With a vacant anchor site and competition from a booming new shopping center on the western edge of Greater Des Moines, Merle Hay Mall spent more than a year in a sales slump. But a new tenant is taking business in the other direction, contributing to a jump in sales at many of the shopping mall’s other stores.

“We knew that Jordan Creek [Town Center] was going to have an effect on sales, and that being down an anchor was going to impact traffic,” said Elizabeth Holland, CEO of Chicago-based Abbell Credit Corp., which manages Merle Hay. “We’re happy now that we have good comparative numbers.”

Target Corp. opened a 126,000-square-foot store July 19 on the south anchor site formerly occupied by Younkers, which relocated to the mall’s west anchor site in July 2004. The old Younkers building was demolished last year, paving the way for Target’s construction.

After just two months in business, Target has not only increased mall traffic but appears to have contributed to increased sales as indicated by the first full month of operation.

During August, sales at Merle Hay were up anywhere from 15 to 35 percent over August 2005, Holland said, though some stores have yet to report last month’s sales numbers. In the nearly 12-month period bookended by the openings of Jordan Creek Town Center and the Merle Hay Mall Target, sales at the mall were down about 8 to 10 percent.

“So far, we’re very encouraged and excited about (Target) being there,” Holland said.

Though Target is not considered a traditional shopping mall anchor, Holland said Target and similar stores bring shoppers variety and choice that is difficult for traditional tenants such as Von Maur or Dillard’s to replicate. Merle Hay found that out when Walgreen’s closed in 1999 to make room for Old Navy.

Not only do shoppers seem to appreciate the convenience of having services such as a pharmacy available at the mall, but in today’s world of record gasoline prices, the need to consolidate shopping trips and limit miles on the road is increasingly evident to those in the retail industry.

“As gas prices have gotten higher, people are more aware of where and how far they drive,” Holland said. “Consumers are being smarter about how many trips they make and how many stops they make per trip. So we’re seeing a benefit by providing a lot more variety to shoppers.”

Merle Hay’s management has turned its focus to the shopping mall’s main corridors, where some tenants such as Bath & Body Works will relocate within the mall, allowing for some retail spaces to be combined to accommodate larger tenants. Holland expects the mall’s vacancy rate, which has remained steady at about 11 percent for several years, to change as tenants shift within the mall and new tenants fill vacant storefronts.

Construction on physical improvements to the mall’s interior and exterior will, for the most part, be put on hold through the holiday season and be completed in early 2006. Holland said construction on Target and the mall parking lot was “very disruptive” to last year’s crowd of holiday shoppers.

But with Target drawing in shoppers, an improved parking lot, Starbuck’s now open on the east of the parking lot and even new Christmas decorations on the way, Holland is confident that even brighter days are ahead for Merle Hay.

“We’re really excited about taking it to the next level and making it a fun place to come shop,” Holland said.