It's fashionable among some residents to knock shopping opportunities in Madison County. Citing more choices and higher-end stores, they choose to jump onto Interstate 69 and drive to Indianapolis. This leaves area merchants filled with frustrations and registers empty of revenue.

However, what is reality and perception are two different matters. Area merchants are quick to point out the various choices shoppers do have in diversity of merchandise and discount prices. While they understand the attraction of Indianapolis, they hope to lure people from other communities whose shopping choices are considerably limited.

Michael Hupp, Simon Properties vice president and manager for Mounds Mall, said the mall looks to pull in other shoppers from neighboring communities to the north. Marion is an example of a community with far fewer options for consumers than Anderson and why Hupp feels Mounds, which was the first enclosed mall in Indiana, offers a great shopping alternative.

Hupp and his mall are vying for customers who spend an average of $68.20 per mall visit, according to a new statistical study compiled by the International Council of Shopping Centers. Surprisingly, according to the study, the average mall patrons stop into fewer than two stores per visit.

That places pressure on well-established anchor department stores to attract the masses, and an unwanted spotlight while Mounds discovers its niche.

Local shoppers are still lamenting the recent loss of one of the 37-year-old mall's anchors, J.C. Penney. Hupp understands the community's frustration in the loss, although the store's departure was a corporate decision and, needless to say, not a move mall management wanted.

"Anytime a loss occurs, and it is an anchor tenant, eyebrows are raised," said Hupp, who has been managing Mounds Mall less than a year.

Hupp is asked daily whether a new anchor store will arrive.

"A big department store is our intent," said Hupp. "We are actively looking for a major department store, but it takes a lot longer to bring that, especially when you are dealing with the big boys."

Hupp will not speculate on a new tenant, but he doesn't seem thrilled with the idea of bringing in what he calls a "big box" shop. Instead, he would prefer to see a department store that offers a variety of merchandise and diversified pricing.

"You need a mix," said Hupp. "You have problems if you go totally in one direction in retail. A mall with some discount, some moderate prices, and some higher-end prices does better when there is an economic downturn."

Many shoppers would like to see a high-end department or specialty shop locate in the mall.

Again, perception and realty come to the foreground. Hupp said some residents have put their request in for an Abercrombie and Fitch.

A community where the average salary was $24,483 in 2001, shouldn't expect to lure a retailer who sells trendy clothes averaging $50 apiece.

"Castleton doesn't even have an Abercrombie and Fitch," said Hupp.

What Hupp can offer is modest growth of mall tenants during the past year. Zap clothing opened, Green Apple expanded to a much larger store, and one of the remaining anchors, Sears, recently signed a five-year lease to stay put.

Sears also scored a coup in the fashion world by announcing the purchase of Lands End, one of the nation's leading clothing catalogs. Sears will begin carrying Lands End clothing just in time for Christmas.

While Mounds Mall continues to search for an identity, retailers in the southern portion of the community found themselves in the shadow of the I-69 corridor.

"There has been a lot of development around I-69," said Keith Pitcher, president for the Chamber of Commerce for Anderson & Madison County. "That created optimism for retailers."

Within recent months, Kohls and Old Navy joined Wal-Mart and Meijer on the south side of Anderson. Lowe's expanded its operation and moved into a larger facility on South Scatterfield Road. Giving Lowe's some competition in the home improvement arena is Menards which opened in July.

"We've got an ideal location," said Michael Hilfiker, assistant store manger. "The south side is where the growth is and it's great to be located so close to I-69."

The wildcard in the Anderson retail market is the new downtown development project. While the goal isn't to create another strip mall, the new ambiance created by Fortune Management might be an enticement some proprietors can't resist.

"I think that project holds much promise for retail," said Pitcher.