Nathan Forbes on Somerset’s Future in the Digital World

'THANKS FOR THE HELP in bringing Somerset North to Troy,' Nathan Forbes (right), owner and developer of the Somerset Collection, said of former Troy City Manager Frank Gerstenecker and former Mayor Jeanne Stine at last Wednesday’s CEO breakfast at Petruzzellos.

By CYNTHIA KMETT

The headwinds are beginning to change in retailing, and the developer and owner behind the Somerset Collection in Troy acknowledged as much to a large breakfast gathering at Petruzzello’s last Wednesday for the last guest speaker of the year at the Troy Chamber’s CEO Series.

Nate Forbes, managing partner of The Forbes Company, recounted how the change in commerce after World War II lead to the movement from the inner cities of America out to new jobs along the “spokes” of roads and that meant the first of the shopping centers, Westland, Northland, Eastland, etc.

As business in the suburbs blossomed, venues like Lakeside and Oakland Mall came along.

Somerset never wanted to be just one of many retailers. They set out to be the best, and preferred to be the only place you would find certain retailers. When Somerset North opened in 1996, for 60 percent of the vendors this was their only location in Michigan. Somerset Collection wanted to be the only place you could find the high-end anchors like Saks and Neiman’s.

While shopping on the internet has made all retailers look up, Somerset remains in the top 10 destinations in the country for shoppers who want something special.

“The consumer has changed and we have to change,” he noted.

Shopping at a mall environment today “has to be about an experience.” Forbes smiled when he pointed out that today’s consumer can even rent their clothes. “We have to integrate that into the services we provide.”

Today, they offer things like personal shoppers for their 160 stores. There’s a Style Club that provides runway services and there’s even a return center, dubbed “Happy Returns.”

“We need to make your life easier,” Forbes noted.

And, Somerset is bringing their goods to new markets through Flash Malls, a microburst of their extensive retail lines. “We want to go where the people are,” Forbes said. He also hopes that this taste of what’s available on Big Beaver will make shoppers what to venture to this destination shopping venue in Troy.

He noted that changes are coming, especially along the Woodward corridor. Have you been to Midtown or Ferndale to see what’s happening? He thinks that action will move along the Big Beaver corridor to Troy.

Of course, the first question Forbes is always asked is: “What about the Kmart site? One guest did thank the company for maintaining the site so nicely that it looks like it’s still occupied. It always looks like it’s in full occupancy when the holiday shopping season arrives and Somerset patrons and employees park there and take the shuttle across Coolidge.

Now, about the property’s future.

Forbes said they see it as the entrance to Troy and future development “can’t bring down the quality of the entrance into the city.”

He strongly hinted that this might need to be a public/private partnership. He wants it surrounded by Class A offices and hotels. “Whatever we build has to be sustainable over a longer length of time.” He promised, “We are working on that.”

Forbes went on to discuss the fate of retail centers in these changing times of internet shopping. Developers, he added, have “to curate and cultivate their spaces; they have to connect to the entire community.”

He noted that mall owners and their brick and mortar partners are looking at repurposing spaces. “They have to be smarter and more thoughtful today in the offerings.”

It will be interesting to see how that works for the former Sears site at Oakland Mall, which is not part of the Somerset properties.