The gift of ingenuity

Tough economic times will call for retailers to be more creative to attract local holiday shoppers this year.

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Polipetti, the new, expanded line of tie-dye and apparel is being offered at Inland Octopus. Polipetti, Italian for 'baby octopuses”, is a one-of-a-kind work of art, created in Walla Walla by local business Cosmic Farmhouse. Catsiff hopes his unique brand of fun and interesting products will get customers in for the holiday season. October 26, 2011

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Decorative and colorful vintage bicycles and wagon flank the entryway to Colville Street's Door Number Two store. With a slow-moving economy, merchants will be relying on whatever means they have available to make their wares and business enticing to customers passing buy during the upcoming holiday season. October 26, 2011

Bob Catsiff knows he can't replicate the kind of attention a controversial mural brought to his Inland Octopus toy store in 2010. But with the holidays approaching, that hasn't stopped him from wracking his brain to come up with a plan.

"I've been playing with the idea of a cash discount," he said over an end-aisle of educational pre-school toys at his downtown Walla Walla store.

Though not set in stone, his concept would be to offer a discount to anyone who buys items with cash during the holidays. It would be Catsiff's statement to credit card companies who charge merchants for every swipe and for whom he partly blames for the economic hardship that's caused business owners like him to go to such efforts to draw customers.

According to national reports, retailers are preparing to unveil huge incentives during the shopping season to try to attract shoppers at a time when many consumers are increasingly worried about high unemployment, the stock market, the fragile economy and a possible second recession.

Jennifer Northam, events and public relations manager for the Downtown Walla Walla Foundation, said she's giving thought to possible promotions that could keep holiday spending local.

One such idea: A men's shopping day. Wives, family members and other loved ones could register their wish lists with various downtown retailers so that the men in their lives could find just the right gift.

"We've done a Girls Night Out, but not one for boys," Northam said. "And they're the ones who could probably use that."

As with Catsiff's idea, Northam's is not yet set in stone but serves as an example of the kinds of creativity being expended to lure customers over the holidays.

At Tumac Machinery, President Tim Larkin said he plans to bring back the popular John Deere Toy Store, which sells about $50,000 worth of merchandise each year.

But this year it will look a little different. Where in past years it operated in a separate downtown storefront, it will now take up a portion of Tumac's Melrose Street farm equipment showroom.

For the roughly 30 percent margin Tumac gets from the toy sales, the change is an important one.

"The amount we make is marginal if you have to rent a space, pay utilities and other bills," Larkin said. "But if you do it in a space that's already paid for, it's worth it."

According to the National Retail Federation's 2011 Holiday Consumer Intentions and Actions Survey, shoppers plan to spend an average of $704.18 on holiday gifts and seasonal merchandise. That's down slightly from $718.98 last year. Almost 60 percent of those surveyed said price will be a high priority and will take advantage of sales and discounts to make the most of their purchasing power.

"When it comes to retail growth this holiday season, slow and steady wins the race -- and the same is true for shoppers," Federation chief executive Matthew Shay said in a prepared statement.

"Knowing their customers are more focused than ever on value, retailers will entice shoppers with promotions that go beyond discounts, whether they're promoting free gifts with purchase, an extended warranty or stellar customer service."

The nationwide media has already been rife with stories of desperate retailers.

One such example is online jeweler Stauer, which is offering a $249 amethyst necklace free to customers for the $24.95 cost of shipping. The objective is to make the acquaintance of new jewelry customers.

In 2009 a similar method was tried, Stauer President Michael Bisceglia told the Associated Press.

Stauer offered a $179 pearl necklace for free. A third of the customers, who had only to pay the shipping cost, returned to buy more items.

"In this economy, you have to be outrageous in your offers," Bisceglia said. "You have to shake up the world a bit."

Catsiff knows something about shaking things up.

The mural of a giant purple octopus on his storefront last year did far more than create a legal battle over signage with the city, which is still working its way through court. It also brought attention to the business from loyal customers and people who'd never stepped foot in the store.

Catsiff's September and October last year were among his best months ever. The same months this year couldn't compete, he said, adding he thinks that has as much to do with inflation as with overall activity. In other words, people may be paying more but not getting more items.

Roughly half of his business comes in the fourth quarter, concentrated during the holidays, Catsiff said. He's now trying to find ways to build up the business again.

"I was trying to think of something, but I've run out of paint," he quipped.

Vicki Hillhouse can be reached at vickihillhouse@wwub.com or 526-8321.

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