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Local retailers ready to cure shoppers’ ‘frugality fatigue’

Sun., Oct. 31, 2010, midnight

Penn Fix, president of Dodson’s Jewelers in downtown Spokane, just finished a good week. On Tuesday a customer visited his family-owned jewelry store and left after buying a $14,000 diamond ring as a birthday present.

With an economy still muddling through a recovery, sales like that help inspire retailers to feel they’ve finally bottomed out and are headed in the right direction.

National retail groups this year are predicting holiday sales that will be only slightly better than a year ago. That lukewarm forecast has inspired many retailers to adopt sales pitches and tactics that they hope will bring a few more customers their direction this year.

Fix said he’s glad to sell higher-priced items, but he’s just as happy to ring up more modest purchases.

“I’d rather sell a fine Edwardian piece of jewelry for $50 than sell it to a refiner” to melt down for the gold, he said.

Retailers who’ve survived the past two seasons say they’ll continue doing what’s kept them going so far – having a range of items at different price points, offering free shipping, using social network connections and pushing Web sales to reach a wider group of customers.

The National Retail Federation, a trade group based in Washington, D.C., forecasts a 2.3 percent increase in holiday spending, compared with last year’s sales growth of less than 2 percent.

Based on more than 8,000 answers, the federation identified which products are most likely to land in gift boxes this year. Clothing and books top that list, but in a sign shoppers are ready to cut loose a little, the group found more people reporting they’ll be in the mood to buy jewelry.

Doug Hart, a partner in the retail and consumer product practice of BDO USA, said he believes consumers are ready to loosen the purse strings a little.

He has a term to describe that readiness to buy one or two expensive items, even if the general economy is stagnant: “I’d call it frugality fatigue,” he said, calling it a “sub-trend” that will mean an uptick in sales of jewelry, pricey electronics like smartphones or iPads, and some items of fine apparel.

“Consumers for the past two years have been cutting back on spending. Now some of them feel it’s time to treat themselves to an impulse purchase,” he said.

Even if some shoppers do change from Scrooge to Fezziwig this year, retailers in Spokane and North Idaho aren’t all convinced the shopping season will be better than last year.

Massoud Emami, co-owner of downtown Spokane men’s apparel shop Anderson & Emami Clothiers, has high hopes holiday spending will be up.

“Starting in August, our business started picking up nicely. Spending has been soft the past two years, but we’re now seeing an upsurge” in visitors and amount of money spent per shopper, he said.

Agreeing with Hart that some shoppers are ready to splurge, Emami said the store is seeing gains in custom-made suits and sport coats. “People are willing to spend a little more to have that perfect fit and feel good about what they’re wearing,” he said.

But Chris O’Harra, owner of Auntie’s Bookstore in downtown Spokane, isn’t sure the season will be a lot better than a year ago.

“I think people still don’t have a good sense of what’s going to happen. Last year we had a little more good old American optimism leading into the holidays,” she said.

Still, O’Harra doesn’t plan to wait for things to improve. Like a good number of other business managers, she’s changing how she operates in order to be more appealing to shoppers who do turn up. Auntie’s made a conscious effort to hire younger staff and buyers to target younger customers. “We needed people who knew what books were hot and appealing to younger people,” O’Harra said.

“We want our staff to be ready and on top of things when people come up and ask for suggestions,” she said.

Deena Caruso owns and runs two Spokane apparel and accessory stores, Finders Keepers. Business was good, she said, until mid-October; then purchases tanked.

Caruso uses Facebook to drive sales by offering discounts on slow days or on items that are not moving. “We really don’t see holiday shopping pick up until after Thanksgiving,” she said.

Her other strategy is personal; Caruso has agreed to be part of a flurry of benefits and events tied to area nonprofit groups.

“I’ve said my plan is to work twice as hard for half as much as last year,” she said.

For several years Caruso has been a business volunteer and supporter of the Christmas Tree Elegance fundraiser, held by Spokane Symphony Associates. This year Caruso agreed to take an even larger role, in part to fill gaps in corporate backing caused by another company pulling back.

Her stores will provide gowns for five fashion shows during the event, which starts Nov. 30 at the Davenport Hotel.

Caruso said she’ll be busy but plans on engaging every new person she meets at the event. “I care about the symphony. But I also am campaigning hard for my business,” she said.

“You meet people face to face and that, for me, is the best way to invite them to experience what you have in the store.”

Paul Fish, owner of north Spokane’s Mountain Gear outdoor outfitters store, is upgrading his building this fall with new lights and carpeting and fresh paint to provide a more comfortable shopping experience, he said.

Like others, Fish has been hearing predictions that online retailers can expect sales to grow 10 percent or more this holiday season. To spur sales online, he said he’s ready to launch his first free-shipping deal for MountainGear.com customers. Although he’s still tweaking that offer, he said it likely will apply to orders of more than $49.

Hart, with BDO USA, said shoppers this year will be greeted by a wide selection of discounts, promotions and deals.

Department store retailer Target, for instance, is changing the discounts available with the use of Target credit cards. Last year the Target card gave the cardholder an initial 10 percent discount, plus occasional deals after that.

“This year they made it a full 5 percent card discount on everything in the store and for the full holiday season,” said Adam Hauge, logistics manager of the Coeur d’Alene Target store.

In San Francisco, where Hart lives, the economy is experiencing a bloom of consumer confidence that’s due to Silicon Valley tech companies having a good second half of the year.

In that climate, Hart said he’s ready to break his own self-imposed frugality. He plans to buy his wife something with a little bling.

“I’m a conservative accountant, so I won’t go overboard,” he said. “I’ll probably buy her some jewelry or a pearl.”



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