Tourists, conventions give N.O. retail high-end tilt

Local shoppers who like the increasingly upscale retail choices to be found in downtown New Orleans may owe a nod to the growing local tourism and convention business, which is helping to fuel retail expansions and draw a string of big-name stores to the city.

As the holiday shopping season approaches, the world’s best-known jewelry retailer, Tiffany & Co., is poised to open in The Shops at Canal Place on Nov. 27, just days after the local debut of Swedish “fast-fashion” clothing company H&M on North Peters Street in the French Quarter.

On the other side of Canal Street, a major rebranding of the former Riverwalk Marketplace is underway, with the riverside center slated to reopen next year as a high-end outlet mall that will bring stores by Neiman Marcus, Coach, Forever 21 and many others.

“For higher-end retail, tourism — or more specifically, the convention business — has played a very important part in downtown retail growth,” said Don Schwarcz, a retail specialist and partner with SRSA Commercial Real Estate Inc.

Pointing to the growing number of large medical conferences and other meetings that return annually to New Orleans, Schwarcz noted that the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center and many hotels are within an easy walk of the most upscale shopping available in greater New Orleans.

“When you have many thousands of affluent people coming to the city at a given time, it certainly has an impact on retail,” he said.

Schwarcz said Tiffany’s entry into New Orleans indicates that the company thinks “this market has reached a point that it can support a jewelry retailer at the highest level.”

With 277 stores and boutiques in 24 countries, Tiffany & Co. operates just 91 stores in the United States, including its New York City flagship, according to Diane Brown, the company’s vice president for the Mid-Atlantic market.

Brown said Tiffany’s has opened only three to five U.S. stores annually in recent years and chose New Orleans “because the local community is vibrant and growing.” She said “local customers and visitors alike” will appreciate what Tiffany’s brings to the city.

Years ago, most upscale shopping choices in the downtown area were concentrated farther up Canal Street and on Royal Street in the French Quarter. Visitors and locals continue to patronize shops in both areas, including such Canal Street stalwarts as Rubensteins men’s specialty store and Adler’s fine jewelry.

Over time, as riverfront attractions and the convention center gained steam, the lower end of Canal Street became a new hub for luxury shopping. The multilevel Shops at Canal Place has long been home to premium retailers Saks Fifth Avenue and Brooks Brothers, among others. Saks’ local marketing manager Steven Putt said out-of-town shoppers have been crucial to the store’s growth.

Tourists and convention-goers make up more than 30 percent of the store’s business and have helped put it among the 10 busiest Saks stores in the country, Putt said.

In terms of overall business at The Shops at Canal Place, visitors account for about 40 percent of sales and have helped tilt the tenant mix increasingly toward the high end, according to mall general manager Lisa Manzella.

Michael Kors and Allen Edmonds are among the shops that took up residence in the past year. And Tiffany’s has taken over space formerly occupied by local jewelry designer Mignon Faget, who will open a larger store in the mall later this month.

Manzella said that big national conventions, such as two major medical conferences being held in New Orleans in November, have a big impact on the mall.

“When we have that type of convention, with over 25,000 attendees each, Canal Place benefits immensely,” she said.

Many smaller conferences and big sports events also draw substantial numbers of affluent shoppers, she said.

The strength of the visitor market and the robust local retail sector clearly caught the attention of Dallas-based Howard Hughes Corp., owner of the former Riverwalk Marketplace, which stretches between the Hilton New Orleans Riverside hotel and the convention center. The company recently announced a total makeover of the shopping center, with plans to turn it into an upscale outlet mall.

Frank Quinn, general manager of The Outlet Collection at Riverwalk, which is slated to open with full occupancy by next summer, said the mall will become the first outlet center located in the downtown of a major U.S. city.

“It’s unique, and it’s going to bring a whole lot of stores that are new to the market and to the state,” he said, ticking off Last Call Studio by Neiman Marcus, Coach New York, Forever 21, Kenneth Cole, Tommy Bahama Outlet and Steve Madden among four dozen confirmed tenants.

Outlet centers typically “do very well” in tourist areas, and the Riverwalk’s proximity to the convention center, hotels and the renovated cruise ship terminal make the outlets “a natural fit,” Quinn said. But he expects the mall also will draw a strong local following because it will be the only location in the region for many of the stores.

Retail specialist Schwarcz agrees on both scores.

“Outlet mall shopping is an extremely popular pastime for tourists … and I think you’ll see a substantial number of local shoppers going there too,” he said.

Schwarcz said a component of the downtown retail market that is sometimes overlooked is the growing number of people who live in the central business district. With thousands of residential units in the Warehouse District and many more in former office towers that were converted into apartment buildings, downtown has a substantial resident population, he said.

Add to that the massive medical center development underway along upper Canal Street, and the downtown population is sure to grow, he said.

“All this is not lost on companies like Tiffany’s and others,” Schwarcz added.