Thursday, September 13, 1990 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Step Into Retailers' New Underground Parlor

Like taking buses off downtown streets, retailing underground is an experiment for Northwest retailers who are coming up with their own formulas for wooing busy bus riders.

Nordstrom is the latest to come up with a new way to use underground space that will connect to the Westlake station of Metro's underground bus tunnel.

The Boardwalk - Nordstrom's new 5,307-square-foot space at the Metro level - opens at 7 p.m. today for a public preview and officially opens tomorrow to coincide with the start of bus traffic through the tunnel on Saturday.

As customers get off buses and walk into Nordstrom's new underground entrance, they will be greeted by an espresso cart and bistro tables.

Instead of the fashion apparel, accessories and gifts customers may be accustomed to finding at Nordstrom, they will find the Boardwalk filled with an assortment of antique pieces, tables, chairs and other furniture, hand-painted pottery, home decor pieces such as bird cages, cards, books and kitchenware.

``We've played with a lot of different ideas. But figuring out what will work with something so new as this, there's no exact science,'' said Darrel Hume, vice president of Nordstrom's Washington stores.

Buyer Jill Peterson said she looked for merchandise that would create a ``homey'' feel.

Nordstrom may change the mix of products as managers determine what merchandise appeals most to those using the underground bus tunnel.

``These things, like the furniture, are sort of a new thing for us, a chance to experiment,'' she said.

Such experimenting may occur quite a bit in the next few months as Nordstrom, The Bon Marche, Frederick & Nelson and retailers in Westlake Center grow accustomed to a new wave of bus-riding customers.

Even though underground entrances have been open at Westlake, The Bon and F&N for a year, Seattle retail consultant Dick Outcalt said managers of these stores have yet to see the real impact of the tunnel.

``True, they have been set up in anticipation for the shopper who's going to come with the buses,'' Outcalt said, ``but they've all been waiting for the `show' to begin.

``It's hard to gauge how well (the underground levels) will do before the buses actually run.''

Metro spokesman Dan Williams said 8,000 passengers are expected initially to use the tunnel bus routes daily, and at least 2,500 are likely to disembark at Westlake.

When additional routes are added, daily ridership is expected to increase to 32,000 passengers, 10,000 of whom would disembark at Westlake.

Such a flood of potential shoppers presents retailers with an ideal marketing opportunity, Outcalt said.

The underground mezzanine has produced a mall of sorts, he said, with the major retailers becoming ``anchors'' to Westlake's shops.

However, it's hard to determine whether the public actually will perceive the tunnel station as an underground link to a mall.

Regardless of the uncertainties, retailers see Metro shopping as a potential spot for strong sales.

At Westlake Center, virtually all retail space in the lower level has been leased, said Norris Bacho, manager of retail operations. Sales improved considerably for retailers at that level after Westlake opened its mezzanine entrance, he said.

Anticipating tunnel business, The Bon last year completed a $3.5 million remodeling of its basement level in which it replaced budget-priced apparel with trendy, upscale clothing. In place of the dark, dingy decor, The Bon added black and white marble floors, chrome and track lighting.

To lure customers into the store, The Bon added an espresso bar and cafe near its tunnel entrance.

F&N's Arcade long has been a popular feature in its basement store, and in hopes of taking advantage of tunnel traffic, the retailer is considering selling brown-bag lunches and offering cooking demonstrations.

As Nordstrom experiments with new merchandise, the $3 million it invested to remodel its metro level indicates the retailer expects its underground shopping area to do well.

``We'll probably see a lot of customers coming in from the main entrance at first and going down the stairs,'' said Blake Nordstrom, downtown store manager. ``But we should get a lot of customers from the bus tunnel, too, as it gets going.''

Copyright (c) 1990 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.


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