Meet Karen Johnson

November 27, 2017

Hey KJ.

Do you know KJ yet? If not, prepare to fall in love.

Karen Johnson—a.k.a “KJ”—has been a retail real estate junkie for decades. She is our retail queen, our marketing maven, our shopping center sultan—well, you get the idea.

The bottom line is few can match her marketing expertise in the shopping center industry, and I’m not sure she has an equal in charm or charisma. (Seriously, she’s magnetic.)

We stole a few minutes of KJ’s time to dive deep into what makes her tick and why her real estate clients love her so much!


How did you get into this biz?

My father was a Project Manager for The Rouse Company, a Maryland-based retail real estate developer best known for urban revitalization projects like Faneuil Hall Marketplace in Boston and Harborplace in Baltimore. It was the heyday of shopping malls, back when ribbon cuttings were abundant and grand openings were grand.

In the early eighties, my dad landed a local project, White Marsh Mall. From a 100-acre mound of dirt to a super-regional, one million square foot shopping mall, I followed my dad around the construction site (on Saturdays, whenever he said YES) with wide eyes and a burning desire to be part of the action. When the time came to pass the construction baton to the grand opening marketing crew, my hand was raised. I joined the marketing department as a promotions helper and never looked back. Enjoying a 20+ year career with The Rouse Company, I oversaw marketing at six Rouse malls, visited countless cities to help with other mall grand openings, partnered with hundreds of retailers to help grow their brands, and orchestrated shared-center advertising strategies for 30+ Rouse malls. What a ride.

Why do our clients love you so gosh darn much?

Not sure, but I can tell why I dig my clients so gosh darn much. I’ve been fortunate to work with clients who appreciate and value the art of collaboration, plus they put up with all of my quirky questions.

I don’t have all the answers, which, I’ve learned over the years is a good thing. Every fruitful relationship involves a dance – a back-and-forth tossing around of ideas. Clients will always know their business better than I can, so it only makes sense that developing the right marketing solution for a client is a collaborative effort. I’m always striving to be seen by my clients as a strategic asset – to provide solutions, and never just be an “order taker.”

Where does our industry (RRE) go from here?

Well, there’s no place for complacency, that’s for sure. The buzz surrounding the future of retail seems to be louder than ever and the battle for market share is raging. Fortunately, physical retail and online shopping are not mutually exclusive – but tomorrow’s retail experience requires an adaptive and bold mindset; one that is truly tuned in to the consumers’ changing needs.

What do you hear?

I read a lot of industry news, and I also hear from my clients in grocery, malls, and lifestyles centers. Within those circles, there’s a lot of chatter about internet-resistant concepts and experiential retail; destinations that blend consumer goods with entertainment and experiences. Where I collect some of the most intriguing insights are from my own focus-group-of-sorts. After rolling up our mats, my fellow yoginis enjoy weekly dinner parties where I’ve been known to pepper them with questions about their shopping habits. I’ve learned a few things:

  • The Amazon-effect is real, but random. In the past week, this group bought 30 pounds of garden rocks, a DNA test, “adult” gummy bears, and succulents. (yep, this is who I hang with)
  • They all prefer to buy apparel in physical stores, but never at full price.
  • There’s a deep desire to support local brick & mortar businesses, especially businesses that are community-centric.

What will you be looking for at ICSC Deal Making?

I’m always curious to see and learn firsthand what RRE owners/developers and retailers are doing differently to stay relevant, competitive and exciting in light of shifting shopping habits. But who is really stepping up and standing out and what are the newest and smartest solutions to enhance the shopper’s experience? I also love reconnecting with my clients and asking them quirky questions.

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