Spokane Journal of Business

Spokane-area retailers hopeful for holidays

End of government shutdown helps lift spirits

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-—Staff photo by Katie Ross
Ben Conley, manager of the White Elephant shops, says he is expecting the stores to have strong holiday sales this year.

The National Retail Federation is forecasting an increase of almost 4 percent in retail sales for the months of November and December this year. This is slightly higher than 2012's actual increase of 3.5 percent and the 10-year average holiday sales growth of 3.3 percent.

On the heels of the national forecast, Spokane retailers are hoping to have a strong holiday season this year, despite factors like the recent government shutdown and challenges caused by road construction projects.

River Park Square marketing director Elizabeth Mills says the downtown mall is cautiously optimistic about the upcoming holiday retail season.

"I am anticipating people will be cautious after the shutdown," Mills says. "The NRF forecast says 3.9 percent, but you never really quite know. We have, very slightly, begun to see an upward trend in shoppers, beginning towards the end of September and early October."

Mills says this holiday season is also six days shorter than last year's season, which could put consumers into high gear. She also says the mall has seen customers starting their holiday shopping earlier this year.

"Many consumers are saying that they're starting their shopping before Halloween this year in order to spread out their holiday budget," she says.

Mills says River Park Square is 98 percent occupied, with new additions such as beauty retailer Sephora and the upcoming Athleta women's clothing store, which she says will be that company's second store in Washington. These new additions hopefully will help attract customers this holiday season, she says.

"Everybody here is really hopeful for a good holiday season," Mills says.

Murray Huppin, owner and president of longtime Spokane electronics retailer Huppin's, says he is relieved the government shutdown has passed.

"Uncertainty is the biggest challenge for retailers," he says. "We are very pleased that the shutdown is over."

Huppin says the store's sales have been doing well this year, in spite of the company closing its downtown store in April and now only operating its North Side store at 8016 N. Division, although it has a substantial online presence.

"We are very pleased at how our customers have migrated to the new location," Huppin says.

He says Huppin's already has begun bringing in new merchandise for the holiday season, which he also is reasonably optimistic about.

"I think as a retailer, we've got to be optimistic every day," Huppin says.

The Washington state Employment Securities Department also has issued its forecast for the holiday season, predicting that seasonal hiring in the state will be on par with last year. The organization is anticipating holiday hires in the Spokane area to be around 1,273, which would be up about 23 percent from last year's 1,033 hires. The National Retail Federation forecast also includes estimates for seasonal hires, which it is predicting to be between 720,000 and 780,000, which could exceed 2012's actual number of 720,500.

Mills says that while most retailers in River Park Square hire seasonal help, it's still a little early to tell what those numbers might be.

"Everybody always hires a few extra people, but we haven't seen it start yet," she says.

Melissa Opel, manager of Auntie's Bookstore at 402 W. Main downtown, says that it doesn't hire any extra help, but instead offers more hours to its regular employees. Opel says Auntie's sales have been up and down this year compared to last year, when sales were steadier.

"It could be the construction around here," she says. "There's a lot of transition on Main Street right now. But I'm optimistic about this holiday season. We are looking forward."

Opel says the store already is "gearing up" for the holiday season by ordering new products and stocking up on current ones.

The National Retail Federation says in its forecast that variables such as the strengthening of the national housing market and consumers' increased appetites for large-ticket items are signs that retailers could see solid positive gains this season. However, it says, there still are many factors causing consumer uncertainty, such as concerns about the debt ceiling, government funding, and income growth. The organization says that the holiday season can account for 20 to 40 percent of a retailer's annual sales, and 20 percent of total industry annual sales.

Ben Conley, general manager of the White Elephant stores, says that holiday sales make up "a good third" of the store's yearly sales. He also says that the White Elephant has seen an upturn in sales this year, especially in toys, which usually make up the majority of its holiday sales.

"Sales are stronger than they've been in the past, and we expect to see that continue through the holidays," he says.

Conley says the White Elephant starts ordering products, usually specialty toys, for the next holiday season as early as January.

Eric Frickle, president of The Kitchen Engine, located in the Flour Mill retail complex at 621 W. Mallon, says he believes the improvement in the economy and an upturn in tourism numbers is helping the store have a solid sales year.

"It seems like there's a little more energy these days," Frickle says.

The Kitchen Engine, he says, is up slightly in sales this year, which he attributes to consistency in customer service and product inventory.

He also says the store is aiming to have higher holiday sales than last year. Generally, the holiday season follows the same trend as the rest of the year, Frickle says, so he is hopeful that the store's upward sales will continue.

Josh Yandell, owner of the Pistole Boardshop, which is located at 523 W. Sprague downtown and sells both skateboards and snowboards, says he is looking for seasonal sales to increase from last year, but says the winter holidays won't beat out the store's usual back-to-school rush.

"August is always our best month," Yandell says. "We call that our Christmas month."

In addition to the main holiday retail forecast, Shop.org, a digital division of the National Retail Federation, has put out its online holiday sales estimates, predicting that online sales will grow 13 percent to 15 percent this year. This is an increase over last year's 12 percent prediction.

However, the rise in online shopping can affect businesses that don't offer it, says Conley.

"We don't do online sales, so we do see a hit from that," he says. "We often will have customers come in and ask questions, then later come back and tell us they found the product online. That's the way people shop nowadays. The best thing we can do is continue to be here for the community and be a good source for product."

Huppins, however, has been doing business online since 1994 through its www.huppins.com website, Huppin says. He says online sales currently account for about 75 percent of its business, but that number doesn't change much during the holiday season.

"Our online sales have been steady for a long, long time," Huppin says.

Katie Ross
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Reporter Katie Ross covers manufacturing, hospitality, and government at the Journal of Business. An outdoor enthusiast and snowboard fanatic, Katie is a recent graduate of Gonzaga University.  

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