Seattle fashion retailer Nordstrom Inc. opens its doors at Tysons Corner Center today, beginning a flood of new upscale merchants into the Washington area -- particularly Northern Virginia, which once was spurned by retailers as too provincial.
Nordstrom's store -- its first on the East Coast -- continues Tysons Corner's growth as a thriving economic center, which now employs more than 60,000 office workers.
"With all that's going on here, it's hard to avoid it," said James F. Nordstrom, president of the 56-store chain, in explaining why the company chose Tysons as the site for the first of several planned Washington area stores.
With each business addition, Tysons Corner, which less than three decades ago was a country crossroads, is expected to take on even more big-city attributes: more shops and offices, more sophistication -- and more traffic.
Within the next two years, Tysons Corner will see a rash of openings of other big-name retailers. R.H. Macy & Co. is scheduled to open its first store in the Washington area in the new Tysons II Galleria mall -- across Rte. 123 from the existing shopping center -- in July.
Saks Fifth Avenue will open in the fall along with the rest of the Galleria, which will have a total of 125 smaller specialty stores. A Neiman-Marcus store also is planned for the Tysons II shopping complex, which is part of a $500 million development that is to include two hotels and 10 high-rise office buildings.
Meanwhile, the existing 20-year-old Tysons Corner Center is undergoing a $150 million renovation, which, when completed in October, will add about 90 specialty stores to the 130 now in the center. The big Hecht Co., Bloomingdale's, Raleigh's and Woodward and Lothrop stores at the shopping center are being remodeled, and a later expansion will add a Lord & Taylor store to the mall.
Tysons Corner Center expects to see its sales climb by 50 percent when the renovation is completed -- from $400 million to $600 million a year. Coupled with Tysons II, the two malls "will be approaching a $1 billion market," said Charles R. Cope, general manager of Tysons Corner Center. "That's a lot of business."
The decisions by Nordstrom's and Macy's to open their first Washington area stores in Tysons Corner illustrate the new prominence of Northern Virginia as a retail center.
"It used to be Maryland got those stores first," said Fairfax County planner Dick Hecht. "Now it's turning around. Now Virginia is catching up and in some ways is getting ahead."
"Nordstrom's is probably going to have the biggest retail impact on the East Coast anyone has had in a long time," Cope said.
"We're anticipating that people from around the country and the world will come to see Nordstrom's," he said.
The $30 million Nordstrom's store is a big step for the West Coast retailer, which is hoping to expand on the East Coast if its first stores here are successful. It already has announced plans for stores in the new Pentagon City mall and in Towson.
"We're very nervous," said co-chairman John Nordstrom. "It's a big step for us, like giving birth."
Nordstrom's, which is known for its assortment of merchandise and attentive customer service, has taken great pains to transplant its highly regarded formula to the East Coast. About half of the 570 employees are from other Nordstrom stores. More than 100,000 pairs of shoes, 6,000 neckties and 3,000 men's dress shirts are in place for today's opening. So, too, are telephones in many of the dressing rooms to allow busy shoppers to spend even more time in the store.
The presence of Nordstrom's, Macy's and other retailers is certain to intensify the already heated competition among long-established Washington merchants, which have been vying for the business of the increasingly reluctant consumer.
"Macy's and Nordstrom's will take out about $100 to $150 million of sales from existing retailers," said one retailer, who declined to be identified.
As a result, he said, "certain traditional retailers in this area not well-positioned will struggle."
To guard against that, almost all longtime merchants here have launched major renovations of their stores, particularly in the Tysons area.
At the moment, the most notable makeover has been at the Hecht Co. store at Tysons, which had a grand reopening yesterday -- beating Nordstrom's by a day -- to show off a $16 million modernization and expansion program.
Meanwhile, Woodward & Lothrop and Bloomingdale's have revised their employee-compensation systems, both to keep their workers from going to Nordstrom's and to encourage better customer service.
Despite their concerns, rival retailers say they welcome Nordstrom's because it will draw more customers to Tysons and as a result, more business to their stores, they hope.
The shopping business "will build so fast that growth will be like you've never seen in this area," said Barbara Hammer, manager of the Bloomingdale's store at Tysons Corner Center.
But with the invasion of retailers, there are mounting concerns about traffic.
Developers, having poured about $24 million into traffic improvements around Tysons Corner, assert that many traffic complaints now are undeserved in the area, which has become known as Fairfax County's "downtown."
Among the traffic improvements are the widening of major thoroughfares, an increase in the number of traffic lights, more turn lanes and nearly a doubling of parking in the existing mall.
"People are now going to Tysons who wouldn't have gone two years ago, because you can now find a place to park," said Marianne Pastor, a spokeswoman for the Virginia Department of Transportation.
"It's not as bad as it once was ... but there is so much traffic in the Tysons area that the level of service there is never going to be really good," Pastor said.
Given the added income for county coffers and increased employment, even well-known critics of the county's fast-paced growth welcome the retailers.
"It should produce a good amount of sales tax," said Audrey Moore, chairman of the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors.
Moore voted against the Tysons II project, fearful that the dramatic increase in office development in the Tysons area would exacerbate traffic congestion.
"I think people are going to enjoy those stores," Moore said.