While the Bangor Mall may be better known these days for the emptiness of its parking lots than for the vibrancy of its shopping experience, an unassuming event last weekend briefly turned it back into a bustling retail scene.
A craft fair that was held in the mall’s corridors and empty stores Saturday and Sunday drew an estimated 22,000 people. The parking lots were so packed that some visitors had to leave their cars on the other side of Stillwater Avenue, and some nearby businesses also reported a bump in customers.
“I’d say our Saturday was a mini-Black Friday,” said Shawn Cahill, manager of the nearby Lamey Wellehan shoe store on Bangor Mall Boulevard, which saw its sales grow more than 10 percent over last year’s Veterans’ Day weekend. “I haven’t personally seen the mall that packed that early in the morning in maybe 10 years.”
It was a welcome blip for businesses near the mall, however brief, and the event’s organizer, Kathy Harvey, is already preparing to hold another craft fair next year, possibly spread over two weekends.
With its ability to draw so many people to a mall that has struggled to maintain its customer volume as stores inside have shut their doors, the event and the experience it offered could also point to a path forward for the mall as it considers how to attract new tenants and shoppers.
There is a growing demand for the types of secondhand goods that may be sold at a craft fair, according to Jerry Sheldon, a retail analyst at the firm IHL Group. He also said that the continued success of bargain stores such as T.J. Maxx, Marshalls and Ross shows that Americans still enjoy the experience of browsing for original “hidden treasures.” They may find a similar experience by going to a pop-up store or craft fair.
With online retailers such as Amazon continually offering stiff competition, brick-and-mortar stores can still compete by offering those unique shopping experiences, according to Sheldon.
“People want to see things that they haven’t seen before,” he said. “The reality is that the vast majority of stores in a mall don’t change that often. There’s not a lot of variety there.”
Harvey is the owner of Furniture Mattresses and More, a store that opened in the summer of 2018 in the retail space that used to be a Macy’s department store. This past July, she went further and bought the space — which adjoins the mall but is not technically part of it — from the company that used to lease it out to her.
She organized the craft fair, she said, as a way to thank the community for supporting her store in its first year. She spent about seven weeks promoting it using paid advertising on Facebook, and of the more than 600 applications she received, 375 vendors who make everything from macaroons to wool mittens to leather purses ended up being able to participate.
The vendors did not have to pay a fee to set up shop, and the mall’s owners — a trio of real estate investment firms based in Great Neck, New York — gave Harvey permission to hold the fair at the mall. Vendors filled up the entire center of the mall and every single empty store.
Harvey estimated that at least 22,000 people attended the fair based on the number of raffle tickets that were handed out at its doors. The business was so brisk that some vendors sold out before the fair ended. “The crafters blessed the community, and the community blessed the crafters, and the outside [businesses] got blessed,” Harvey said. “It was like a big circle of blessings.”
Harvey said her store did see a small bump in sales last weekend but that her goal in holding the fair was not to draw in customers. Besides, she said, she did not expect fairgoers to have much interest in walking away with a new sofa or bed.
While smaller events have happened at the mall, Tanya Emery, Bangor’s director of community and economic development, said she’s not aware of any that drew as many people as the craft fair and praised Harvey’s original approach to drumming up business there.
“People have to think differently about retail,” Emery said. “People are now more interested in experience and service and quality. They may buy a $100 pair of shoes once a year versus cheaper pairs three or four times a year.”
Emery also said that holding free events such as craft fairs and concerts is — ironically — a tactic communities across the country have used to lure businesses and visitors back to their downtowns after they were hit by the rise of shopping malls years ago.
The craft fair probably appealed to Maine customers who like to buy locally made products, Emery said, and once people were there, they were more likely to spend their money at one of the established stores or restaurants.