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Changes coming to Maine Mall, downtown Portland's shopping scene

Bon-Ton (WGME)

PORTLAND (WGME) -- There are some changes coming to the Maine Mall, with the closing of big box store Bon-Ton next month.

While the exact plans for the space aren't known yet, the future of major department stores is uncertain.

At the same time, national retailers are finding their way to downtown Portland.

The summer sales are in full swing at the Maine Mall, clearing out inventory and enticing shoppers indoors or, in the case of Bon-Ton, getting ready to close the doors for good.

And while the general manager of the Maine Mall says customers shouldn't read too much into the closing of Bon-Ton, he does acknowledge the space may not be filled by another big box store, especially when people can find almost anything online.

"I do a lot of online shopping, I have a 1-year-old and so it's harder to get out and go shopping, so almost anything related to the home, I buy online. I buy a lot of food online, so a lot of online shopping,” Leah Allen, online shopper, said.

But Maine Mall General Manager Craig Gorris says it's premature to predict the demise of the "shopping mall." He says people have made that mistake before.

"Our research indicates last year, 11 percent of all retail transactions were non-store, so they occurred online. Now, if you look back 20 years ago, about that same percentage occurred through the catalog,” Gorris said.

But Gorris does say the expectations of shoppers are changing.

"Right now stores that provide an in store experience like at Apple, that's what customers want,” Gorris said.

It's not only malls that are seeing changes in retail, in downtown Portland there have always been shops and boutiques. But recently, there have been some trendier chain stores coming in. It started on Middle Street with Urban Outfitters.

That was soon followed by the trendy and usually bigger city women's clothing store, Anthropologie.

And now, Contemporary furnishings retailer West Elm is choosing Portland as one of its newest locations. It's already hiring temporary workers.

Architect Andy Hyland helped design the new West Elm store on Middle Street.

"The key words were experience and authenticity,” Hyland said.

He agrees that shoppers want a reason to get out of the house.

"There’s only so much you can just sit at home and order from Amazon, that you need to get out and be in a social context,” Hyland said.

"I'm kind of an old soul at heart and I kind of prefer that the old social way of coming into the stores, brick and mortar stores,” Ken Nitroy, shopper, said.

Hyland says downtown Portland with its foodie scene and growing retail options is bringing more people into the city.

"Millennials and baby boomers are now moving back to the city,” Hyland said.

In the meantime, Gorris remains optimistic. For one thing, he says the mall sits on a great piece of real estate.

“Just because we're right next to 95, we're at the confluence of 95 and 295. The average daily traffic on Maine Mall Road is 24,000 cars,” Gorris said.

And as for what replaces Bon-Ton, Gorris says everything is currently on the table.

"So, whether that's large format entertainment, whether that's a movie theater, whether that's a book store, whatever, but something that brings in more traffic is what you'll see with some of these boxes,” Gorris said.

The new West Elm furniture store is planning to open July 27, perhaps sooner.

Bon-Ton is closing next month and details on what will fill the space should come soon.

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