Highland Village experience a holiday tradition for many

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Published: November 1,2004

When Highland Village first opened in Northeast Jackson, Sandra Tucker saw a good opportunity to scratch her retail itch. She didn’t realize it would be the beginning of a prosperous retail operation.

In 1972, Tucker opened Olde Tyme Commissary, then a tiny children’s toy store. Soon, she had an opportunity to acquire a container store, now called Organizers. Space then became available at a prime courtyard corner location adjacent to Organizers. She leased that space and turned it into Inside Out. Now she also owns Commissary Kids and It’s Tyme for Boys, a traditional clothing store for young men sizes 4-22.

“I’d love to tell you that I had a grand and glorious plan when I came here 32 years ago, but I didn’t,” said Tucker, with a chuckle. “We simply found a retail home that was a pleasant place to shop, where ownership did a great job of maintaining the ambience, and it grew like topsy.”

Since Jackson entrepreneur Jimmy Fowler opened the upscale shopping center in the early 1970s, during an era when people were flocking to labyrinth malls rather than open-air retail complexes, Highland Village has established itself as a specialty retail marketplace, and remains a unique North Jackson shopping experience.

“We may be limited in size, but our goal today, as it has been for the last 32 years, is to offer a variety of merchandise, services, and dining experiences for our customers and visitors,” said Highland Village manager Guy Boyll. “Our tenant mix is carefully selected, just like our customers are selective about who, what and where they shop.”

The Jackson landmark, which features 45,000 square feet of gross leasable space, employs 700 people at nearly 50 specialty shops, gourmet restaurants and two full-service salons in three distinct areas — the Promenade, Courtyard and Plaza — on 15 lushly landscaped acres bordering Interstate 55 and Northside Drive. It is open from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday through Saturday.

“It’s the most upscale center in the state,” said Jimmy Rosen, owner of J. Rosen Footwear & Accessories, a men’s shoe store that opened October 15 in the space formerly occupied by Juniker Jewelers. “Juniker built an incredible location in this spot and moved only because they needed more space. Highland Village has been so accommodating throughout the construction process and the lease. Jimmy Fowler is a prince of a man.”

John Ravenstein, owner of Juniker Jewelers, admittedly procrastinated over the decision to move to a larger space “because I didn’t want to give up my corner location.”

“When we opened 15 years ago, it was our second store in Jackson,” he said. “Shortly after moving into Highland Village, we consolidated our downtown store here and needed to move to a bigger space six years ago. However, since moving last month to another corner, on a main artery between Maison-Weiss and the Promenade, our traffic has quadrupled. Relocating to a larger space in Highland Village was a good decision.”

After 29 years as a Highland Village fixture, Maison-Weiss owners Ken Szilasi and his grandmother remain very pleased with their location.

“Highland Village is still Jimmy Fowler’s pride and joy and it shows,” said Szilasi. “Where else can you go where there are 5,000 tulips planted at one time? It’s little things like that that keep the Village interesting and from looking dated.”

Ravenstein said the merchants view themselves as family.

“The people who own businesses at Highland Village generally work in the stores, which in today’s economy, with all the big boxes and no service, allows us the luxury of providing the personal, one-on-one service you can’t get in a chain store or traditional strip center,” he said.

Highland Village is virtually recession-proof, and merchants like Szilasi reported a record-breaking holiday season in 2001, a year when most retailers around the U.S. reported sagging sales.

“After 9/11, we had the biggest December ever,” said Szilasi. “I think the affluent people stayed in town and shopped at home as opposed to going to New York or Chicago or Dallas.”

Tucker added that, “With the exception of the WorldCom fiasco, we’ve been insulated from the big highs and lows experienced by the rest of the nation.”

While most retailers gauge the holiday season by sales on Black Friday, Highland Village merchants report steady sales year-round.

“Most department stores have some big hoopla the day after Thanksgiving, but our biggest day could be the day somebody comes in and spends $50,000 on a coat,” said Szilasi. “Believe it or not, August is our biggest fur month. Then if we have cold weather in the fall, we’ll have a whole lot of fur and cashmere sales, and that adds up quickly. So far, we’re on track to have the biggest year yet.”

“Christmas has already started for us,” said Ravenstein. “From the time I opened the doors at 9:30 this morning (October 20), I never sat at my desk until five o’clock. 2004 has been phenomenal and I’m trying to hire two more people. I’ve been blessed.”

Highland Village traditionally hosts centerwide sales twice a year, at the end of January and the end of July, said Tucker.

“Even though we have markdowns from time to time, our customers know to look forward to those two sales,” she said. “That said, this year looks better than last, and from the looks of my layaway room, it’s going to be a big Christmas.”

Overall, December 2003 sales were up 14% over December 2002 sales, said Boyll.

“We expect another good Christmas season based on the merchandise in our stores,” he said. “Something that could affect this year’s sales expectations is the rise of oil prices and its economic effect.”

Sixteen Highland Village merchants recently participated in the 2004 Partners Cards program for The LifeShare Foundation, a non-profit organization that supports programs and services for metro area children. For a $50 donation, of which 100% benefits the foundation, cardholders were entitled to a 20% discount on merchandise, excluding alcohol, at 73 Jackson-area merchants and restaurants from October 23-31.

To allay security concerns, Highland Village recently installed digital security cameras throughout the complex, operational 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

“I don’t think many people are aware of them,” said Rosen. “The other night, some kids put soap in the fountain, and it was all on tape. So was evidence of them picking up a pumpkin and putting it in their car.”

Jerri Harvey of Northeast Jackson said she frequents Highland Village “because getting to and from the car is easy. It’s a safe, comfortable, quaint shopping area where the merchants are friendly and the merchandise is unique. The salespeople aren’t pushy. They’re more interested in helping you find what you’re looking for rather than just selling you something for the sake of selling you something.”

Contact MBJ contributing writer Lynne W. Jeter at lwjeter@yahoo.com.

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