Inside Bill Bullock’s office — the site of a former tax-prep office at Eastfield Mall, in Springfield, Mass. — sit boxes and boxes of old baseball cards. The 41-year-old sales and marketing executive, who opened a weekend market inside a vacant Macy’s store at that mall early last month, has only recently returned to collecting and selling these cards. “I bought a collection from someone that literally filled out my SUV two times over,” he said. “My wife yelled at me: ‘You’d better be taking that to your office!’ ”
But Bullock finds that his love of baseball-card vending is an effective tool to aid in the recruitment of other craft-and-card vendors. Throughout this upscale open-air market (“I don’t like the term flea market,” he said), Bullock wants to have about 100 vendors in 10-square-foot stalls, selling such things as antique furniture, woodcrafts and coins. Selling spaces is nothing new to Bullock: He once headed up group-ticket sales for minor- and major-league sports teams and operated an indoor marketplace in Michigan.
David Thompson, a co-manager at Eastfield Mall, is equally optimistic about the potential of this new selling venue. “We think it’s a great way to attract a new audience to our mall,” Thompson said. “We’re banking that a percentage of the tenants and vendors Bill gets will be interested in our in-line spaces as they become available.”
Like many malls across the country, Eastfield Mall has seen an exodus of such national tenants as American Eagle Outfitters, JCPenney, Macy’s and RadioShack in recent years. To refill that vacant space, Eastfield Mall’s managers have taken a localized approach. “We decided to pretty much fill our existing in-line space with local mom-and-pop-type tenants,” Thompson said. The strategy has been successful. “At any given time over the last 12 months, at most we’ve been three in-lines dark, and we’ve filled them pretty quick,” he said. The store owners themselves have been great promoters and recruiters, he says. “When there is an opening, they shout to their friends, ‘We came here and it’s doing great — you should come too!’ The stores have kind of leased themselves.”
“You’re not just dealing with one client about their advertising, you’re dealing with 75 different vendors and personalities”
The Eastfield Mall managers also display great faith in Bullock himself. He seems never to have had any fear of forging an untraditional path. In 1998, after a semester and a half at Macomb Community College, in Michigan, where he was studying business management, Bullock left to become a salesman for the NBA’s Detroit Pistons basketball team. “I always wanted to work in sports,” he said. His parents initially balked at the decision, but Bullock, who cites the building of relationships as one of his key skills, rose from that entry-level job to become sales director. He then spent roughly a decade working with various minor-league teams, in sales, ticketing and promotional roles. “I loved working with smaller businesses, especially working with the minor leagues,” said Bullock. “One of my jobs was helping brand companies inside arenas that would hold 15,000 people. I loved helping them find new customers and new ways of advertising their services.”
But that job, with its 60-hour workweeks, interfered with his family life, so Bullock tried other career paths. In 2004 one of Bullock’s former clients from his Pistons days offered him a job as show director at an enclosed upscale flea market in Michigan that was the size of three football fields. This experience, his first taste of the open-air market business, was jarring. “You’re not just dealing with one client about their advertising, you’re dealing with 75 different vendors and personalities,” he said. “You quickly learn how to manage and deal.”
Bullock was reminded of this experience in 2016, when, as owner of a direct marketing company called Bulldog Enterprises, he approached Eastfield Mall’s managers about running a series of themed crafts-and-collectibles shows on the property. At the time, Bullock’s wife, Nichole, who ran a part-time business creating handmade coffee holders, had been laid off from her hospital job. Bullock saw an opportunity for his wife and vendors like her to find new audiences for their crafts (and also for Bullock himself to get back into the business of shows).
“At first we worried that it might change the feel of the mall, but that wasn’t the case at all”
“At first we worried that it might change the feel of the mall, but that wasn’t the case at all,” said Thompson. “In actuality, it breathed life into the center.” Thompson estimates that foot traffic doubled on the days Bullock held the markets, and three of the vendors did sign on as full-time Eastfield Mall tenants.
Bullock and Thompson view The Markets at Eastfield as a natural progression for both the vendors and the mall. And though the market’s expected revenue is not comparable to what the former Macy’s was paying (Bullock’s rent is based on a percentage of the income the vendors bring in), management has faith in its eventual profitability. For the vendors, the chance to have a permanent stall in the mall on weekends is enticing. Renee Hill, a woodcrafter who has rented space at Bullock’s previous shows, says it can help her business. “I have customers that will ask, ‘Are you going to be here next week or tomorrow?’ But most vendor events only happen once a month,” she said. “To be able to say that my booth is here every weekend would be a huge benefit.”
Bullock is forecasting success. “Today, in the age of Amazon, everyone’s looking for that unique lamp, that collectible item,” he said. “It’s the thrill of the hunt — and at the same time giving these vendors a permanent home, while the mall gets 1,000 new customers every weekend. Well, that’s just a win for everyone.”
By Rebecca Meiser
Contributor, Shopping Centers Today