Anchor stores have been around as long as shopping centers.
The big boxes, be they supermarkets or national retailers, serve as the draw while smaller merchants set up shop around them and feed off the foot traffic generated by their big brothers.
But when the anchor pulls out because of a relocation, poor sales or bankruptcy, the shopping center's nearby merchants are left to fend for themselves. Some make it. Others don't.
"I've found a drop-off of people walking in," said shopkeeper Janet Muhs, who owns and operates Sew Much Better, a sewing studio in the Shops at Shelmore Village in Mount Pleasant.
Jacksonville-based supermarket Bi-Lo shuttered its longtime location in April in the retail center, leaving behind the shell of a building and a large vacant parking lot in the heart of one of the most thriving parts of the Charleston metro area.
"It has definitely hurt," Muhs said. "When people shopped at Bi-Lo, they noticed there were other shops here and would stop in. I'm not seeing so much of that anymore."
Still, she remains busy with coffee klatches, sewing classes and out-of-school students making dresses for a fall fashion show.
Nearby, at Crushed Fine Wine shop, owner Desmond Garrity said Bi-Lo's departure affects the number of people visiting the shopping center, but the closing hasn't dented his sales too much.
"It's affected us a little, but not a lot," Garrity said. "We are more of a destination, not a walk-by store."
When Bi-Lo pulled out of the strip shopping center on U.S. Highway 78 in Ladson earlier this year, neighboring liquor store owner Dhaval Shah noticed the drop off in sales.
"We lost about 20 percent of our business," he said. "The parking lot was empty. I'm sure when Bi-Lo was gone, people found other shops and they didn't have a reason to come back."
Now that Piggly Wiggly has taken over the former Bi-Lo space, Shah said foot traffic is back and sales are picking up at his Palmetto Wine & Spirits shop.
"It's getting back there," he said.
Like Muhs, he also liked the convenience of having a grocery store nearby for accessory items and last-minute purchases on the way home.
At Citadel Mall, J.C. Penney pulled out a year ago and Sears will leave in August, leaving the 1.1-million-square-foot shopping center with three anchor stores: Belk, Dillard's and Target.
Each one that succumbs to declining sales means less foot traffic for stores such as Claire's, a chain costume jewelry boutique.
"It definitely drops off," shop manager Kandra Boostma said. "It affects all of us. Hopefully, they will get something in here to increase customers."
She said one thing that keeps the store going is that it offers piercings and the closest competition is retail juggernaut Walmart, a few miles to the west.
"That helps us out a lot," she said of the piercings. "We don't have anybody else nearby that does it."
Old to new
Of course, vacated retail space is often repurposed. Take Kmart for example.
Berkeley County's administrative office building was once the home of blue light specials. The new T-Mobile call center on Rivers Avenue in North Charleston was once a Kmart. The now bustling Bowman Place Shopping Center in Mount Pleasant once was home to the now-failing retailer. And the Kmart in West Ashley is now an automotive center for Charlotte-based Hendrick Automotive Group.
At Citadel Mall, the former J.C. Penney space will be converted to an outpatient medical facility for the Medical University of South Carolina. Plans for the Sears space have not been announced.
Richard Davis, the lead investor in the portions of Citadel Mall (the interior, J.C. Penney and Sears) bought by himself and others, promises big changes once plans are unveiled for the West Ashley shopping destination.
In Columbia, a former Target store on Decker Boulevard is now a Richland County satellite office with 112,000 square feet of magistrate's court and community space.
A former Kmart near Devine Street, Garners Ferry Road, Fort Jackson Boulevard and Rosewood Drive was redeveloped to make way for a new multi-tenant, 98,000-square-foot shopping center called Rosewood Crossing. It's now anchored by pet store Pet Smart, craft shop Michaels, clothing merchant Marshalls and liquor retailer Bottles.
At Columbia Place, formerly Columbia Mall, the county is trying to buy some of the vacant space in the blighted area to revitalize the shopping center, according to Carl Blackstone, president and CEO of Columbia Chamber of Commerce.
"The idea is to use some of these large vacant properties and turn them into taxable property," Blackstone said.
In Myrtle Beach, several large retail spaces that were once shuttered have now been transformed into new uses.
A former Piggly Wiggly is now a bowling alley, an old Kmart became a pottery store, and a former bookstore was turned into a Planet Fitness gym.
Still, there are some small empty strip centers along Kings Highway that need attention.
"We have a couple of strip malls that are vacant and are thinking about repurposing them and what they can be," said Lauren Clever of the Myrtle Beach Downtown Redevelopment Corp. "You don't want anything vacant for months. It reduces the foot traffic and hurts the places next to it. Maybe they can be repurposed into incubator space or office space."
Across the state, the recent darkening of Toys R Us and its sister Babies R Us stores will add a few more empty big boxes to the vacant retail space. Still, retail vacancy rates remain at or below 10 percent for South Carolina's major metro areas, according to commercial real estate firm Colliers International. A figure of 10 percent or lower is considered a healthy market.
But it's not always easy to fill a large vacant retail space with another big-box merchant, especially in the era of online shopping and heavy competition, according to a national retail trade group leader.
"It's difficult to find a new major retailer to take a 150,000-square-foot space," said Paul Kinney, executive director of the National Retail Tenants Association. "The owners are merchandising those for theaters, entertainment and restaurant uses."
It's a concern for those left behind because their leases may have stipulated that the shopping center have a certain number of major anchor stores.
"They become concerned that they will not have the traffic they used to," Kinney said.
"Many years ago, mall restaurants just catered to the customers to keep people in there for several hours," Kinney said. "Now, restaurants are locating in malls because they can get into the space probably a little cheaper. They don't have to build their own building, and the landlords are making them a fairly good deal. The last thing they want is that major retail space sitting there idle."
For those tenants left behind, Kinney said it's important to have the correct language in the lease. Some leases requires landlords to maintain a specific square footage devoted to big-box retailers, and if a major retailer moves out the landlord could be in violation.
"There also could be a right to terminate the lease," Kinney said. "That doesn't happen very often, and a little mom-and-pop operation is not going to get that."
Kinney pointed to adaptive uses such as trampoline centers, miniature golf venues and restaurants for vacated big-box spaces across the nation.
He said malls may be on the edge of luring people back in with all the different offerings but whether that's a function of the improved economy or another dynamic at play remains to be seen.