First Harvest: seeking a fertile ground amidst the expanding blight.

Over the holidays I briefly visited my hometown of Indianapolis, and even more briefly made a stop to the Greenwood Park Mall, which was “my mall” growing up and a frequent subject of this blog in earlier years. Back then, I singled this mall out for its resilience, as other malls (in Indianapolis and across the country) showed clear evidence of decline. I felt confident that Greenwood Park Mall would continue to flourish when its competitors stumbled, and I outlined a number of factors that had kept it going strong.

My last article highlighting the Greenwood Park Mall in its entirety was eight years ago. A lot has transpired since then: dead malls have escalated from an underground phenomenon for cults of curiosity seekers to an absolutely mainstream concern. Retail has imploded to the point that the word “apocalypse” seems less like hyperbole and more like a general observation. Online shopping takes an ever bigger hit out of bricks-and-mortar, so that comparatively few people visit malls as a recreational activity. And now, even after a successive stream of consolidations, the largest and most prominent of department store chains are teetering on a precipice. Bon-Ton Stores, Inc. closed all its 400+ locations in the spring of last year; whether or not it will re-emerge as a services marketplace with an online focus (but some intermittent storefront locations) remains to be seen. And, at the end of the year, perennial underachiever Sears Holdings filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection, coupled with the announcement of yet another wave of closures of both Sears and the increasingly endangered Kmart.

Greenwood Park Mall had the last Sears standing in the Indianapolis metro, and while it will close soon, leaving a void in the 1.3M-square-foot mall, my quick visit still suggested that it’s generally a high-performance mall—an increasingly rare sight, since more and more malls are suffering not just from low foot traffic but from the fact that the retailers themselves are closing, with nothing left to fill the vacancy. Obviously this is a chicken-and-egg situation, but it’s hard not to remain cynical about even the strongest malls. I’d put Greenwood Park in the likely top quartile for its low vacancy rate, the continued reliance on national brands, and general aura of prosperity. But that quartile has declined in its aggregate; the bar for success is just so much lower even than in 2010, let alone 1985, when malls defined American consumerism.

How can we tell? Look no further than one of the newest inline tenants.

First Harvest at Greenwood Park Mall

It’s a nice looking logo, there atop the entrance. I call out this logo only because it appears well-funded, showing a level of investment one wouldn’t expect if this were a mom-and-pop. Local retailers tend to use basic, cheap-looking lettering; not this time. My initial instinct was to assume that First Harvest was an emergent national brand that I had not yet heard of. All fine and good, but clothing retailers aren’t forging new paths in malls for the most part, unless they’re among the best and most successful in the country (the top 5%), which Greenwood Park Mall is not. So what is First Harvest? A look in the storefront window offered a hint.

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It is indeed local, and clearly it hasn’t been around that long. But let’s look at the other side wall.

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It appears to donate a considerable portion of its revenue to causes that support the betterment of women: specifically 10% of proceeds to a ministry called Mercy Multiplied. In fact, after further investigation, it looks like First Harvest has organized its entire brand around its support of this nonprofit; the carefully cultivated clothing style is merely an intermediary for the support of this charity.

I had a difficult time determining the locations for First Harvest; the polished-looking website is coy about the company’s physical presence. But, from what I can tell, it has inline space at the upscale Fashion Mall, the exurban Hamilton Town Center, and Greenwood Park Mall on the north side—three of the highest performing retail nodes in the Indianapolis metro. First Harvest also apparently has a location in Mishawaka, though I don’t know the strength or viability of the University Park Mall up there. I also couldn’t tell if First Harvest itself is a 501(c)(3) organization, though it clearly references “proceeds” instead of “profits”, which may be a legally mandated signal. Regardless of the ultimate profit motive, it’s clear that First Harvest is a vendor with a considerable charitable aim, which is an uncommon if not unheard-of presence in all but the most downgraded, struggling malls. Charities couldn’t historically locate in malls; back when malls were desirable, the least would cost too much. Conversely, First Harvest has chosen generally successful malls, and it has adapted a look that suggests it’s an emergent national brand.  But it’s not.

IMG_0825So why choose Greenwood Park Mall? First Harvest’s decision to locate on a busy corridor in a mall that has retained an approximately 95% occupancy rate is an indicator of a few conditions that I can think of: a) the proprietors have deeper pockets than is usual; b) this mall has deteriorated enough that it is offering reduced-rates leases to companies with a probable higher risk profile than the widely recognized brands that have dominated malls up to this point; or c) Simon Property Group, the manager of this mall (and basically all malls in Indy) is recognizing that carefully leveraged innovative brands may be the future of retail profiles in an era when far more clothing companies a closing that starting. Perhaps all three conditions apply. Watching the video on the story behind First Harvest—and their impulsive decision to quit conventional desk jobs to start a clothing boutique—it’s hard to tell whether they are simply naïve about the state of retail in the 2010s or they are savvy enough to have found a niche that is viable amidst the countless other casualties. Based on the growth trajectory since its founding in 2016, First Harvest may very well belong to the latter of these two conditions. Let’s hope.

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6 thoughts on “First Harvest: seeking a fertile ground amidst the expanding blight.

  1. Chris B

    I think the easy answer to “why Greenwood” may be “the founder’s husband is from Center Grove” (unincorporated Johnson County adjacent to Greenwood). It also may be that they have some implicit support from Simon.

    I also think this is “socially-good” cause-marketing a la Tom’s Shoes or Bomba socks. Slightly disruptive in that it presents the same shopping goods with a twist.

    Reply
    1. AmericanDirt

      They were coy about it, but I had a feeling the founding couple had some Greenwood roots. I’m just surprised they haven’t asserted more of an online footprint to these bricks-and-mortar locations: it’s very hard to find where First Harvest is located, even just using Google Maps. As of yesterday, it shows Fashion Mall, but not GPM.

      Like you, I agree that this is a potentially smart niche market, where the logo itself becomes instantly correlated to a charitable cause. It may be the secret to First Harvest’s success at point in time when it otherwise seems extremely imprudent to break into clothing retail. However, I don’t think the company’s success will depend on a bricks-and-mortar presence, and it could succeed just as easily as online-only. So you’re probably right that Simon was extra supportive of this project, which might even explain why it looks so much more polished than your usual locally owned mall store. I really did think First Harvest was a national brand, and, in terms of online sales, it may very well be.

      Reply
  2. Rebecca B

    I included First Harvest in an article about stores in Johnson County and on Indy’s south side for South Magazine’s December 2018 issue: http://www.indysouthmag.com/2018/12/09/gifts-that-truly-keep-on-giving/
    I’m not sure if the article adds much to what you already have here since they were the only store with a mall presence, but I found it interesting that each of the stores I covered sell quality goods (sometimes new, sometimes used) and still give back in a meaningful way.

    Reply
    1. AmericanDirt

      Thanks for the comment, Rebecca–and the link! I had forgotten all about South magazine, even though it’s the side of town I grew up on, and I remember seeing them sitting around various coffee shops now and then. I’m much better at reading Indianapolis Monthly on a regular basis. I’m increasingly thinking that these approaches may be the best way that some of these home-grown enterprises (which I guess include 3 of the 5 places listed in your article) can provide a distinctive spin with a market that is generally retracting–at least in terms of bricks-and-mortar. I confess, though, that I wonder how long First Harvest will need an outlet like the Greenwood Park Mall. Even though the mall is probably on par with Castleton for “hanging in there”, I’m not sure the Bridges’ approach will ultimately need a mall location to thrive. In the years ahead, a revitalized Main Street Greenwood may have more shopping viability than the enclosed mall a mile to the north.

      Reply
  3. Brian M

    Have you run across the channel Ace’s Adventures on YouTube? You might find it interesting. He visits various dead and dying malls with a deadpan but amusing take.

    Reply
    1. AmericanDirt

      I have! These days the dead mall documentarians are often making pretty respectable videos. I like that Ace’s has featured an old Ames; reminds me of the time I found a sign and façade to a dead Venture (shuttered since the mid 1990s) outside St. Louis in southern Illinois.

      Dan Bell (This Is Dan Bell) seems to have been the most successful, and it’s interesting these days because his hub of operation isn’t so far from where I live now. He’s great at piecing together old vintage (1980s) mall ads and vaporwave music, and he has a soothing narrative voice. I wish he did more research than merely what he finds from Wikipedia.

      Retail Archaeology is a more emergent one. And then there’s Sal, who’s pretty new (smaller audience) but really seems to put the extra effort on gathering the history of the spaces, as well as analysis.

      Reply

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