LIMA — For most of us, at least those of us crazed enough to enter the Black Friday fray, the holiday shopping season starts a few hours before daybreak Friday. That is when the big sales start and the big crowds come, launching the season in earnest.
But for the men and women who make their living in retail, the season kicked off around Labor Day and won’t end until the last sweater sells.
“Really, I start hiring in September to get people trained for the holiday rush. That’s when it all starts. You’ve got to. You can’t have someone go out there for their first day on the floor the day after Thanksgiving,” said Jill Sterling, store manager of the Lima J.C. Penney.
The Christmas shopping season can make or break a retail store. The average American consumer is expected to spend $689 or more on gifts this Christmas, enough to make a merry holiday for the stores, industries and communities that depend on sales and the tax revenue racked up from the racks.
In preparation for the season, The Lima News sat down with managers of some of the biggest retailers in the area, including J.C. Penney, Sears, Macy’s and the Lima Bargain Center. In what may have been their last free hour between now and New Year’s, the managers shared their takes on the current retail scene, how it’s changed in recent years and their predictions for the coming season.
The four local retailers have more than 100 years experience among them. In that time, they have seen plenty of change. But the one they are most thankful for this Thanksgiving Day is the high-tech system that takes the mystery out of inventory.
“Technology is the biggest change. You know what’s on the truck before it shows up. That simplifies planning and really helps manage inventory,” Sterling said.
Mike Fuerst, the manager at the Sears in the Lima Mall, added, “I can remember when you didn’t know what you were getting until you unloaded the truck.”
Computerized inventory programs help retail chains manage inventory across markets. That means getting the things that sell where they need to be. When knee-high boots start flying off the shelf in Parma, a truck can be heading out of the Cleveland warehouse in the hour.
That same technology helps minimize storage and waste at the end of the season. So say goodbye to the leftover inventory that used to go at a deep discount after Christmas.
“It comes down to selling out what you have, and those people who wait until Christmas Eve to shop have to pick from what’s left,” Sterling said.
That’s not to say all businesses depend on technology to control what’s on the shelves.
After more than 36 years with the Lima Bargain Center, Jeff Coleman has developed a pretty good sense for what his customers are going to be seeking. For him, it’s more about a phone call than a computer program.
“We fly more by the seat of our pants. I sell out of something, and I can make a call and get it in the next few days. But we try to anticipate what our customers are going to want,” Coleman said.
Technology also plays a key role in one other major change in the industry. With the growth of the Internet, customers have become increasingly savvy about what stores offer and how much they should pay.
“The buyers know what they are looking for. They’re not looking for pointed customer service in the way they once did. Thanks to the Internet, they sometimes know what we have before we do. They’re pretty purpose-driven. They get what they want and go,” Sterling said.
New technology may help draw buyers to the store, but good old-fashioned customer service is what brings them back.
“Our customers do want that service, especially in the specialty areas,” said Maxine McKee, manager of the Lima Macy’s store. “It’s so competitive out there, you really do have to make sure you have the best possible inventory and the best possible customer service, or they’ll just walk right down the mall and shop somewhere else.”
Are we buying?
The mantra among retailers is “growth is good.” And given the economy of the past two years, any growth will do.
Given that, local retailers are keeping their fingers crossed for a good season. That will mean recovering from a disappointing October, when warmer-than-usual temperatures slashed expected sales of coats and other winter gear. Most managers said they were positive the season would pull through.
“If this month is any indicator, it’s going to be better than usual,” McKee said about Macy’s performance at the Lima Mall.
Statistically speaking, there is good reason to be optimistic about this holiday season. Consumer spending through October has been better than expected. The U.S. Commerce Department pegged growth in consumer spending for the year at 1.2 percent so far, excluding auto sales. That beats the agency’s 0.7 percent prediction.
Even better news is that consumers actually say they will spend more this holiday season. According to National Retail Federation’s 2010 Holiday Consumer Intentions and Actions Survey, U.S. consumers plan to spend an average of $689 on holiday-related shopping, a slight increase from last year’s $682.
And that’s just what we say we’re going to spend. Last year, consumers polled before the holiday said they expected to spend that aforementioned $681. The post-season analysis showed the average closer to $811.
For the people who work in retail, the statistics mean less than the behaviors they witness. For Fuerst, the signs of a down economy can be seen in his appliance section. In good times, a couple replacing a broken washer will buy a new dryer to go with it. In recent days, they’ve just been buying the washer.
“That, to me, is a sign they don’t have confidence in where things are going. They spend only what they have to,” Fuerst said.
The economy may not be good enough to prompt unnecessary appliance purchases, but it’s good enough that people are willing to buy smaller luxuries, and that gives retailers hope for the holiday season.
“There are days you see things that really encourage you,” Fuerst said. “You look for people buying the extras, jewelry and accessories.”
Coleman added, “I’m seeing people buying things for themselves again. That’s always a good sign.”
What are we buying?
As in years past, most holiday gift-givers will spend the largest portion of their budget buying gifts for family ($394) and friends ($71), though they’ll still carve out room in their budget for small tokens of appreciation for both co-workers ($18) and others ($35).
Total spending on gifts ($518) is expected to rise 2.1 percent from last year, which is in line with the National Retail Federation’s 2010 holiday forecast. Americans will also spend an average of $41.51 on decorations, $26.10 on greeting cards and postage, $86.32 on candy and food and $16.86 on flowers.
For the local retailers, what they are seeing depends on the store they run. At Macy’s and J.C. Penney, the hot items are glitzy sweaters, skinny jeans and women’s boots. At Bargain Center, it’s Carhartt and space heaters. Sears sees a bit of both worlds, plus electronics, which provides its own challenge.
“Flat-panel TVs are selling partially because the prices have dropped about 25 percent from last year. Of course, that means I have to sell that much more to keep up with last years’ sales,” Fuerst said.
There are some items that sell better in Lima than other places. This is a good market for work boots, for instance. And few markets do as brisk a business in Ohio State University apparel.
“Our customer is a big sports customer, and Ohio State is huge,” Sterling said of J.C. Penney’s clientele. “I do more volume here than some places in Columbus.”
Who shops Lima?
The success of Lima retail still hinges on the ability to draw shoppers from the neighboring counties. The addition of high-end lifestyle centers in Dayton, Columbus and other nearby cities has taken its toll. The local managers who work out of the Lima Mall say they would like to see a makeover — update the décor, add a food court — but still hold faith in the mall’s ability to draw.
“I think it’s still a destination for a lot of people. Do they come and spend as much money as they used to? Probably not. But it’s still an event,” Sterling said.
And being part of that event is still fun, even for people who have been doing it for a lot of years.
Most of the managers at the roundtable said they expected to be at work by 2 a.m. or earlier Friday. Then it’s a 12- or 16-hour day, and that’s just the beginning of a very busy month. But busy is better than the alternative.
“The day after Thanksgiving, as busy as it is, it’s the most fun you can have all year,” McKee said. “Everybody’s in it together, the customers, the associates. It’s crazy, but it’s fun.”