After three decades in the shoe business, Alan O’Hara knows foot traffic.
He knows that, while shoes at his four stores carry the price tag, people walking through the door are really paying for service. They buy a salesperson spotting and diagnosing a bad fit, and matching the right person with the right pair of shoes.
That service, he said, is what distinguishes When the Shoe Fits from online stores, whose convenience and pricing has threatened retailers everywhere. The service is why O’Hara and his wife expect a strong holiday season for their store, and why it won’t go the way of the bookstore.
“Shoes are tricky to fit. It’s hard to buy a pair online,” he said. “If you order a Nike, Brooks, Ecko — all the companies say the same size (but) fit a little different.”
Now that the year’s biggest shopping season is at our doorstep, retailers nationwide are looking more closely at their bottom lines. But local entrepreneurs say the community, and customer service, keep them afloat.
“Why would you (shop online) if you know you can drive down the street and try on 20 different pairs of shoes and feel which is best?” O’Hara said.
It’s officially holiday shopping season. From now until Christmas, any occasion prompts a sale: pre-Thanksgiving sales, Black Friday sales, Cyber Monday and Super Saturdays. Not to mention Veterans Day sales, which have already passed.
Holiday shopping has strengthened in recent years, economists say, buoyed by low inflation, high employment and rising wages. Retail sales grew 4.3 percent from October 2015 to October 2016, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, and 9.3 percent in Clark County, according to the state Department of Revenue.
But shoppers can be temperamental, experts say. Last year, warm weather in November and December was blamed for driving down sales of winter clothes and accessories.
This year, the National Retail Federation expects holiday sales to grow 3.6 percent nationwide, amounting to $655.8 billion in sales, excluding restaurant sales and the sales of gasoline and autos. The figure isn’t set in stone, though; the organization’s prediction of a 3.7 jump last year actually came in at 3.0 percent.
John Talbott, director of research for the Center for Education and Research in Retailing, said shopping forecasts might not pierce a post-election haze. He compared it to predicting Wall Street.
“We’re not unlike the markets,” he said. “There’s a chance people will spend more if they have more visibility to the future. A lot of that visibility went away. It’s a cloudy future.”
On top of it all, online sales continue to create problems for some retailers, no matter their size. The National Retail Federation also predicted non-store sales, including online sales, to increase 7 to 10 percent to $105 billion. Shares for big retailers Macy’s, Kohl’s and J.C. Penney all reported declines in sales in their latest earnings reports.
‘Not too shabby’
East Vancouver toy store Kazoodles is controlled chaos this time of year. Owner Mary Sisson, who opened the store a little more than 10 years ago with her husband, Bob, prefers it that way.
“Right now we have more toys than we’ve ever had,” she said happily, noting it should get busier as the holidays near.
On a typical Friday night in early November, kids dart under pillars of shelved toys, then boomerang back to their nostalgic parents. Sisson, with short white hair and wearing a purple Kazoodles shirt, calmly acts as the curator of toys.
Last year, Kazoodles’ sales rose fast in October, but then toppled in the holiday season. It’s hard to pinpoint what went wrong with the holiday shopping season, she said. Assured by having withstood the recession, Sisson doesn’t fret: This October has been their best ever.
“We’re just really hoping it continues,” she said. “I’m not sure if people are feeling a little freer about spending than they have in the past.”
The store’s sales are bolstered by community programs, Sisson said. The store offers a customer loyalty program and regularly holds events for families. Sisson is active with the local Girl Scouts. But customers, she said, come to Kazoodles so they know what they’re going to get.
“What brick-and-mortars like us have to do is provide an experience that you’re never going to get online, which means you have to work harder,” she said.
Like other local business owners, Sisson encourages people to understand the effects of shopping. The prospect of her income and potential tax dollars leaving concerns her, she said. She points to bookstores, which struggled mightily during the recession and continue to battle Amazon. Both local booksellers and chains such as Borders collapsed. But according to the American Booksellers Association, bookstores have grown steadily since 2012.
Vintage Books owner Becky Milner said the company was an early adopter to online sales in 1998, which has helped in the rise of e-commerce. Still, she had to diversity the store’s offering, adding stationery and greeting cards, to broaden its appeal.
“I can never judge how (the holidays) are going to be,” Milner said. “I hope it’s going to be good. There are some really unusual things that come out for the holiday seasons. Like sticker books. People are going crazy over them.”
Milner added the bookstore also hosts local authors and other events to get the community involved.
“We just try to keep it local and do what we want to do,” she said. “We try to build trust.”
Some companies, such as Not Too Shabby in downtown Vancouver, don’t offer online sales. Owner Reshell Douglas said the store is active on social media and business is thriving regardless.
“Business is considerably up from my previous years,” Douglas said. “So yeah, optimism with a big, giant ‘O.’ “