Behind the Scenes at University Village
When a brand wants in at University Village—the shopping center so salient to Seattle commerce that, for the purposes of this magazine, we consider it a neighborhood—they go through Susie Plummer.
Since becoming general manager at U Village in 2000, Plummer has more than doubled the number of businesses there. She’s turned the place from a neighborhood spot that was lucky to get an Eddie Bauer (per an accidentally scathing 1994 Seattle Times article) to the preeminent PNW destination for the nation’s most popular brands. Tenants unfailingly credit Plummer for their success: “I truly feel like the Village is the result of her vision,” says Sally Bergesen, founder of women’s running brand Oiselle. “She’s the big boss there.”
On the Friday she squeezes me in for an interview, though, Plummer hasn’t started her day by chirping off a complicated Starbucks order to a starry-eyed assistant or any number of other glamorous, high-powered actions I’d imagined a retail “hero,” “wizard,” or “total badass” would fill her morning with.
Rather, she’s documented a broken light, some peeling paint, and an unseemly pile of QFC shopping carts on her way out of the parking garage. In all likelihood, she’s bent down to pick up a few pieces of trash (she has to stop herself from tidying sidewalks elsewhere).
To Plummer, these are crucial components of U Village success. She tracks sales for every business in the shopping center. It seems wise to trust her.
In recent years, the 66-year-old lifestyle center—how we’ve come to refer to a mall that’s disserviced by the word—has established itself as a leader in an industry where growth is far from a given. If you can attract successful, primarily online, direct-to-
consumer brands to brick-and-mortar retail—during a pandemic, no less—what can’t you do? But here in Seattle, University Village has always had our attention.
“If the canal under the Montlake Bridge had never been constructed” to allow navigation to Puget Sound, a 1956 Seattle Times article on the shopping center’s opening observes, “there would be no University Village today.” Like the orange groves razed to make way for Walt Disney’s California dream, the former identity of the land U Village resides on adds a bit to its magic: Only by a feat of modern science, the construction of the Locks and the subsequent lowering of Lake Washington, could we now sit outside an Apple Store while sipping nitro cold brew. Combine that with the shopping center’s diligent cleanup crew, and it’s no wonder that fans of the place compare it to Disneyland.
The newly dry lake bed served various purposes over the first half of the twentieth century, including as the Malmo Seed and Nursery Company, which advertised huge, thousand-tree sales to make way for the $10 million shopping center in the years leading up to its construction. The Village opened in 1956, a year after the actual Disneyland, anchored by Seattle-founded Rhodes Department Store. More than 500 shoppers came to watch the ribbon-cutting ceremony.
New shop openings may not draw quite those crowds, but they still generate significant buzz. Since this time last year, the Village has welcomed over a dozen new tenants, including Everlane, a sustainability-focused, direct-to-consumer clothing brand—one of several that have recently chosen the shopping center as their Pacific Northwest launching point. Seattle was one of its top 10 markets for digital sales, per Tara Shanahan, Everlane’s VP of retail. “It was a natural decision” to set up shop at the village.
“They’re very smart about the customer here,” Plummer says of DTC brands like Everlane, Reformation, and Warby Parker, which use online sales figures to determine their most promising markets. But selecting tenants is an art as much as it is a calculation. “You can discover a lot by just sitting and watching your customer walk around,” Plummer says.
When an out-of-town brand without that sort of data approaches Plummer asking for space, she tells them to “go sit on a bench and look at what the customer’s wearing.” What they see, these days, are families pushing strollers to the play area, college girls in fashionable sweat sets, couples eating dinner in one of the Village’s expansive outdoor dining areas. “I’m very honest and open with them,” Plummer says. Because if their customer doesn’t come here, neither will their business.
For local shop owners, many of them longtime University Village customers themselves, the process of becoming a tenant looks a little different: less of a speed date, more of a date with destiny. “In my mind, that was the only place I wanted to open a store,” says Oiselle’s Sally Bergesen. “I just knew that if we could get in there, we’d have a really good shot.”
Robin Wehl Martin, co-owner of cookie shop Hello Robin, brought a plateful of baked goods and a hot-pink Post-it note to the University Village management office asking Susie Plummer to keep Hello Robin on her radar if an appropriate space opened up. Dozens of cookies and casual meetings later, Plummer gave her a call and asked if she was ready. “If you think business is great on 19th,” fellow tenant Eric Banh of Ba Bar and Capitol Hill’s Monsoon told Wehl Martin, “you’re going to love U Village.”
That’s a reputation the management team meticulously maintains. Business owners at U Village gain immediate access to a killer marketing team and Plummer’s direct line. They become part of a place where the “American dream” can happen, per Vanessa Kimling, who was hired at Ravenna Gardens in 2005 as part-time seasonal help and bought the business at the beginning of this year. They join a community of more than 40 locally owned companies and loyal customers that work together in a way that feels a lot less mall and a lot more small town. Or should I say, a lot more U Village.