Spokane Journal of Business

Christmas (shopping) comes early, Spokane retailers say

INW merchants report lots of pre-Thanksgiving activity, some optimism

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-—LeAnn Bjerken
Mountain Gear owner Paul Fish, left, and store manager John Schwartz say the company is working on providing good customer experiences so people shop more in person.

With the holidays fast approaching, Spokane-area retailers here say they’re preparing for another profitable sales season, with many hustling to create in-store experiences to rival the growing popularity of online shopping.

The National Retail Federation is predicting nationwide holiday retail sales in November and December will increase between 4.3 percent and 4.8 percent over 2017, for a total of $717.45 billion to $720.89 billion. The forecast is consistent with, though slightly higher than, average annual increases in national sales of 3.9 percent over the past five years.

In the Inland Northwest, Washington State University’s Carson College of Business’ second annual holiday survey found many consumers plan to ditch Black Friday lines in favor of the convenience of Cyber Monday this year. 

The survey, which was released earlier this month, shows 72 percent of consumers in the region are likely to shop on Cyber Monday, while only 55 percent want to shop on Black Friday. Three in five respondents said they prefer shopping Cyber Monday rather than Black Friday.

Meanwhile among Spokane residents, 53 percent of those surveyed said they like shopping Black Friday, while 67 percent are likely to shop on Cyber Monday. 

Despite the popularity of online shopping, 67 percent of Spokane respondents said they do plan to visit a shopping mall this season, with Spokane Valley Mall and NorthTown Mall being top picks for holiday shopping, according to the survey.

Results also showed support for cost effective and local shopping, with 89 percent of respondents saying there’s no need to overspend on holiday gifts, and 66 percent saying they plan to shop locally in-store this holiday season.

At the Spokane Valley Mall, general manager Daryl Rheingans says excitement for holiday shopping has already started.

“It’s always the most exciting time of year for us,” he says. “This year we have several new stores, including Carters Oshkosh B’gosh, Harry Ritchie’s Jewelers, Concept, and Classic Burgers in the food court.” 

While he declines to speculate on whether the mall will see an increase in holiday sales this year, Rheingans says one continuing trend has been early shoppers. 

“This year, we’ve once again seen a lot of people out buying gifts early, which is a trend that’s continued for the last few years,” he says.  

Although the popularity of online shopping continues to increase, Rheingans says retailers appear to have adjusted to that demand, and many now offer consumers both options.

“I think most retailers have embraced the online stuff and have left room to offer customers both,” he says. “But there will always be those who really enjoy coming in person to try things on or just enjoy the mall experience.”

Rheingans says electronics and unusual gift items are still the most popular among mall visitors, as is the annual visit from Santa.

Paul Fish, owner of Spokane outdoor retailer Mountain Gear, at 2002 N. Division, says his business too is expecting a strong start to the holidays, having already seen some early shoppers.

“It’s a bit early to speculate, but the trend we’re seeing is people are shopping early, and they’re making more of an effort to shop locally,” he says. “We’re expecting to see a moderate increase in sales this year over last, and at least a small increase for online sales too.” 

With the popularity of online shopping continuing to grow, Fish says he agrees that retailers see cultivating an in-store experience for customers as increasingly important.

“One good thing about being locally owned is that we’re often able to offer better pricing on certain items in-store, which gives customers another reason to stop in,” he says. “We offer both, so that customers can buy how they’d like, but it’s actually a better deal to come by in person.”

Fish says the holiday shopping season also presents opportunities to interact with both new and long-time customers and thank them for their business.

“People are often less interested in in-store shopping until they have a great experience,” he says. “We do our best to cultivate those experiences because we know they lead to life-long customer relationships that you just can’t achieve through online sales.”

Joel Barbour, who co-owns The Great PNW Inc. with his wife, Tori, says the 5-year-old Spokane company continues to sell most of its Northwest-themed casual clothing and accessories online through its website, although it has a growing number of wholesale clients throughout the region.

“Our online sales are constantly growing, but this year our wholesale growth actually exceeded online growth as we’ve added wholesale accounts and a sales representative in the Seattle area,” Barbour says.

He says the company anticipates a good holiday season, as its sales this year have already been trending about 50 percent higher than last.

“Based on that trend, we’re anticipating a 50 percent increase in holiday sales as well,” he says. “People are definitely looking to spend right now.”

Although The Great PNW is primarily an online retailer, Barbour says it’s still looking to create an ideal shopping experience for its customers. 

“As a manufacturer, we’re able to offer online specials like a free beanie with an order over $25,” he says. “We do our best to make online a fun shopping experience that you can’t get in-store.”

At the same time, Barbour says he also encourages customers to support the company’s wholesale retailers, as many are small, local businesses.

“We try to look out for our retailers and encourage our customers to support them,” he says. “They’re a huge part of our business, and we wouldn’t be here without them.”

John Waite, owner of both Auntie’s Bookstore and Merlyn’s Comics & Games in downtown Spokane, says sales at both stores are up this year, and he’s expecting a good holiday season.

“It’s still early so it’s hard to say how we’ll do, but if we see a 5 percent increase in sales that would be fabulous,” he says.

Waite says this year’s calendar is set up well for retailers, with both Christmas and New Year’s falling within the week, leaving a full weekend prior for last minute shopping.

“This year’s weather is also a bit warmer, meaning more people are out and about shopping,” he says. 

While he admits it can be difficult to compete with online retailers, Waite says this year, both Aunties and Merlyn’s have increased their inventories to give customers better selection.

“With any retail store, you work hard and treat your customers right,” he says. “We can’t compete with online prices, but we have increased our inventory to hopefully encourage customers to check in with us first.”

Waite says the phenomenon of retailers striving to create distinctive in-store experiences to attract more customers is just the nature of the business.

“We offer a lot of special events like readings and book signings, and we’re lucky to have almost an extended family of employees and customers who support us,” he says. “People have different reasons to support area small businesses, but I think most understand that shopping local and re-investing in our community benefits everyone.”

Elisabeth Hooker, marketing and programing director at the Downtown Spokane Partnership, says the organization has noticed that as online shopping becomes more popular, retailers here are more focused on creating in-store customer experiences.

“There are properties downtown, like River Park Square, that are looking at more experiential things going forward,” she says. “In our efforts for the business improvement district, we’ve also tried to help create events and activities for the community that lead people to check out new retailers or explore places they haven’t yet visited.”

Hooker says the organization is particularly excited for this year’s downtown holiday season.

“We have the usual annual events plus parts of Riverfront Park, like the ice ribbon and the newly restored Looff Carousel, are open again, so it should be really busy downtown,” she says.

Doug Tweedy, a Spokane-based regional labor economist with the Washington state Employment Security Department, says Spokane is once again expecting an increase in the number of seasonal retail jobs this year.

“Spokane has always been a regional hub for people who are looking to come into town and shop, and that’s still a pretty significant factor in the number of seasonal holiday jobs we have each year,” he says. “We usually have about 500 seasonal jobs that come into the economy from October through December, many of those being retail positions,” says Tweedy.

The department anticipates that number will increase to about 700 seasonal employees for both in-store and nonstore retail positions, he says.

The majority of those seasonal jobs are in-store positions, as nonstore positions usually include internet sales for companies that either don’t have a storefront or are based outside of Spokane.

Tweedy says this year consumer confidence is up, and the increase in seasonal jobs also has served to bring disposal income up.

“Those two factors generally make for a nice Christmas season for retailers,” he says.

In regard to the continued popularity of online versus in-store sales, Tweedy says technology is changing retail, as websites and phone apps give consumers more knowledge about products, as well as the ability to compare prices and find items easily.

“Technology is changing the way we buy things, which in turn is changing the makeup of retail jobs,” he says. “Now we have technology that’s able to do some of these jobs that used to require more customer service. It’s not necessarily a bad change, just one that retailers are adjusting to.”

LeAnn Bjerken
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Reporter LeAnn Bjerken covers health care at the Journal of Business. A Minnesota native and cat lover, she enjoys beachside vacations and writing poetry. LeAnn has worked for the Journal since 2015.

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