Wednesday, November 11, 2009

The Mall at Shelter Cove: Hilton Head Island, SC

South Carolina fascinates me with its attempts at upscale malls.  One of the reasons for that is that for some reason, it never quite works out.  It seems the demographics must be there, or they would not build an upscale mall.  So why does it not work?  In all, three upscale malls were formed in the state: Greenville Mall, Richland Mall and Mall at Shelter Cove.  While the first two have fallen on hard times, the Mall at Shelter Cove lingers on, adjusting somewhat over the past 20 years to a not as realistic image of large crowds of Lexus and Acura owners, but definitely showing signs of struggling.  The mall itself is located actually on Hilton Head Island itself, and it is named for a cove along the marshy waterway located on the land-facing side of the island.  It is also located on US 278 Business, which functioned as mainline US 278 before the toll Carolina Bays Parkway replaced it recently.  US 278 itself terminates not far from the mall, and likely only Edgewater Mall in Mississippi is closer to the ocean.

The Mall at Shelter Cove is located in a very popular tourist area that has grown substantially over the years.  It is actually now part of the Savannah metropolitan area, oddly grouped into Georgia despite being near the heart of South Carolina Lowcountry.  Indeed, Georgians make up a substantial part of the tourism of the island, and resort development abounds on the island.  However, this development has proven a bit more midmarket than originally assumed.  Cars in the parking lot of the mall did not suggest the crowds I am accustomed to seeing at the upscale malls in Atlanta.  In fact, I am not sure if a mall is even really appropriate on the island today as tourism wanes in the off-season and the crowd is noticeably more elderly than what is needed for a viable upscale mall.

Center court strongly focuses on the spatial and elaborate vaulted ceiling treatments that provide a grand presence for an otherwise small mall.  A similar style is noted at Oglethorpe Mall in Savannah and Shannon Mall near Atlanta.  It is still uplifting nonetheless, and it captures light in such a way to minimize excess shadow.

When The Mall at Shelter Cove opened on April 18, 1988, its original anchors were Belk and Jordan Marsh.  It is not known if this was a Belk partnership store originally, and if so I cannot find any evidence.  Jordan Marsh had its only South Carolina location at the mall.  The mall itself is rather small, but somewhat elegantly designed.  The mall is surrounded by trees and lush landscaping, and it is far more shady than the usual mall in the middle of a blazing hot reservoir-sized parking lot. In fact, the main mall entrance has a thick arbor canopy covering the walkway, which is a pretty unique touch that screens the mall quite well.  The mall's developers tried very hard to create an air of elegance and beauty at the center, and the design is very eye-catching.  It is in fact one of the prettiest malls I have seen for its small size.  I also vaguely remember this mall, since I was there with family in summer 1988 eating at the Fuddrucker's next to the mall while it was still brand new.  The last is one of those weird memories you wonder why and how you still remember.

The two main concourses are quite narrow, but not suffocating and office-like like many of the 1970's malls.  This is because the vaulted ceiling treatments complete with significant natural lighting continues throughout the mall.  It gives the mall somewhat of an outdoor feel while remaining climate controlled.  The last photo is looking east while the first two are west, and it includes the soon to be closing Waldenbooks.

If I had not shown you the previous pics, this mall would not seem as interesting.  Its layout is otherwise a very basic late 70's/early 80's mall, and it is nearly identical in footprint to West Georgia Commons Mall in LaGrange, GA.

Over time, the mall saw a few changes.  Jordan Marsh disappeared in 1990, and the space was taken over by JCPenney in 1991.  JCPenney apparently was marginally successful at the mall, closing in a restructuring in 2000.  That same year, the mall was dramatically upscaled when Saks Fifth Avenue took over the space vacated by JCPenney.  Saks Fifth Avenue continued to operate at the mall until 2004, when the store was then downgraded to an Off 5th outlet as the mall was beginning to have trouble and losing stores.  Somewhere in that time, Belk also added a second location to the mall off the back of center court, which surprisingly never was considered by Parisian.  The mall also changed hands in 2004 coming under management of Petrie Ross Ventures, who lobbied the city council to allow a 12 screen theater to be added to the mall in 2008, citing it was essential to revive the ailing mall.

Anchors from east to west are shown here including the Saks Fifth Avenue Off 5th Outlet (formerly JCPenney and Jordan Marsh), Belk Men's off center court and Belk Women's.  The Belk Men's is fronted by a very small food court area offering no national chains.

This one of the two rear entrance corridors seemed a little odd in the planning.  Perhaps they were both added after Belk tacked on their second store, because they just seem like an elegant hallway with no stores.

The new owners, too, were really emphasizing the importance of the theater insisting, "If the theater does not get approved, this mall will be on" [1]  The plan was to try to get Saks to vacate their Off 5th store and replace it with a movie theater, whick Saks refused to do.  The city also tabled the decision, so the future looks very frightening now for the mall.  The mall has lost Ann Taylor, Crabtree & Evelyn, Bombay Co., White House Black Market and Hallmark over the past year, and the owner then stated after the loss of the theater option that the mall will inevitably decline [2].  The Waldenbooks at the mall also made the nationwide closing list, taking yet another key tenant.  All of this is unfortunately a very sad course of events for the over 20 year old center that has aged extremely well otherwise.  The city should have tried far harder than they did to save this mall with the economy in the shape it is in, and the fact that Belk just finished expanding their store proves that with the right mix the mall is still viable.  However, the lack of planning for the national retail hurricane may leave Belk the last store still standing when its blows over.

The first photo was of the front entrance court, and this is the front entrance itself.  On the left is Jos. A Bank and on the right, Talbots.  Why does Jos. A Bank abbreviate anyway when they never say that in the ads?

Just outside the front entrance is this distinct arbor and sitting area.

Looking back at the almost concealed main entrance.  The arbor worked quite well if that was their intention to hide how to get inside.

The same main entrance a bit further back in the parking lot.

Inside, the mall tenant roster reads more like a modern-day lifestyle center, though that seems to be increasingly less so.  Jos. A Bank, Banana Republic, Talbots, Williams-Sonoma and Chico's are all found within the mall.  A few more regular stores are there as well, including Waldenbooks (closing by 2010) and Victoria's Secret.  Unfortunately, these will all be gone within the next couple years if nothing is done.  What is worse is that the economy is not just affecting retail, but also wreaking total havoc on the tourist market that the mall depends on.  Despite A-list tenants, the mall has quite a few vacancies throughout, and trendy stores catering to a typical teenage crowd seem to be very limited (I noted a PacSun).  Also, and most importantly, Saks Fifth Avenue obviously was a reach for the market.  Since then, the downgrading of the store has shattered the mall's upscale image, and this is made more difficult since Saks Fifth Avenue refuses to vacate their outlet store since they are in a long-term lease.  Of course, when that lease ends will anything fill that void?  Both Belk stores, however, are doing phenomenal.  It is a strange situation overall, and the fact an island has its own mall is quite unique at that.

Saks "Off 5th" Avenue, formerly JCPenney and Jordan Marsh.  Note the labelscar in the second photo.

Belk Men's and Belk Women's, respectively.

This rear mall entrance really does not seem dated at all.  For a struggling mall, it has aged very well.

As to the mall itself, it is one of the easiest to miss malls ever.  If you were not specifically looking for it, you might mistake it for a strip mall or office building of some sort.  It also does not have any concentration of retail around it since the major retail is not concentrated anywhere due to strict city covenants.  All commercial development on the island must adhere to specific codes on overall design, and a very strict sign ordinance makes an obvious mall or business sign not possible.  Overall, trying to find a chain store in general is quite an eye strain when attempting to read small, wood engraved signs in front of buildings that do not match their normal suburban equivalents.  With that, this mall blends into the scenery almost too well.  It seems that at that, it also is quite a sleepy mall compared to major city malls such as Oglethorpe in Savannah, the Charleston malls or the over-the-top Coastal Grand Mall in Myrtle Beach.  Considering everything, I would reasonably call the mall quaint to describe this tiny boutique mall in one of the most popular, but less hyped coastal resort towns on the Atlantic seaboard.  I just hope in the future this mall is still around.

From here, the mall looks like a junior "Mall at Columbia" in Maryland.

And, of course, the sign.  This looks straight 90's to me.

[1] Faber, Jim.  "Will a movie theater be coming to a mall near you?"  Island Packet.  February 9, 2008.
[2] Faber, Jim.  "Questions still linger about doomed mall theater"  Island Packet.  April 3, 2008.


  1. Federated's decision to close Jordan Marsh when the banner was merged into Burdine's likely led to Belk's runaway success. Belk's name recognition in the Carolinas and Georgia far exceeded Jordan Marsh and Burdine's. That Federated chose not to convert to Rich's, as they did with the new wing addition in Oglethorpe Mall indicated the store was underperforming. Also, JCPenney's exit from the space again left Belk as the only mid-tier operator on the island. If Saks was a failure, the Off 5th must be successful or else the company would have eagerly closed for the theater. Given outlet stores tend to do well in a tourist market, and it's the only Saks serving the Savannah and Charleston areas, the market is there.

    From the pictures, the low profile signage and blending in with the enviroment, as dictated by HHI zoning, result in the mall being overlooked, as Target and the Walmart, not a Supercenter, must comply with the same regulations, but their facades and signage are visible to traffic.

    The permanant population of Hilton Head as surrounding coastal areas seems to be skewing to the older demographic that you noted in the mall. This also favors Belk, which is conservative in its fashion offerings at the majority of its stores, and has a lingering reputation as "grandma's department store" among the demographics that an upscale mall pursues. Dillard's would be the other chain that could find year round success on Hilton Head, as Macy's would only work if were done in the fashion of Macy's Florida, and then it would be tied to success only in the peak tourist season. I believe Rich's as it was merchandised before Federated "dumbed down" the brand, would have met success in place of Jordan Marsh.

    At the present, little developable land is left on the island, much of what is undeveloped is protected marshlands,etc. As a result Bluffton on the mainland has seen a boom, and Hardeeville with its direct I-95 access and much closer proximity to Savannah is beginning to develop. If a lifestyle center in a more centrally located area to Savannah, Hilton Head and Beaufort, were to open, Shelter Cove could see a major drop in customer counts and many of the inline tenants pulling out.

  2. As Ken notes, outlet malls are what seem to work in resorts and I seem to recall that there is a successful one on the mainland. HH draws people from a wide area and for varying lengths of time. That probably means varying kinds of shopping interests, that don't necessarily converge on a conventional mall experience.

    My impression of HH was that it certainly lacked the low end as well as the truly high end and I would guess that many people do time shares or weekly rentals which do not necessarily translate into people who shop at Saks. It's also pleasant, but planned to the point of blandness, so it doesn't really have character or an indigenous style in the manner of upscale resorts like Cape May, Carmel, or places in New England. Those are places that end up cultivating distinctive local merchants and having much more in the way of arty craftsy stuff that often is quite local. As I recall, I never felt the need to buy much of anything in HH. In other words, a mall with the usual, if upscale-ish suspects matches the blandness and somewhat upscale demographics, but doesn't provide a compelling reason to shop. They probably should de-mall it, and make it a lifestyle center. That would fit the aesthetic and csale of the place and provide much more flexibility for changing the tenant mix and maybe finding some ways to bring in some character.

  3. Since I lived in Savannah from '73 - '94, I had the opportunity to see this mall being built, and shopped there a few times. Both anchors seemed quite small, with Jordan Marsh almost coming across as a resort store on steroids.

    The Mall at Shelter Cove was, when it opened, much more upscale than Oglethorpe Mall. Just having a Banana Republic and a Gap at that time was enough for a mall to be considered upscale in the GA/SC coastal area.

    The only thing I can add to this is about the Belk situation. When the sign first went up along US 278, it stated that the mall would have Jordan Marsh and Berry's as anchors. Within two months, the 'Berry's' had been changed to Belks. This may answer the question as to whether Belk was a partnership store or a company-owned venture.

  4. A few thoughts...

    The original Belk here was never labeled as a Belk Beery. The picture of the store in the Belk history book confirms this. To be sure, there was a Belk Beery operating group (Belk-speak for division) still operating in the area at the time, but most of its stores were not labeled as Belk Beery due to previous store group consolidations. It was simpler to call the new ones just Belk.

    That is one impressive facade on Saks. I wonder if it was original to Jordan Marsh or whether Saks or JCPenney remodeled it.

    The Charleston market is served by a Saks Fifth Avenue resort store downtown. It's part of a rather upscale business district along king Street that also contains any number of upscale boutiques. The affluent people in the area shop downtown as opposed to the more middle-market malls in the area.

    The center court of this mall really does look like Oglethorpe Mall. I wonder if the two malls had the same designer.

    The Belk II label is funny. Belk's Charlotte division actually had some stores called Belk II back in the '70s, but they were outlet-type operations and didn't last very long.

  5. to the facade for the former Saks / JC Penney / Jordan Marsh store...I think it was added later, more than likely by Saks than by JC Penney.

    These pictures really make the anchors look larger than they actually are.

    As for Belk-Berry: Belk-Berry operated both the Oglethorpe Mall and Crossroads Shopping Center stores in Savannah as Belk's, and the Berry name was never used. The last time Belk-Berry was labeled as such in Savannah was when they closed thier Broughton Street store downtown.

    Perhaps when Belk decided to open at Shelter Cove, they knew that the Belk name had a certain stigma to it ['your grandmother's department store], and wanted to present a more upscale image for the resort market. The name 'Belk' was never on the original coming-soon sign, so something internal must have happened to have changed the original plan.

  6. I like the handful of upscale national brands that complement the regions and locals, and I agree with others that this development would have been better as a well-designed lifestyle center or other open-air mall.

  7. Was there originally something else in the location where the Belk men's is located? I seem to remember something closing and Belk took over that section.

  8. I really hope this mall sees a Macy's, I'm sure that Off 5th will be leaving the mall soon for the new Tanger Outlets that are being built in nearby Bluffton.

  9. The Off 5th did close and move and is now at the new Tanger Outlets store.

  10. I was in the mall tonight and it was really depressing. The only stores remaining are Belk, Victoria's Secret, Talbot's, Jos. A. Bank, Bath and Body Works, Claire's, Sunglass Hut, and a few mom and pops. I can't believe that a mall that only a few years ago had Saks Fifth Avenue, Ralph Lauren, Banana Republic, Williams-Sonoma, Crabtree and Evelyn, Ann Taylor, Express, White House/Black Market, Coldwater Creek, Chico's, etc. has devolved into this. This is truly a beautiful mall!

  11. The Mall at Shelter Cove on Hilton Head Island has a new owner with a new plan to try to revitalize the languishing shopping center.

    A real estate affiliate of The Kroger Co. purchased the 42-acre property and 300,000-square-foot mall Aug. 10 for about $17.3 million, almost $7 million below its assessed market value. The company and a developer have discussed plans to tear down much of the mall and add a grocery story and apartments,

    Read more:

  12. I was there yesterday for the first time since July of 1998. I was shocked! The only stores I saw open were Belk and Jos. A Bank. A lot of the shelves in the Belk were empty. I went into the Belk to purchase something I had forgotten to bring along for my trip. It's truly sad to see this mall follow almost exactly the same pattern that the now deceased Greenville Mall in the Upstate of SC took.

  13. Belk (womens,and mens/home stores), GNC, and Jos. A. Bank are the only stores remaining, major construction is now under way.

  14. The "NEW" Shelter Cove:

  15. The new Town Centre is neat, but I much prefer the old mall. The Belk is still going strong, but everything else is different, and in my opinion looks cheaper.

  16. Thank you for covering this mall. I really miss it, it's a shame to lose our indoor mall.