Maryland merchants’ mantra: Shop. Drop. Repeat. -- Gazette.Net


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Online shopping continues to make inroads

In the first 18 days of this year’s holiday season, online spending nationally is up 16 percent to $10.1 billion from the same period last year, according to figures released Wednesday by data company ComScore.
That’s in line with projections by ComScore to see online holiday shopping through Dec. 31 increase 17 percent from last year’s holiday season. The National Retail Federation has forecast a 12 percent jump in holiday online spending this year to $96 billion.
The online growth is a key factor driving bricks-and-mortar retailers to open their doors as early as 8 p.m. on Thanksgiving evening to lure Black Friday shoppers, said Patrick Donoho, president of the Maryland Retailers Association.
“People are sitting at home shopping on Thanksgiving Day,” Donoho said. “Retailers are just trying to compete.”
Merchants who historically relied on store sales are finding more revenues on the Web. Hampstead retailer JoS. A. Bank Clothiers, which sells suits, dress shirts and other men’s clothing, has seen direct marketing sales rise 20 percent in the first half this year over last year.
“We continue the attempt to drive additional revenue through our Internet website,” CEO R. Neal Black said in a recent conference call. “These efforts include product expansions, new promotional activity, international shipping, mobile formats and social marketing in conjunction with our ongoing affiliate programs.”
Cyber Monday, the day after the Thanksgiving weekend when online sales tend to jump, also is expected to be busier this year. Some 85 percent of companies will offer promotions on Cyber Monday, up from 78 percent last year, according to a survey by BIGinsight for the retail federation.
Consumers want the convenience and comparison ability that online shopping provides, Matthew Shay, president and CEO of the National Retail Federation, said in a media conference call. Conventional retailers have responded by increasing their online presence and putting Black Friday deals on their websites earlier, he said.
“The move is to a completely integrated shopping experience,” Shay said.
Some customers will comparison shop on their mobile devices in stores after looking at products there, he said. They will sometimes then buy online, either at through that store’s website or a different store’s, Shay said.
“They may not want to wait in line to buy the item at the store, or they may want it shipped to their home,” he said.
More retailers nationally are promoting Black Friday deals through mobile alerts. Some 29 percent of retailers in the BIGinsight survey said they will use mobile alerts this holiday season, up from 18 percent a year ago.
kshay@gazette.net

For this month's opening in downtown Silver Spring, H&M saw several hundred customers standing in line, waiting to snare bargains on dresses and other clothes.

Another big line was expected early Friday morning when the fashionable clothing store was to unveil, at 7 a.m., its Black Friday “super specials” that include sweaters and dresses starting at $5. The first hundred people in line at H&M were to receive scratch-off gift cards.

“We know this day will determine how successful we are for next year,” store manager Kevin Yao said.

H&M actually started running Black Friday specials on Monday through Wednesday. “Super deals” will run Friday through Monday, Yao said.

Numerous big-name national retailers — Target, Walmart, Kmart, hhgregg, Sears, Toys “R” Us — planned to open their Maryland stores even earlier this year than last year. In fact, they were to start offering their Black Friday specials on high-definition televisions, video game systems and other products to customers as early as 8 p.m. Thanksgiving.

Even JoS. A. Bank Clothiers of Hampstead, which waited until 5 a.m. last Black Friday to open its stores, said it would open Thursday at 10 p.m. The retailer was to then close stores at 2 a.m. Friday and reopen four hours later, at 6 a.m.

At Westfield Shoppingtown Wheaton, Target’s Thanksgiving opening at 9 p.m. was the biggest difference this year, mall marketing director Sidney Woods said. Last year, retailers such as Target waited until midnight Thursday to open.

“The other stores in the mall are still opening at midnight, but we did inform the other stores that they are welcome to open at 9 p.m. with Target, too,” Woods said. Besides huge discounts in stores, the mall planned to offer hourly giveaways and an opportunity to win a $500 shopping spree.

Customers request earlier openings, retailers say

The Thursday openings were requested by many customers, retail executives say. The early openings also are a tool to compete with the growth of online shopping, industry officials say.

Target “heard from our guests that they look forward to kicking off their holiday shopping with deal-hunting on Thanksgiving night,” Kathee Tesija, executive vice president for merchandising, said in a statement. “Opening at 9 p.m. gives Target’s Black Friday guests a more convenient way to create an after-dinner shopping event that the entire family can enjoy.”

The earlier openings are part of being able to respond to what customers want in convenience, Matthew Shay, president and CEO of the National Retail Federation, said in a media conference call.

“It’s critical for retail companies to constantly evolve as consumers do,” Shay said. “Right now, shoppers want great deals, good value and convenience.”

The holiday shopping season is the most lucrative time of the year for retailers, who typically make about 20 percent of their annual revenues during the last two months of the year. Nationally, bricks-and-mortar retailers are expected to haul in $490 billion during this year’s holiday season, up 4.1 percent from last year, according to the National Retail Federation. An additional $96 billion — some 12 percent more than last year — is expected to be spent online.

Maryland retailers expect to see a sales bump of 2.5 percent to 3 percent over last year, slightly more than the 2 percent to 2.5 percent increase last year, according to the Maryland Retailers Association.

For Molly’s Meanderings, a women’s clothing and gift shop in downtown Frederick, it’s make-or-break time, said Devin Gaither, sales associate.

“This is how the owner keeps the store open,” Gaither said. “She makes her living by Christmas sales.”

‘Cautiously optimistic’

With the so-called federal “fiscal cliff” of major spending cuts and tax hikes looming amid a still-recovering economy, consumer confidence is fragile, said Patrick Donoho, president of the Maryland Retailers Association. But he is encouraged by solid September sales and additional hiring.

“Retailers are cautiously optimistic,” Donoho said. “The competitive environment has become much more difficult because consumers have a wide variety of choices for their holiday shopping.”

That includes not just the Web, but neighboring states such as Delaware that don’t impose sales taxes, he said.

With home prices rising in Maryland and gasoline prices dropping, consumers are feeling a little more confident these days, said Daraius Irani, director of the Regional Economic Studies Institute’s applied economics and human services group at Towson University.

“It should be a good holiday season for retailers, especially if a deal is reached on the fiscal cliff before the end of the year,” he said.

To help lure customers into their stores, Maryland retailers will be promoting holiday sales in a wider variety of venues this season, Donoho said. For instance, more are participating in Small Business Saturday, a promotion by credit-card giant American Express and others formed in 2010.

“That is a great promotion for our members,” Donoho said.

American Express is giving a $25 statement credit to card members who sign up online and use it to shop in one transaction on Saturday at independent small businesses such as Hobby Works in Rockville, Laurel and Bel Air and Toy Kingdom in Rockville.

Some 67 percent of shoppers on Saturday will peruse such retailers, up from 44 percent last year, according to a survey released by American Express and the National Federation of Independent Business. About 70 percent of respondents said they would spend more or the same that day as last year, with an average of $100.

Last year, sales on that day were up at Toy Kingdom by about 10 percent.

Every dollar spent in a local small business circulates within the community an additional six to eight times, said Laurie Boyer, executive director of Rockville Economic Development. The Rockville Women’s Business Center, housed within Boyer’s organization, is selling a Rockville Rewards gift card that provides customers discounts at local businesses.

For the past eight years, the Downtown Frederick Partnership has held a Frosty Friday on the day after Thanksgiving to encourage people to shop in downtown’s small independent businesses.

“Black Friday has usually been pretty good for us throughout the day, and Frosty Friday to a degree has had some impact on that,” said Jenn Goodwin, who works at Flights of Fancy, a gift shop in downtown Frederick.

Seasonal hiring up a bit

Most big-box retailers are hiring more seasonal employees this year than in 2011, with the total expected to be as many as 625,000, according to the National Retail Federation. That would be about a 3 percent rise from last year and the most since 2007.

Retailers in Maryland added 3,300 employees in October, with many of those holiday seasonal hires. The state retail employment figure of about 287,000 was the highest for October since 2008.

Wal-Mart Stores is hiring about 50,000 seasonal workers nationally, a slight increase from last year. Kohl’s Department Stores is hiring some 53,000 temps, up more than 10 percent from last year. About 6,000 are at distribution centers. Stores will average 41 additional employees.

Target is among the few national retailers hiring fewer this year — 80,000 to 90,000, compared with 92,000 seasonal workers brought on last year. However, company officials said more temps are remaining with the company full time.

Some stores didn’t jump on the Thursday evening opening trend. Best Buy, Kohl's and Macy's are among those waiting until midnight to welcome shoppers to take advantage of Black Friday deals.

At Francis Scott Key Mall in Frederick, many of the 70 or so stores, but not all of them, will open at midnight, said Heather Ernst, marketing director.

Another twist awaits shoppers this Black Friday: Some Wal-Mart and Sam’s Clubs employees, who are not unionized, planned to demonstrate outside stores, seeking higher wages and better scheduling practices.

The situation is being taken seriously enough by Wal-Mart executives that they recently filed an unfair labor practice charge against the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union, asking the National Labor Relations Board to issue an injunction to halt the planned protests.

Our Walmart, a group supported by the union, has planned demonstrations at numerous stores on Black Friday, according to its website. Another group, Interoccupy, said on its website that such demonstrations were planned at 17 Wal-Mart and Sam’s Club stores in Maryland on Friday.

kshay@gazette.net