Cautious optimism and a little insanity
Shoppers out in force on Black Friday
With mounds of blingy jeans under a pink Christmas tree, the boutique women’s clothing store Vivo threw open its doors at the stroke of midnight Friday – as did about two-thirds of the retailers at Spokane Valley Mall.
The throng assembled in the corridors may have numbered 1,000 or more, from what Jen Mitchell, Vivo’s district manager, could see.
By 7 a.m. Mitchell was stifling yawns as shoppers continued to hunt down bargains on the day that has come to define shopping madness in the U.S.
Indeed, “insane” was how she described the late-night crowd that descended on the mall.
In the Flour Mill in downtown Spokane, the Kitchen Engine had a mob of about 60 shoppers waiting for the 7 a.m. opening, co-owner Eric Frickle said. Most made a beeline for a rack of door-buster sale items such as cutlery, marble rolling pins, French press coffee makers and sauté pans.
In the store’s kitchen, Frickle’s parents made pancakes for patrons.
“Everybody was happy, everybody got what they wanted,” he said. “Nobody got trampled.”
In downtown Coeur d’Alene, Clark’s Fine Jewelry – a store that has changed little in its 105-year history – stuck to its usual 10 a.m. opening. And business was slow.
“The procrastinators are what ultimately make my business work,” owner Dan Clark said. “I don’t see the Black Friday shoppers. They’re lined up to get the flat-screen TV under $200 and whatever new game is out there.”
But most retailers have come to rely on the day after Thanksgiving as a barometer of the make-or-break final weeks of the year.
Business owners this year also are watching to see if the measured economic recovery will continue under cloudy conditions – the federal budget crisis, the impact of the Affordable Care Act and concerns about recession in Europe.
“I think we’re cautiously optimistic,” said Dale Rainey, co-owner of Coeur d’Alene-based Vivo.
“Our year-over-year store sales were about flat for October and the first half of November. And personally I think it was apprehension around the election,” Rainey said. “And I’m not sure that has completely left, but we’ll be able to see that over this weekend and into December.”
A Christian-based company started three years ago, Vivo has grown to five stores in Spokane and Kootenai County and plans to open a store next spring in Kennewick and another next fall in Tacoma.
“Our business was designed on the current economy,” Rainey said. “So we’re a very low-price-point retailer. Even if the economy slips or stays stagnant, we’re successful in this economy and feel like we will continue to be.”
One major concern, he said, is the new health care law, which redefines part-time employees as those working 30 hours or less per week, down from 35 hours, in an effort to extend coverage to more full-time workers.
“It’s going to have a pretty dramatic impact on our bottom line, so we are making adjustments for that already,” he said, explaining that Vivo will cut part-timers to 30 hours or less so they don’t qualify under the new law.
Black Friday is the biggest day of the year at the Kitchen Engine, Frickle said, and he tries to accommodate the enthusiasm with some enticing sale items. That means selling some merchandise at cost, he said.
“People want to spend money but they want to make their dollar go as far as they can. So we want to help them in that regard,” he said.
Occupying 3,100 square feet in the historic mill building above the Spokane River, the kitchen supply store has had a good year and celebrated its sixth anniversary in September, Frickle said.
“I figured it would be really slow leading up to the election, but we continued to have a busy season right up and through the election date,” he said.
“I’m expecting a busy December as well,” he added.
It’s tricky to try to take the pulse of consumers, and the national and global trends don’t necessarily play out locally right away, Frickle said.
“To be totally honest with you, what affects our business from day to day is the weather,” he said.
Clark, whose father bought the jewelry store in the early 1960s, said he is always optimistic about the holiday shopping season.
“And I think now with the election over, people are going to kind of shake that off,” he said. “There’s been a bit of a hangover for the last couple of weeks. Life does go on no matter who is in the White House.”
If the recession has created a new normal, as many economists have declared, it’s not necessarily a bad thing, Clark said.
“What we were experiencing during what I call the cheery-0s was insanity. Do we want to go back to that? I didn’t particularly care for it. There was no basis in reality to it. It was not sustainable,” he said.
Clark said he’ll do what has always worked for the store: focus on taking care of each customer’s needs.
“As December rolls by, people get more emotionally invested in their own lives and their loved ones. And hopefully they’ll think of diamonds,” he said with a 2-carat twinkle in his eye.