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Wills Eye foresees more retail stores as more medical providers invade the malls

Wills Eye opened its second retail shop last month and plans to open more - including at Fashion District Philadelphia next year when the revamped mall opens. It is part of a trend of health and wellness tenants invading shopping malls.

The new Wills Eyewear store is pictured at 8th and Arch streets in Center City. The store, which offers optometry appointments and sells glasses, will be joined by another location in Fashion District Philadelphia when it opens next year.
The new Wills Eyewear store is pictured at 8th and Arch streets in Center City. The store, which offers optometry appointments and sells glasses, will be joined by another location in Fashion District Philadelphia when it opens next year.Read moreTIM TAI

When Fashion District Philadelphia – the former Gallery mall – debuts its new look and offerings in the fall of 2018, Wills Eyewear will be in a prime spot.

It's the same Wills Eye from the renowned hospital at 840 Walnut St. The eye preventive care shop will be the hospital's third retail outlet – part of what Joe Frattali, director of the Wills Eye Optical Service, refers to as "a feeder system" that meets customers where they shop and gives them access to the hospital's eminent ophthalmologists.

The first Wills Eyewear shop spanning 825 square feet opened inside Wills Eye Hospital on the 12th floor right off the elevators in June 2016.

The second one debuted last month at 800 Arch St. beside the entrance of a Philadelphia Parking Authority garage.

"We're responding to demand," Frattali said. "The retail shop is where you can get anything from a routine eye exam to a great pair of glasses."

The shop is also what Fashion District Philadelphia mall will be getting. Landlords and brokers say it's part of a bigger trend of the wellness sector invading malls and shopping centers, as traditional anchors close amid the rise of internet shopping.

"What you're seeing is traditional retail properties going through a detoxing, a sort of cleansing – where underperforming, homogeneous retailers are vacating and in their place enters a new breed," said Joseph Coradino, chief executive officer at Pennsylvania Real Estate Investment Trust, which owns Fashion District and several malls in the region. The new arrivals include off-price merchants, fast-fashion purveyors, grocery operations, health and wellness facilities, and expansions of dining and entertainment offerings.

The Fashion District's Wills Eyewear store will measure 2,200 square feet. It will sit on the concourse main level of the mall right by bustling Jefferson Station between retailers Hollister and Famous Footwear, while nearby will be H&M, Columbia Sportswear, Bath & Body Works, American Eagle, and Abercrombie & Fitch.

"It's a prime spot," Frattali said.  "We're seeing new and innovative ways to deliver fast, convenient care and creative ways we never predicted. We're accommodating how people wish to live these days."

A report released this month by the commercial real estate firm CBRE Inc. noted how the wellness sector is moving into malls, driven by aging baby boomers. Since the first quarter of 2016, 35 percent of all leased square footage in the Philadelphia metro area was signed in the categories of "Tech, Health,  and Food and Beverage," the report said.

Broker Andrew Shpigel at MSC Retail is working on the redevelopment of Concord Mall in Wilmington, Berkshire Mall in Wyomissing, Pa., and Columbia Mall in Bloomsburg, Pa.  He said landlords like wellness tenants, such as hospital branches and eye-care shops, because they typically come with strong financial backing. "They're a stable use and almost considered online-proof," he said. "The landlord's ultimate goal is to drive traffic to their property and promote cross shopping with the other tenants, and health/wellness/medical operators do exactly that," enabling patients to take care of multiple needs in one stop.

Shpigel cited Mercy Health Center at Plymouth Meeting Mall as an example.

They now can get into more prominent locations where "previously they couldn't afford the rents," he said.

Moving into a mall also extends the reach of the health and wellness tenants and provides new customers, said James Savard, executive vice president of leasing at Metro Commercial.  Last year the firm did the leasing for Hamilton Crossings in Trexlertown, Pa., a 570,000-square-foot outdoor shopping center to include wellness tenants, a Whole Foods, Costco, restaurants, and a fitness center.

Other Metro projects include: turning an enclosed Granite Run Mall space into an outdoor space with a 14,000-square-foot branch of Children's Hospital of Philadelphia; the conversion of Cheltenham Mall featuring up to 45,000 square feet of wellness/medical space; and the conversion of Moorestown Commons Shopping Center in Moorestown to feature a medical facility.

Anyone walking by the Eighth and Arch Street Wills Eyewear shop – like security guard Tierra Maxwell last week — can drop in for a comprehensive eye exam, try on frames, and get a prescription for glasses. An optician greeted Maxwell and asked to see her insurance card. She showed it before trying on frames.

"I really like the store," she said. "It's convenient since I walk past it every day to and from work."

An eye exam with no insurance costs $240. With insurance, it's just the copay. Average eyeglasses with a single vision lens start at $99, while those with a bifocal lens with new frames start at $129.

The Arch Street location will begin selling contact lenses next month.

Frattali said that if a screening shows signs of glaucoma, cataracts, or another eye disorder, the on-site optometrist, Angela Tempesta, will send them to the main hospital for further examination.

"We're definitely looking at the whole landscape right now," Fratalli said of future expansion. "The first three stores are a good start.

"Over the next few years we're going to see what's out there."