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Longtime retailer at center of shopping mall renaissance

Kim Leonard
| Tuesday, July 31, 2012, 12:05 a.m.
Ed Wetzel, 65 of Hampton with a Vera Bradley display at his new Audrey's store at the South Hills Village Mall.
Jasmine Goldband  |  Tribune-Review
Ed Wetzel, 65 of Hampton with a Vera Bradley display at his new Audrey's store at the South Hills Village Mall. Jasmine Goldband | Tribune-Review
Ed Wetzel, 65 of Hampton at his new Audrey's store at the South Hills Village Mall.
Jasmine Goldband  |  Tribune-Review
Ed Wetzel, 65 of Hampton at his new Audrey's store at the South Hills Village Mall. Jasmine Goldband | Tribune-Review

Major chains used to snap up long-term leases for almost all the prime spots in malls, often leaving local merchants to settle for storefronts with lower foot traffic.

But longtime Western Pennsylvania retailer Ed Wetzel has a new women's accessories store near the center of South Hills Village's upper level, in a space vacated by a Zales jewelry store.

Wetzel's new store — Audrey's — opened in early July, replacing and expanding the women's merchandise section at another store operated by Wetzel, the former Audrey's Attic store at the mall. And in August, a new Audrey's Attic, carrying home and gift items, will open at the mall, just down the corridor.

Wetzel has run as many as 30 mostly seasonal, pop-up stores at a time, but he's happy with the five year-round locales that he and his wife, Judy, operate now. Besides the two Audrey's stores at South Hills Village, there's a Signatures shop at the nearby Galleria in Mt. Lebanon and Belongings stores at Monroeville Mall and The Mall at Robinson.

“We've got this location now, which we never would have had in the past,” Wetzel said of Audrey's. “We've got a permanent lease, for a major center court-type space.”

At the center of the new store, cases and tables display moderately priced jewelry by Viva Beads, Israeli brand Mariana and other makers. Audrey's will add its own brand of jewelry by spring, Wetzel said.

There's a scarf wall, a novelty sock wall, shelves and tables full of purses and a prominent display of Vera Bradley bags, accessories and linens.

“I love the store — the variety, the unique items and things for travel they have,” said Sharon Sciulli of West Middlesex, adding she has visited the store three times so far.

Sciulli, who has relatives who live near the mall, also likes the store's layout. “It's nice and bright and colorful,” she said. Wetzel developed an interest in temporary, seasonal stores about 30 years ago when he was the manager at the former Troutman's department store at Franklin Mall, as well as the merchant association president. The North Franklin mall now is called Washington Crown Center.

The idea for Audrey's Attic came from an assistant manager at Troutman's who had worked previously at a G.C. Murphy's discount store, who suggested the mall sell holiday flowers from some empty spots.

To Wetzel's surprise, customers quickly bought $1,000 worth of flowers, and he started dreaming up ways to capitalize on short-term deals for vacant storefronts.

He opened a warehouse and office before he had any stores. Today, Wetzel's business is centered in a Hampton office and two warehouses where all merchandise is ordered and received. That way, stores can be big and stockrooms very small, he said.

Wetzel learned to adapt quickly to opportunities and trends. He claims to have leased space at one time or another in every mall in Western Pennsylvania, including the Airmall at Pittsburgh International Airport during busier times, when US Airways had a hub there. In the late 1990s, he operated stores as far away as the Washington suburbs.

Leases were temporary, meaning Wetzel often would open a store just for the holidays, and a mall owner could ask him to leave with a month's notice if a major chain wanted his spot.

If Wetzel asked for a longer-term lease, he usually was turned down.

“Then the recession hit, fourth quarter of '07” and national chains stopped leasing, Wetzel said. The nationwide, average vacancy rate for enclosed malls was higher than 7 percent four years ago, according to some estimates.

Over a three-week period, three major mall owners with Western Pennsylvania retail properties contacted him, saying they were seeking “talented local merchants” for prime storefronts.

“I said man, I'm going to jump on that,” he said.

The Simon Property Group-owned South Hills Village, which opened in 1965, is undergoing several changes with some stores moving or under renovation, and new Dick's Sporting Goods and Target stores set to occupy a former department store space. A mall spokesman couldn't be reached for comment.

Malls nationwide are working to broaden and freshen up their mixes of stores, Duquesne University marketing professor Audrey Guskey said.

“With the recession and so many retailers hurting, their No. 1 concern is keeping everything filled,” she said, but mall owners and developers also realize consumers are tired of seeing the same chains at every location.

Also, “Everybody wants to shop local. You want to eat at restaurants that serve things from the farmer's market at their salad buffets,” she said. “Stores that are unique and local are really important in today's economy.”

In addition to their leased stores, the Wetzels own 65,000 square feet of retail space across the region.

Wetzel has changed his store concepts as well as locales.

At one time, there were six Signatures stationery and giftware stores, but as the greeting card and collectibles business began to slow down around 1998 a vendor approached him about selling Vera Bradley handbags.

Wetzel was skeptical. “What, cloth bags for old ladies?” he said, but he bought 24 bags for his airport stores, and the line's success inspired him to stock more women's accessories. Vera Bradley merchandise now accounts for about 30 percent of Audrey's sales.

The Audrey's Attic name was suggested by a retail consultant, in part because it appears high on alphabetical listings.

And the Bethel Park native considers South Hills Village, where he's operated stores for 27 years, to be the best mall in the region for its demographics and location. His high school prom in 1966 was at the mall.

Wetzel has his own rules to sell by: Don't carry the same lines as department stores. And whatever merchandise category you sell, it should be the biggest in the mall.

“What we're selling here right now, probably in three years it will be a lot different,” he said. “You've always got to look at that new, hot thing.”

Kim Leonard is a Trib Total Media staff writer. Reach her at 412-380-5606, or kleonard@tribweb.com

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