Local retailers pull out stops to get out of red

By Cami Joner, Columbian retail & real estate reporter

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Local retailers have tightened their belts this year at the same time as they hope Clark County’s Black Friday shoppers will open their wallets.

Merchants hope that by keeping inventory limited they’ll drive up consumer demand, leaving them with empty store shelves, display cases and stock rooms by the end of the shopping season, said Pamela Lindloff, a retail expert and associate vice president with NAI Norris Beggs and Simpson in Vancouver.

“Many of them got stuck with more inventory than they needed at the start of the recession,” she said. “That meant they had to discount more than they wanted to.”

Unfortunately for merchants, many Clark County residents are still playing catch-up with job loss, stagnant wages and the higher cost of living, which means the fight for shopper dollars is more intense this year, Lindloff said.

The National Retail Federation expects retail sales to rise 2.8 percent this season, below last year’s 5.2 percent clip.

That’s spurred retailers to readjust their stock levels this year, Lindloff said.

Stores that cater to people with the tightest budgets are choosing to open at earlier-than-usual times on Black Friday, or even on Thanksgiving itself, to kick off the official holiday season.

Toys R Us will open at 9 p.m. Thursday at the Jantzen Beach mall, and Wal-Mart Stores Inc. will open the doors to its three Clark County stores at 10 p.m. Thursday.

The Bentonville, Ark.-based discount chain seems determined to be the first to open, said Deborah Ewing, a broker and realtor who specializes in retail properties with Eric Fuller & Associates Inc.

“The move came after competitor Target announced it would begin its sales at midnight,” Ewing said. Target operates three stores in Clark County.

Kohl’s also plans to open its two Vancouver stores at midnight, as will electronics retailer Best Buy and midrange department store Macy’s at Westfield Vancouver mall.

In past years, stores like Target and Macy’s have launched Black Friday sales at 3 or 4 a.m.

“The truth is, customers speak with their feet,” Lindloff said. “The stores wouldn’t open if they weren’t hearing from the customer.”

But some retailers say they’ve not received any requests to open earlier, so they’re keeping Black Friday hours the same.

“We have always opened at 5 a.m., for at least the last 6 years. That’s what works for our customers and our employees,” said Melinda Merrill, a spokeswoman for Portland-based Fred Meyer, which operates six stores in Clark County.

Merrill said Fred Meyer re-examines its Black Friday schedule every year.

Some shops don’t even try to compete.

“Black Friday, that’s for the big-boxers,” said Mary Sisson, co-owner of Kazoodles.

Her east Vancouver toy store will follow its usual schedule on Friday. Sisson said the store, which belongs to a network of small toy stores, doesn’t discount its prices, but hands out a coupon for discounts on merchandise bought at a later date.

At Westfield Vancouver mall, the doors open at 7 a.m. Friday, even though several stores will open earlier — Macy’s at midnight, and J.C. Penney at 4 a.m. Nordstrom will open at 9 a.m., just one hour earlier than its regularly scheduled Friday opening.

“That’s a choice Nordstrom makes every year,” Lindloff said.

High-end retailers have felt no pressure to change store hours since the competition is most intense for shoppers of the most modest means, Ewing said.

“Consumers here are really watching their pennies,” she said. Clark County’s median annual income was $54,924 for a family of four in 2010. “That doesn’t go very far,” Ewing said.

Restaurants and coffee shops say they’ve learned they can boost sales by opening early to support the gift-selling retailers.

“We get really busy, so we’re opening at 6 a.m.,” a half-hour earlier than usual, said Deana Richardson, who co-manages Elmer’s Restaurant near Westfield Vancouver mall. Richardson said hungry shoppers flock to the restaurant after hitting the mall and other stores nearby.

“They come in, they’re hungry and they want coffee,” she said. “Some of them even have a Bloody Mary to relax.”

Editor's note: This story has been modified to reflect a correction. Old Navy is scheduled to open at 3 a.m. Friday.