All roads lead to Exit 76

Southern Indiana mall strives
to be the ‘finest in the Midwest’

By Don Johnson
Courtesy of the Antique Trader

EDINBURGH, Ind. (October 2005) – A man dressed in blue jeans and a red vest slows as he walks down the aisle toward a customer. “Are you doing all right, sir?” he asks. “Let us know if we can help you with anything.”

Albert Skaggs

Photo by Don Johnson

Mall co-owner Albert Skaggs
stands outside Exit 76 Antiques Mall
in Edinburgh, Ind., near Columbus.
The facility houses 72,000 sq. ft.
of antiques and collectibles.

He is part of a team of employees, all wearing red vests, who roam Exit 76 Antiques Mall in Edinburgh, Ind. While some antiques malls have struggled in recent years, Exit 76 continues to thrive with strong sales and full occupancy.
The numbers are impressive enough: 72,000 square feet of space, equal to 1 1/2 acres under one roof, filled with 600 booths and lighted showcases rented by 359 merchants. (Use of the term “dealer” is discouraged at the mall due to its negative connotation.) The men and women in the red vests, including general manager Nic Nicoson, keep everything running smoothly.
Numbers are important to Nicoson. They serve as a yardstick to measure the mall’s progress. In July, Exit 76 set records for items sold on an event day – at 173 per hour during Customer Appreciation Day – and the number of customers in a single month, at 17,730. The mall had buyers from 44 states and tied a record for the percentage of customers who bought something: 36 percent.
Albert Skaggs, who co-owns the mall with Norm Schlemmer, said location and management play the biggest roles in the success of the business. The mall is located on I-65, about 30 miles south of Indianapolis, adjacent to the 70-store Edinburgh Premium Outlets.
“More than 5 million people stop here in this interchange every year,” said Skaggs, quoting figures he said are about four years old. The cluster of businesses also includes gas stations, restaurants and hotels.
A builder-developer in central Indiana, Skaggs is responsible for the mall’s creation and location. “I conceived the whole idea not knowing anything about antiques,” he said.
The mall opened in May 2000 and originally included 20,000 square feet of space dedicated to a museum that focused on Chevrolet cars and trucks made from 1955 to 1957, all in red, white or blue paint. The colors weren’t by accident. “I’m very patriotic,” Skaggs said.

Nic Nicoson

Photo by Don Johnson

General manager
Nic Nicoson stands
in a booth featuring a
Globe stove made
in Kokomo, Ind.
Nicoson has been with
the mall since
it opened in 2000.

Management was a key to the mall’s success from the beginning, with 70 percent of the booths and showcases rented when Exit 76 opened. Skaggs eventually decided to sell the Chevys and dedicate the entire building to antiques. Today, all the space is rented, and the mall has a waiting list of merchants eager to get in.
Nothing at the mall is done by chance. By visiting antiques malls in four states, Skaggs identified several key elements included in the building’s design and the mall’s operation – good lighting, availability of food, a place to rest and security. Many customers may not consciously think about the lighting and security, but the Subway restaurant within the building and a lounge, complete with a big-screen television, are hard to miss.
Nicoson isn’t bothered by the larger size of some malls. “I don’t really care to be the biggest. I want to be the best,” he said. “I think it’s more important to be the finest in the Midwest than to be the biggest.”
The management and merchants at Exit 76 concentrate on quality and consistency. A Merchant Committee made up of eight people work with Nicoson, serving as what he calls “a communication line.”
The mall is proactive in building its reputation. “We were told when we started that the greatest threat of antique malls is becoming a flea market,” Skaggs said.
“We do an evaluation of every booth and case two to three times a year,” he said. One of three teams examines each booth, scoring it on presentation of merchandise, quantity of merchandise, quality of merchandise, and tagging of merchandise, based on 25 points per category. Merchants who score less than 70 receive individualized attention aimed at improving their business.
Customers’ impressions of Exit 76 are vital, not only determining whether those people will return, but also influencing what they will say to others about the mall. In a survey, customers cited word of mouth as the biggest factor in drawing them to the mall. Exit 76 also uses billboards, ads in 16 publications and spots on an Indianapolis TV station to bring in potential buyers. The mall’s website (www.exit76antiques.com) also plays a role.
Skaggs and Nicoson noted that it’s the combination of a number of factors that has led to the mall’s success, including location, standards of excellence, advertising, cleanliness, organization, security and customer service.

Nic Nicoson

Photo by Don Johnson

General manager Nic Nicoson stands
in one of many booths at the mall.

The Red Vest Team plays an important role in the latter. Nicoson’s philosophy for them is simple: “Smile. Say hello. Be there when needed. Get away when not.” Other concepts also come into play, such as the use of thank-you postcards for customers who make sizable purchases. The idea came from one of the mall’s merchants, who saw similar cards used elsewhere. Suggestions from merchants and customers have led to a number of improvements at Exit 76.
To thank its shoppers, Exit 76 holds a Customer Appreciation Weekend four times a year. The event offers discounts, door prizes and the chance for customers to deal with many merchants face to face.
One simple proof that the mall is doing something right is that its expertise is sought and its techniques are being copied. With Exit 76’s permission, one mall owner in northern Indiana plans to open Greene’s Exit 215 Antique Mall along I-65 at Rensselaer.
“Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery,” said Nicoson.

• For more information, call Exit 76 Antiques Mall at (812) 526-5998 or visit: www.exit76antiques.com. Exit 76 Antique Mall, Edinburgh, Ind., is open 10 a.m.-6 p.m. daily. (812) 526-7676.

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