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Published: Saturday, 11/7/2009

Seeking holiday magic: Toledo area retailers plan promotions, few discounts

BY JON CHAVEZ
BLADE BUSINESS WRITER

THIS HOLIDAY season, shoppers can expect to find more special events, a larger variety of inexpensive gifts, more lavish decorations, and waves of promotions to get them into the spending mood.

What they are unlikely to find are generous price discounts and vast inventories of merchandise.

Fearing the worst economically, many retailers scaled back this year when ordering for the holiday season, not wanting to be stuck again with unsold goods on Dec. 26.

“Generally, most retailers have anticipated lower sales volumes this year and have cut back,” said analyst Gary Wright, of G.A. Wright Inc. in Denver.

“You'll see more events, more Santas, more decorations, anything they can do to get customers into the stores. … Anything — short of providing discounts to get customers into the stores.”

Sharon Dela-Hamaide, owner of Kitchen Tools & Skills in Perrysburg, is typical.

She didn't want to get stuck with expensive cookware and appliances again, so her store will carry “smaller, less expensive items that are keeping people's budgets in mind,” she said.

“A lot of people come to us for their stocking stuffers, so we're loading up on a lot of those items. We've been told by many of our customers that they're just not going to be buying a lot of presents this year, so we kept that in mind.”

Amy Reimer of Millbury, Ohio, shops for toys at the Meijer on Wheeling Street in Oregon. The chain, which discounted 300 popular toys last holiday season, added 100 to the list this year. Amy Reimer of Millbury, Ohio, shops for toys at the Meijer on Wheeling Street in Oregon. The chain, which discounted 300 popular toys last holiday season, added 100 to the list this year.
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But she wants a good Christmas season, so she plans to hold far more several special events than in previous years.

“We find it does bring people in,” she said.

The National Retail Federation has predicted holiday sales will total $438 billion, a 1 percent drop from a year ago, when sales fell 3.4 percent from the year before.

The International Council of Shopping Centers is more optimistic, predicting a sales increase of 1 to 2 percent.

But analyst Burt Flickinger, of Strategic Resource Group, said a decline he expects sales to decline 2.9 percent in November and December.

“The shoppers are too scared to spend because even people who have good jobs don't feel safe,” he said.

Marie Campbell of Oregon just learned her health insurance premium will rise $100 a month, putting a serious dent in her shopping plans, she said.

“I'm going to hope that stores give more discounts because I don't see me doing a lot of buying,” she said last week while shopping at Westfield Franklin Park, Toledo's premier mall, at Monroe Street and Talmadge Road.

Fritzi Winkeljohn, of Findlay, said she'll spend about the same amount as she did last year “because the kids still need things.”

However, she is concerned about whether the stores will be offering discounts like last year's and whether inventories will be good by the time she starts shopping in earnest.

“I don't like to shop. I'm a procrastinator,” she said. “But I guess this year maybe I'd better get out early.”

Pricing challenge

Getting customers to pay full price for items this holiday season won't be easy.

Andria Niese, a senior at the University of Toledo, doesn't make much money at her part-time job and said, “I'm hoping to see discounts because I'm on a tight budget and usually have to wait until close to Christmas to shop.”

Area retailers and malls are using new methods to try to attract shoppers.

For example, Westfield Franklin Park has scheduled more than 20 events and a special 12 days of shopping promotion. The latter is to occur at all Westfield America Inc. properties nationwide.

To attract more attention, the mall plans a musical tree-lighting ceremony along Sylvania Avenue, a day with half-price photos with Santa, and a special Iron Chef-style food battle featuring chefs from the mall's two main restaurants, Claddagh Irish Pub and Bravo! Cucina Italiana.

Not to be outdone, Levis Commons in Perrysburg will have a tree- lighting ceremony that will feature Katie Monroe of Perrysburg, an up-and-coming country singer.

It also plans two special “Breakfast with Santa” events, carriage rides, and charity shopping night among its main pre-Christmas events. The shopping center's marketing experts are working with several retailers to promote their stores.

“It's all really just to get people in the mood. It sets the mood for the season,” said Casey Pogon, Levis Common's marketing manager.

“The idea is you have a lot of family-friendly activities to get people to come,” she said.

“They see what's out here, and hopefully they'll be back later to shop.”

Among plans at the Shops at Fallen Timbers in Maumee are including a tree-lighting ceremony, carriage rides, “Breakfast with Santa,” and several child-oriented activities such as ornament making and carmel-apple dipping.

Pricing challenge

Mr. Flickinger, the retail analyst, said malls are also giving rent relief to some stores and trying to find seasonal shops for empty stores.

“They know that for some retailers, just one more bad Christmas/Hanukkah season could put a retailer and a shopping center out of business,” he said.

At the same time, retailers are finding ways to fend for themselves.

Meijer Inc., the Michigan-based grocery and general-merchandise chain with several Toledo-area stores, did well last year by knocking down prices on 300 of the most popular toys. This year, it added 100 more. Other large retailers like Wal-Mart Stores Inc., Target Corp., and Toys R Us also are dropping prices on their most popular toys.

“Toys — that's our biggest play this year,” Meijer spokesman Frank Guglielmi said.

Judy Church, owner of Lily's at Levis (Commons), a home-decor store, got stuck last year with a lot of unsold inventory.

This year, she said, she ordered about the same amount of merchandise but focused on less-expensive items.

‘Decked … to the nines'

She also decided to hold a few in-store events and improve decorations. “Our store is decked out to the nines this year. It's exceptional,” she said.

Licata Jewelers, also at Levis Commons, is taking a cautious approach, ordering more jewelry on consignment than ever before “so we're not stuck holding the bag at the end of the year,” said Nick Licata, whose family owns the business.

“Normally we would ask for [consignment], but not get it. But the vendors I think understand our position a little better this year. Everyone's trying to work for the greater good,” he said.

The store distributed to various area restaurants drink coasters that have calibrated finger sizes for ring buyers. “They're real conversation pieces,” Mr. Licata said.

Also, the jewelry store is using social media to contact customers and is about to launch an iPhone software application that identifies jewelry trends and provides information about diamonds.

Meanwhile, at the newly expanded Appliance Center in Maumee, owner John Oswald said he is convinced an aggressive approach is the best strategy. The store has ordered a lot of inventory and plans to heavily promote, stage events, and advertise this holiday season.

“You need to give people a reason to come in and shop. So we've inventoried more than we ever have,” he said. “If you don't promote, people forget about you pretty quickly.”

Contact Jon Chavez at:jchavez@theblade.comor 419-724-6128.



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