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Village of Merrick Park gets new name

The Village of Merrick Park wants to make sure consumers have no doubt about what happens at the open-air Coral Gables property.

That’s why the mixed-use project is changing its name to Merrick Shops. The name change, which was approved this week by the Coral Gables City Commission, will be implemented later this year or in early 2013.

“The Village of Merrick Park name really didn’t reasonate with shoppers,” said Kerem Kayser, senior general manager. “We believe it caused a lot of confusion in the maketplace. We wanted our name to distinctly represent that we are an exclusive shopping destination.”

The name change comes as Merrick Park celebrates its 10th anniversary in September and seeks to increase its profile within the Miami-Dade County retail landscape. A new marketing campaign will follow, as the mall readies itself for dramatic changes in the competitive landscape with the creation of a luxury shopping destination in the Miami Design District and construction of the new Brickell CitiCentre.

The mall has seen 24 months of consecutive same-store sales, and sales per square foot are at the highest level in the mall’s history, exceeding the record set in 2007 before the recession, Kayser said. But the mall’s owner General Growth Properties sees more potential.

“We definitely realize that we need to step up the game and be more aggressive,” Kayser said.

Industry experts agree that the timing is right.

“It’s a good idea for them to do it now before they are in a defensive mode,” said Cynthia Cohen, president of Strategic Mindshare, a retail consulting firm with offices in Miami. “As a standalone, the name change doesn’t do anything. It really depends on a new marketing campaign and how they are going to communicate the story of the center and what it has to offer.”

Before settling on a name change, the mall tested a variety of different options in consumer focus groups. They looked at completely getting rid of Merrick or adding Coral Gables to the name. Some of the other options included Shops at Merrick, Merrick Shops and Coral Gables Shops. For every name they tested both the traditional spelling of shops and the old English version, “shoppes.’’

The focus groups, composed mainly of local female shoppers with high level incomes who would shop at Merrick, Bal Harbour Shops or Aventura Mall, decided words like “village,” “mall” and “shoppes” had negative connotations, Kayser told commissioners.

But some tenants aren’t sure the name change will make a difference in drawing more people.

“Traffic is not consistent,” said Dana Ransome, assistant manager at Gucci. “For us, it’s all about when the tourists are in town. I wish we had a little more marketing for the mall itself.”

The reason the name change won’t happen immediately is that Merrick Park must first get approval from the city of Coral Gables on new signage. Expect the mall’s owner to seek approval for signs that are bigger or at least bolder than what’s there now — particularly for the sign located on U.S. 1. Because Merrick Park is set far back from U.S. 1 with no retail space visible from the main street, the low modest signage has been a concern for retailers since the project opened 10 years ago.

“Visibility is definitely something that we would like to enhance,” Kayser said. “Whether it’s a larger sign or different materials that attract the eye, we would like to be more visible.”

The new name, signage and marketing are the beginning of what will likely be a series of changes to come at the property over the next year. Many of the mall’s initial 10-year leases are coming up for renewal. About half of the mall’s 34 remaining original tenants have either re-signed or are in the process of doing so, including Jimmy Choo and L’Occitane. Five new tenants — J.Crew, Agent Provocateur, Carlo Pazolini, Onda de Mar and Pedini Miami — have inked deals with more in the pipeline.

The mall’s demographics are what attracted Carlo Pazolini, a European shoe and accessories retailer opening its first location in Florida.

“Merrick is spot on with who our customer is,” said Cristal Boulden, director of public relations and marketing for Carlo Pazolini. “She is affluent and involved in society. That location is a beautiful place to showcase our wares.”

The biggest challenge may be filling Merrick’s third floor, which has struggled since the project opened. It is largely vacant since Borders closed last year, leaving the mall’s overall occupancy rate at just over 90 percent..

Kayser told the City Commission that one possibility under consideration is an upscale movie theater with restaurants and a bar. Another option is allowing retailers on the second floor to create two-story stores.

Miami Herald Staff Writer Howard Cohen contributed to this report.