West Edmonton Mall's micro mall a local take on holiday shopping

A curated micro mall in Edmonton is pushing locally-made goods inside the biggest mall in North America in time for the holiday gift-buying frenzy.

'This is a huge opportunity. Coming into Christmas time, this just going to launch their exposure even more'

Retail as a Service, or RAAS, is a micro mall inside West Edmonton Mall with local vendors from Edmonton and surrounding areas. (Anna McMillan/CBC)

A curated micro mall in Edmonton is pushing locally-made goods inside the biggest mall in North America in time for the holiday gift-buying frenzy.

West Edmonton Mall opened the mini mall, which it calls Retail as a Service, last month with 23 retailers from Edmonton and surrounding area.

The mall, located outside the Santa Maria ship and the Chapters store, hosts shops selling clothing, makeup, jewelry, even doughnuts. 

Mark Ghermezian, with the WEM ownership group, came up with the idea, saying he wanted to create a unique space for local retailers to open themselves up to a different market.

"We wanted to give that community a platform where they can really unleash their creativity and give something back to the locals in Edmonton," Ghermezian told CBC's Radio Active Monday.

Amy Bohn, who curates the mall to ensure variety and quality, said this is the first time many of these businesses have had a storefront.

"It's like a milestone for many of these businesses," Bohn said. "This is a great way to test if retail is right for them."

The Wild Prairie Soap Company is one of 23 retailers in the micro mall. (Anna McMillan/CBC)

Vendors in the mini mall have the opportunity to leave after a certain amount of time if they feel the space isn't right for them.

Even though the storefronts have been open less than a month, vendors find the prime real-estate beneficial to their business, Bohn said.

"Some of the vendors are super excited and they just want to stay," she said. "[But] some of the vendors, this is a great experience, but not forever."

Ghermezian said the goal was to make the micro mall accessible for fledgling businesses. "We try to make the risk as low as possible," he said.

But that doesn't mean there isn't risk involved.

Risky investment?

Emily Deveaux, a retail and real-estate strategist in Edmonton, said the micro mall is a "win-win" for both the retailers and the mall.

"It is very unique to create a micro store concept, which, I think, as it evolves, is going to be incredibly successful," Deveaux told CBC's Radio Active Tuesday.

But she said there could be some potential drawbacks. The rent is lower than what the other regular stores are paying but, for the amount of space the retailers get, the rent is still expensive, she said.

"It is definitely a very intentional investment that the retailer has to make," Deveaux said.

The small space doesn't allow customers to have what she calls the "discovery process," or the time a potential customer spends getting a feel for a store and deciding if it's for them before talking to anyone from the store.

The tiny booth "doesn't allow you to do that," Deveaux said.

It's an investment — Deveaux said in addition to rent, retailers have to pay for increased product coming in, staff and marketing. Staffing is a particularly significant hurdle for some businesses who have never had a storefront before.

A different crowd

But despite the criticisms, Deveaux said the idea is a unique take on the buying local trend.

Mall of America, the second-biggest mall in North America, is owned by the same group. They've also started a micro mall — but it's in an empty store space.

Deveaux said these two different approaches to the same idea will help the ownership groups figure out what works best.

"This is a really good opportunity for them to use dead space," she said.

Deveaux expects the idea to evolve over time and incorporate more products from around Alberta.

She said the community that buys local will already have the Edmonton-area products and bringing in others from places like Calgary or Grande Prairie will help keep the mall fresh.

BasketBelle is an Edmonton-based gift shop, but retail expert Emily Deveaux says the mall may have to bring in retailers from all over Alberta to keep the storefronts fresh. (Anna McMillan/CBC)

The micro mall doubles as a different take on gifts for many mall-goers, who might not otherwise be exposed to the products, Deveaux said.

"We're trying to combine an audience that doesn't necessarily buy local and emerging products [with local vendors]," she said.

Bohn said the mall shoppers might look at the mini mall as an alternative to their traditional holiday shopping.

"This is a huge opportunity," Bohn said. "Coming into Christmas time, this just going to launch their exposure even more."

Listen to Radio Active with host Portia Clark, weekday afternoons on CBC Radio One, 93.9 FM/740 AM in Edmonton. Follow the show on Twitter: @CBCRadioActive.

With files from Rod Kurtz