft opening is based largely on what is appropriate for a particular project and a particular market. “In terms of soft openings there is no rule of thumb, at least for us,” Rothstein says. “We look at how the project is flowing, and what is in the best interest of merchants and shoppers.”

Chelsea recently decided to open Allen Premium Outlets in Allen, Texas, about two weeks prior to the official grand opening. Managers believed they had a large enough critical mass of stores to draw shoppers. The 233,000-sq.-ft. Allen Premium Outlets, an outdoor village-style center, includes about 50 stores.

Allen Premium Outlets opened its doors at the end of October, and officially held its grand opening in early November. “There were just a few stores that we knew up front, based on their own needs, would not be open,” Rothstein says. “So for us it was not so much a soft opening as it was a pre-grand opening.”

Chelsea's approach is to turn a potential negative, the fact that not all of the stores are open, into a positive promotion for those stores that are pending. Barneys New York, for example, planned to open its Allen Premium Outlets store in early 2001. However, Chelsea began promoting the store as soon as the shopping center opened in October. “It gives shoppers a reason to come back,” Rothstein says.

Beth Mattson-Teig is a Minneapolis-based writer.

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