As we talked to commercial real estate experts, we heard it over and over: NorthPark Center is one of the top five malls in the country.

“There’s a lot to be said for the power that NorthPark has,” says David Shelton, who places NorthPark in the top tier in terms of sales and co-tenancy, or mix of retailers — both middle-market fashion and extreme high-end boutique retailers.

“And tenancy drives a lot of decisions that retailers will make,” Shelton says.

Actually, says Derek Wood, NorthPark Center’s leasing director, “we’re no. 7.” That’s the ranking he derives from the center’s amount of sales per square foot. It’s an even more impressive number if you consider that “all the ones bigger than us have a bigger tourism component (California, Florida, Honolulu),” Wood says. “We don’t have gambling; we don’t have oceans; we don’t have mountains.”

No. 5, no. 7 … potato, potahto.

Either way, it means that when any major mall-type retailer is looking to make a move to Dallas, NorthPark will be the first place it looks. So when international retail giant H&M made its announcement this past October about an impending store opening in Big D, it came as no surprise that NorthPark would be its first Dallas home.

Wood says H&M was by far the no. 1 most requested store via website feedback. He began talking to H&M in 2003 about opening in NorthPark.

“We’re always looking for the best retailer in each category — the coolest, the hottest, whatever,” Wood says. So H&M was an obvious target.

“When you look at the top global brands, they’re the no. 2 fashion retailer in the world behind Louis Vuitton. They’re the best at fast fashion,” Wood says.

H&M opened a temporary pop-up shop in December, and its NorthPark flagship store is slated to open in October 2011. H&M opened its first U.S. store on the East Coast in 2000, and in 2005 launched its first store on the West Coast. The company’s presence in Dallas has been a long time coming, Shelton says, adding that H&M has been “in this town and looking around this market several times” prior to the NorthPark announcement.

So what was the hold up? Shelton says H&M’s goal of getting merchandise quickly in and out of its stores had something to do with it. The retailer seemed more interested in “markets that have more seasonality to them than Texas does.” H&M has more of a presence in areas like the Northeast, he says, “where you get a real summer, a real fall, a real spring, a real winter — where they can really capitalize on those four seasons.”

Another reason H&M is just now launching in Dallas is because, simply, the company could afford to drag its feet. They were “waiting on the perfect real estate move,” Arnold says. “There’s absolutely no reason for them to be in a hurry — one store will not make or break them.”

Plus, Arnold says, owners of major shopping centers such as NorthPark “know what’s coming up and whether a retailer is struggling. H&M is going to sign a long-term deal, so why come in even six months or a year early if they can wait a year for a 15- or 20-year lease?”

That’s exactly what happened in the case of the NorthPark lease. The future location of H&M’s 24,000-square-foot flagship store in the mall is “in an area that they were originally proposed to go,” Wood says. By “originally”, he means those talks with H&M since 2003.

The new space hadn’t been announced at press time. It’s not Robb and Stuckey’s former space, by the way — Webb says there will be “some movement” before H&M moves in — but once its location is made known, “it will all make sense” in terms of NorthPark’s strategic layout, Webb says.

Perhaps you’ve noticed the center’s strategic layout, which Webb calls “cluster retailing”? The layout strategy solidified after NorthPark’s May 2006 expansion, which doubled the mall’s size.

Essentially, stores are grouped by theme: luxury stores near Neiman Marcus; children’s stores on the lower level between Macy’s and the escalators; teen and tween stores around the food court and AMC movie theater; Baby Boomer favorites on the lower level near Nordstrom; 20- and 30-something finds on the upper level as customers turn the corner from the teen hallway; and “the best of what you find in every shopping center” between Dillard’s and Macy’s, Webb says.

Express moved to that hallway recently, and it wasn’t an accident, Webb says.

“Their lease was up, and that’s where they belong,” he says. “The biggest thing is we don’t fill space. There is a method to the madness, and we stick to our guns on that.”

Being no. 7, NorthPark can call such shots. It also has other distinctions that set it apart — Shelton says “you go to pretty much any mall in the country, and you’ve got kiosks. Landlords make a tremendous amount of money in leasing kiosk space.”

NorthPark could do the same, he says, “but they choose not to. They choose aesthetics over income in that respect.”

The kiosk aspect, Webb says, is “totally intentional” and in line with other family-owned shopping centers. NorthPark Center was developed in the early ’60s by the late Raymond Nasher and is still partially owned by his daughter, Nancy Nasher. Other shopping malls often are owned by public corporations that focus on the bottom line, so kiosks and large corporate ads, both substantial moneymakers, are the norm.

Not at NorthPark, though. If NorthPark added kiosks, its customers “might be bombarded by solicitation, and we want for you to have a more peaceful shopping experience,” says Vail Tolbert, NorthPark public relations and events manager, who stresses that artwork, landscaping and charitable displays are all of crucial importance to Nancy Nasher.

Yes, these factors appeal to wealthy customers, but Webb says though “we do have a high-end image over here, at the same time we’re not just all about luxury. We like to say we’re Gap to Gucci and everyone in between.”

The center contains roughly 225 retailers and restaurants, and boasts of having more than 100 unique stores compared to its nearest competitor, the Dallas Galleria.

H&M adds a large feather to NorthPark’s cap, but Webb says it’s isn’t finished yet.

The top retailers are “always in flux, and always will be. The second you’re stagnant is when you should be worried,” Webb says.
He’s not naming names, but there are “definitely five to 10 retailers we would like to add to the mix because they’re not in Texas yet.”

Click to sign up for the Advocate's weekly news digest and be the first to know what’s happening in Lakewood/East Dallas.