Nation/World

A Mixed Bag Some Local Merchants Fared Very Well, But Others Missed Christmas Sales Goals

No clear winner has emerged in the aftermath of the Inland Northwest’s fiercely competitive holiday shopping season.

Retailers at Spokane’s NorthTown Mall and Silver Lake Mall in Coeur d’Alene said they felt the sting of competition from the just-opened Spokane Valley Mall. But many merchants at the new mall reported sales that didn’t meet projections.

Smaller retailers struggled to compete with price-busting warehouses, but there are so many new discount giants, competition was intense among them as well.

“We did well, but we were off a little bit from last year,” said Scott Tilton, general manager of Future Shop, a Spokane Valley electronics super store that opened last November.

“Now there’s Circuit City in the market, CompUSA in the market, Wal-Mart in the market. All of those are great competition for the dollar,” Tilton said. “You’re going to split the dollar spent last year among a lot more people.”

Consumers demanded more from retailers as well. They combed the ads and held out as long as possible for the best deals. That contributed to a larger than usual last-minute shopping spree.

Some shoppers even went to Canada, where the favorable exchange rate provided more savings.

“We did 60 percent of our shopping at a mall in Cranbrook (British Columbia),” said Heather Rice of Coeur d’Alene. “We found really good deals there.”

Though sales figures reflecting Spokane’s holiday shopping season won’t be available until February, a consumer confidence survey done before Christmas showed that people were ready to buy. And they planned to spend more than they did last year.

The average household planned to spend $724 this year, up 7 percent from last year’s figure of $676, Robinson Research Inc. reported. The survey, a random sample of 400 Spokane County residents, has a margin of error of 4.9 percent.

Nationwide, consumer spending slightly outpaced last year’s figures, thanks in part to strong activity during the last week of shopping.

TeleCheck, a worldwide check acceptance company, reported that consumer spending was up 2.2 percent. Shopping malls reported a 2.3 percent increase in spending, according to the International Council of Shopping Centers.

Jewelry proved to be the strongest category nationwide in malls, with sales increasing 8.3 percent compared with last year.

Jewelers in Spokane reported mixed results, but seemed to agree on one thing: Consumers were looking for anything diamond.

“Diamond earrings, solitaire pendants and bracelets,” were the hot sellers this year, said Cindy Kelley, a salesperson at Pounder’s Jewelry on North Division in Spokane. Shoppers were ready to spend, Kelley said, but were looking for value and were more educated about jewelry than they have been in past years.

In the toy stores, Sing & Snore Ernie was to toy merchants what diamonds were to jewelers.

Ernie, the stuffed doll that sings “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star,” before dozing off and snoring, booted Tickle Me Elmo, last year’s hot toy, out of first place, with strong sales regionwide.

“Sing & Snore Ernie sold out a couple of different times,” said Camille Volking, manager of Kay-Bee Toy and Hobby Shop in the Spokane Valley Mall, where the stuffed doll sold for $32.99.

“Anything Barbie” was a big seller at the Toys ‘R’ Us on North Division, said Store Director Kurt Crnich. Cyber pets, the computerized pets which require virtual care and feeding, also were big sellers, going for about $15. One of the most popular cyber pets was the Tamagotchi.

“Everyone I know got one,” said Rachel Ryther, 15, of Spokane, as she shopped at NorthTown with her grandmother, Virginia Schmautz, and her sister, Shannon Ryther.

A new Toys ‘R’ Us store in the Valley and the new Wal-Mart, which are the nation’s top two toy retailers respectively, made competition stiff.

“They waited until the end, waited for the good deals,” Crnich said of this year’s shoppers. “There was a shopping frenzy the last few days.”

That excitement spilled over to the days following Christmas as well. Wendy LePiane, marketing director at the Spokane Valley Mall, said the day after Christmas was comparable to the mall’s grand opening day in August.

“The one thing that really stood out was the day after Christmas,” LePiane said. “And people were buying, they weren’t just returning.”

But the rest of the Spokane Valley Mall’s first Christmas season received mixed reviews from shoppers and retailers.

Marketplace Gifts, an 11-chain store that sells candles, gourmet foods, outdoorsy artwork and other gift items, was swamped, said manager Roberta Usselman.

“It was our first experience in a mall and we were very pleased with our numbers,” she said. Hot sellers included Washington State University Cougar gourmet food items and collectible figurines.

Veronica Porche, manager of Braun’s, a clothing store, didn’t share that enthusiasm.

“December was down. It was slow,” she said. “It started out strong but slowed down.”

Though the new mall kept more Valley shoppers closer to home this year, not all were thrilled with the mall’s selection of stores.

Peggy Smart, who lives in the Spokane Valley, used to shop at NorthTown Mall at Christmas. Though the new mall offered enough to keep her money in the Valley this year, she stuck mostly to the major department stores, J.C. Penney and The Bon Marche.

“I’m not too much into the smaller stores here,” Smart said. “This mall still has a ways to go to be competitive.”

Rich Duffy, of Newman Lake, disagreed. An appliance salesman who had an exceptionally good year, Duffy said he spent 30 percent more this year on Christmas gifts compared with last year. Most of that money was spent at the Valley Mall.

“It’s nice to see this mall come around,” Duffy said.

But all the region’s malls felt the pinch of increased competition. The Valley Mall’s mixed reviews were repeated regionwide, from NorthTown, to downtown Spokane to Silver Lake Mall in Coeur d’Alene.

“It was down quite a bit,” said Mark Kelley, who owns Gwen’s Gifts, which moved out of Silver Lake Mall after the holiday shopping season. “A big part of it was the opening of the new Valley Mall. It’s only 25 miles away and it just opened. A lot of the traffic that used to come over here was from the Valley.

“Anything that’s brand new people are going to flock to,” he said.

Gwen’s Gifts closed and moved across U.S. Highway 95 to a new shopping center anchored by Orvis, a high-end fishing store. The shop moved, Mark Kelley said, because rent is lower and the access is better.

Many NorthTown Mall retailers cited increased competition as a factor in sales that were not as strong as they would have hoped.

“We did a lot better last year in volume and everything,” said Rob Re, shift manager at NorthTown’s Champs Sports. “The Valley Mall took a lot of the out-of-town business.”

Gart Sports, a new sporting goods discount store that opened two stores just before Christmas, pulled away a lot of the business as well, Re said.

“We did alright, not great,” said Renae Hone, manager of NorthTown’s Cartoon Classics, which sells clothing and gifts adorned with cartoon characters. “I think there’s a lot more competition out there for us with Wal-Mart and the new mall. You know, people had more choices this year. That made a big difference.”

In addition to increased competition, downtown Spokane had the added obstacle of ongoing construction on the $100 million redevelopment of River Park Square, due for completion in mid-1999. The shopping center is planning a new Nordstrom store, a multi-plex cinema, a glass-enclosed atrium and other shops and restaurants.

“The traffic wasn’t bad, but it wasn’t like it was when we had four department stores and a larger variety of retail establishments,” said Judy Hamel, owner of the Children’s Corner Bookshop in River Park Square. “Everybody is awaiting the completion of this project so there will be more choices downtown.

“We have this gorgeous downtown but right now everything is on hold,” she said.

Though that sentiment was repeated by several retailers, many reported strong sales.

“We did exceptionally well, considering everything that was going on downtown,” said Darren Buster, store manager of Rings and Things, a jewelry, gift and bead shop in River Park Square. “We’ve still been busy after the holidays.”

Best sellers were incense (“we stocked up several times”), ethnic jewelry and handcarved, handpainted statues made by Mexico’s Oaxacan Indians.

“It was a fun Christmas. It seems like the people who came downtown were unsure of parking and things like that, but they were having a good time,” Buster said.

, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: 2 Color photos



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