Business looks a bit brighter this year

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Although not traditionally the big sale event of the year, Halloween kicks off the holiday season and local retailers like Gary Wiley of Grocery Outlet on 9th Avenue, above, is decorated, prepared and waiting with open doors. By the end of next week Wiley commented that decorations and items for the coming holidays would also be out. October 19, 2010

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Grocery Outlet's Jason Wiley stocks up the shelves with items for Halloween as retailers prepare for the coming 2010 holiday season. October 19, 2010

WALLA WALLA -- The year has careened down to the final two months and area retailers are approaching the holiday shopping season with optimism.

These local estimates might be more enthusiastic than those on the national level.

On the National Retail Federation website, the NRF forecast is a 2.3 percent increase.

According to area retailers, shoppers have gotten an early start and businesses are getting some early holiday cheer.

This optimistic outlook for the local economy is also evidenced by the opening of several new businesses.

At the new Sweetwater Paper & Home, owner Robin Consani said, "The effects of a poor economy are not straight across the board. For example, it's not good to be selling furniture right now. But there are things that people need, no matter what. People are still looking for the little things, a card or a gift, something to give you a chuckle."

Her holiday strategy is to have ample inventory, variety and meet the customers' needs.

"Business has been tremendous," Consani said. "Better than I possibly could have hoped for. I've had to re-order items before I'd planned."

According to Consani, the opening month of September was very good and she's hoping for a tremendous November and December.

"I have a very small window to make some money," she said. "I feel very confident, very good about it. I'm bringing in more Christmas items, more boxed cards and a lot of stocking stuffers."

She's been surprised at the number of customers who are already doing their holiday shopping.

"Given the way things have been going in a little over a month, I'm extremely confident," she said.

At the much older Falkenberg's Jewelers, owner Skip Cundiff said, "It's a tougher economy for sure, but we don't anticipate any further cuts. We have part-time people that will probably see their hours increase as it gets busier. We are also merchandising to lower price points, in the $300-$500 range rather than the multi-thousands, and we have a good selection in the lower price range."

He always emphasizes customer service and that is crucial now; the repair aspect to the business is busy as items are getting repaired rather than replaced.

"It's been a slow summer again," he said. "But September has been better than last year and October is good so far. I think people were holding back waiting to see if things got worse. We're looking forward to a better season than last year."

At Walla Walla Grocery Outlet, owned by Nancy and Gary Wiley, sales are percolating along as the holiday season approaches.

"This year's sales are pretty comparable to last year at this time," said Gary Wiley.

The strategy at Grocery Outlet, year-long, is to make the store a fun place to shop, full of great bargains.

"We bring in new items and try to make it exciting," Wiley said. "Then you come in and you get great prices. Our company is really sharpening its pencils so we can buy things at the right price, so we can sell it at the right price. We've noticed our customers have a little more conservative approach to things."

Grocery Outlet has already attracted the bargain shoppers and may actually do well during an economic downturn. According to Wiley, the last three months of the year the store usually does very well.

"We're in the business where people come to save," he said.

And staff is already hired and trained for the holiday season.

"We don't usually hire temporary help, hire them and then lay them off," Wiley said. "That's not how we do things. We carefully gauge sales trends to see how many employees we need. We just hired several new people about two months ago. We don't hire for the season. The sales looked like we needed several more employees. We have a good balance between part-time and full-time people. The part-time people want part-time and the full-time want to work full-time," he said.

The strategy here, in addition to happy and stable employees, is to order long-range for seasonal items, and then be flexible enough to spot short-term opportunities, such as overproduction by a manufacturer.

Careful attention to sales and staffing puts the store in a good place for fourth quarter.

"I feel good about the end of the year, compared to last year," he said. "People have to have groceries to survive. We feel fortunate, it's a good thing. A lot of people can stretch their food bill and save money."

Romanza Gift & Home is also on par with last year's sales, according to manager Judy Rostollan.

"In retail, it's a day-to day basis," she said. "It's hard to tell (how the holidays will be), but we're on track with last year."

Now well into their fifth season, Rostollan said they are optimistic.

"We don't really have a specific strategic plan," she said. "We are just focusing on offering the best products we can at the best prices we can, with the best customer service. That's how we're getting through the economic downturn."

The focus is on local shoppers finding what they need, in a fun environment.

"We're really, truly trying to be local-based," she said. "Our main goal is for Walla Walla people to shop in a local store, run by family in the hometown."

Rostollan's hoping for a good fourth quarter and has noticed plenty of people shopping early.

But, she said, there are two kinds of shoppers: one that likes to be done early, and the other that likes that last-minute rush.

"Those are the people that love that day after Thanksgiving," she said.

Some shoppers, and retailers, may love the after-Thanksgiving rush to buy, but Rostollan said that Black Friday being the day to break even "is a thing of the past. For us it's not a make-or-break day. It's a good day, but not make-or-break."

More consistency in sales throughout the year may be a factor for retailers now, rather than pinning all their hopes on the last month or two.

"January is very important. We buckle down and clear out extra inventory," Rostollan said. "We don't buy deep. We're not going to have 16 or 20 of an item, we're going to have three or four. If you wait to buy it, it's not going to be there. That's the way it is for most specialty stores. We've really pared down the inventory and we've done really well."

Romanza is also already staffed for the holidays. Rostollan hired another person recently as sales were constant enough that increasing staff was warranted. The store will have extended holiday hours closer to Christmas, but it is accessible to customers readily all year.

"We're open seven days a week anyway," she said.

As optimism for a good holiday season filters into area businesses, Shannon Bergevin, owner of Express Employment Professionals, is seeing an uptick in hiring.

However, there are ample numbers of candidates for those positions.

"I typically don't get a lot of orders for retail help," Bergevin said. "I think the retail businesses in Walla Walla who want to hire that part-time person for the holidays just hires their own."

However, she said, "The last three months have definitely seen a pickup in hiring. That's encouraging because I haven't seen that in the last two years."

According to Bergevin, the increases in hiring have come from the manufacturing and medical industries and also from small businesses.

"The businesses are going ahead and filling that full-time position that's been empty for awhile," she said.

But Bergevin said there's plenty of people for these positions.

"There are a lot of people looking for work," she said. "It just doesn't seem to slow down. Right now, we're seeing another wave of really qualified people."

The right number of employees and the right amount of inventory are both crucial.

"We'll hire some additional help for the holidays," said Bob Catsiff, owner of Inland Octopus.

Compared to last year, he said, "Our sales are way up, due to three reasons: inflation, the recovering economy and our new location."

The big push is to have enough toys in stock for the week before Christmas and the week after, without over-estimating it, either.

Year-long sales carry Hot Poop Stereo & Video, according to owner Jim McGuinn.

"We can't live on just Christmas sales," he said.

Certain areas of the store are doing better than others, but overall it's pretty comparable to last year. He does special orders and gives the customers credit for the year-round sales.

"We have some really loyal customers," he said.

Black Friday supersales and gimmicks aren't what he's about. He's heard horror stories of customers being lured into a store for a sale that didn't exist.

"We don't do that," McGuinn said. "We have what people want at a good price."

According to McGuinn, it's consistency all during the year rather than hype at the end that makes the grade.

Even so, both retailers and shoppers are gearing up for a more promising holiday season than the last several.

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