Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Looking into the Lion’s Mouth

If you’re peeking at the news between slats in your fingers, scared to see where the S&P 500 sits or what’s happening with the NASDAQ, the Dow and the price of oil, you’re quite obviously not alone. Each day is a frightening new one, and no one – not even economists – are quite sure what’s going to happen next.

As the retailers began reporting quarterly results over the last day or two, it was clear that current events hadn’t yet made their presence known. Most of the expected categories – discount, warehouse – performed better than expected, with both sales and profits up year-over-year. But a thread of caution ran through every report. “We’re concerned about the months ahead” was the underlying theme.

I talked to Andy Graiser, co-president and CEO of DJM Realty, about what to expect over the next few months as back-to-school plays out and holiday shopping begins. (If his name sounds familiar, Andy has been in the news a great deal of late, as Gordon Brothers’ DJM and Hilco Real Estate dispose of all the Borders locations.)

I asked Andy what we can expect, from a real estate perspective, through the rest of this year and early into 2012.

“I still expect healthy retailers to continue to cleanse the bottom 5% to 10% of their portfolios,” he told me, “as well as to continue to move into box sizes which are more efficient.” He said that he is seeing good demand in the outlets as well as solid demand for 12,000-sq.-ft. -to 15,000-sq.-ft. locations in strip centers. Expect the restaurants to continue to struggle, he cautioned, while discount food operations and the dollar sectors enjoy continued strength. “That said, I am still concerned with consumer confidence going into back-to-school and Christmas,” he added. Amen.

-- Katherine Field Boccaccio

Thursday, July 7, 2011

A new day at the mall

Decades ago, I supervised a local mall’s marketing activities -- and that meant attending merchants’ association meetings, organizing and promoting sidewalk sales, distributing holiday event flyers, and designing the occasional ad for the city newspaper or producing a 30-second spot for radio.

My, how things have changed.

Technology advances coupled with a general slowdown in mall traffic have led shopping center owners to think way out of the box, innovating new ways to lure customers and stimulate sales. One of the more interesting programs I read about recently is Oak Brook, Ill.-based Inland Western’s partnership with Smart Choice to launch a mobile personal shopping assistant app for its Shops at Legacy retail center in Plano, Texas.

Launching a smartphone app, as new as it is to most of us, isn’t what grabbed my attention. It’s the fact that the app features a “Men’s Corner,” customizing the male shopping experience to include drink specials, sports game listings and gift ideas.

“While shopping is typically all about the women, the ‘Men’s Corner’ was created to target our male customer,” Andrea Taylor, marketing director for The Shops, said in a statement.

My PR contact at Inland suggests that the Men’s Corner will continue to grow and add content as it grabs hold. Male-oriented events will be promoted on the Corner, along with sales and offers designed with men in mind.

That’s smart thinking. Back in the mid- to latter 1980’s, we couldn’t have conceived of smartphones, much less apps that segment mall shoppers by gender or by purchase history. And in a post-recessionary environment where malls are losing ground to online shopping and off-mall locations, any trick that pulls shoppers away from their computers and into the mall or store is one worth playing.

-- Katherine Field Boccaccio

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Social media gets its kicks

I read an article in yesterday’s USA Today that announced a new deal by mobile app Shopkick that expands its national retail programs to the little guys as well.

Now besides delivering discounts and rewards to shoppers at Best Buy, Target and Sports Authority, Shopkick has partnered with Citigroup to solicit small business participation. The pair is seeking 1,000 mom-and-pop stores and small chains to sign up for free, after which Shopkick will install an in-store receiver that pushes pop-up discounts and offers to customers’ mobile phones.

"We will do for small and medium-sized local stores what we have done for large, national chains: drive foot traffic," Shopkick CEO and co-founder Cyriac Roeding told USA Today.

No question that social media is ramping up in retail. In fact, we at Chain Store Age want to find out more. Watch for a survey from us -- in conjunction with mall owner Forest City Enterprises and research firm Alexander Babbage -- in the coming weeks that asks you how important social media is to your business. We want to know whether you factor in a mall’s programs when you make your real estate decisions, and we want to know what social media programs are on your must-have list.

Stay tuned…..

-- By Katherine Field Boccaccio

Friday, June 3, 2011

There’s no stealing Oklahoma City’s Thunder

I readily admit that I’m a sports-aholic. While football and basketball -- college and pro -- are my favorite sports, I’m also a die-hard LSU baseball fan and am even learning to appreciate a little NASCAR and professional golf now and then.

Lately, my focus has been, understandably, on the NBA basketball playoffs. Because I live just 60 miles from New Orleans, I’m a Hornets fan and thoroughly enjoyed the team’s short-lived run toward the championship. But I’ve also made no secret about my affinity for the Oklahoma City Thunder, which ignited Oklahoma City as it marched ever so close to a showdown for the big prize. In fact, at the International Council of Shopping Centers’ annual RECon real estate convention in Las Vegas May 22-25, Oklahoma City was thunderous in its support of the team. The City’s booth sported player posters and mascot cutouts, and the mayor made the team a focus in his on-site interviews.

“We are all so proud of our team and are praying for a win tonight against Dallas,” Mayor Mick Cornett told me on May 23 from his Las Vegas convention center booth. “The fact that we have filled the arena game after game has proven how vibrant a market Oklahoma City is.”

Cornett doesn’t have to sell me. I traveled to Oklahoma City last year to meet with the business development group and Chamber of Commerce about the city’s plans to attract more major retail. What I saw and heard that day convinced me that OK City has plenty to offer -- and retailers are listening. The Outlet Shoppes at Oklahoma City, slated to open this summer, has brought in Saks Off 5th, Brooks Bros., Coach, Tommy Hilfiger and more. Word on the street is that Crate & Barrel has been sniffing around the market. And so has The Container Store. When I was in the booth, it was packed with retailers who appeared to be in some pretty serious discussions about what the city has to offer.

According to the mayor, destination retail is still absent, however. “I’m talking about retailers such as Neiman Marcus and Nordstrom,” said Cornett. “That high-end retailer is missing from Oklahoma City, and we have a lot of respect for the draw of a destination retailer of that caliber.”

I had queried both Nordstrom and Neiman Marcus last year about any potential interest in OK City. Neiman’s was a flat ‘no,’ as the retailer believes its Dallas offerings will pull shoppers from Oklahoma, which is likely true. Nordstrom, however, appeared to have a little more wiggle room. “We wouldn’t absolutely rule it out,” a spokesperson for the Seattle department store told me. I can’t help but wonder about Saks, as well. With Off 5th opening at the Outlet Shoppes in August, perhaps a strong showing from its off-price arm might get the full-price sister’s attention.

“Who knows? Maybe the outlet concepts could be followed by the full-price models,” mused the mayor. And the basketball team, which by the way lost its bid for a world title at the hands of the Dallas Mavericks, has helped to draw more attention to Oklahoma City. “The Thunder has generated plenty of noise,” said Cornett.

I, for one, am listening. Are you?

-- Katherine Field Boccaccio

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Bye-Bye Barbie

I was shocked when I got last week’s memo that Mattel’s $30 million homage to Barbie was closing its doors.

The flagship store, located in Shanghai, was all the rage – and the darling of the trades – when it opened to much fanfare two years ago. In fact, the multi-level Barbie emporium was Chain Store Age’s “Store of the Year” in 2010, and was featured on the cover of our March 2010 issue.

I mean, what’s not to love about a pink-and-white, whimsical store that spans 36,000 sq. ft. and features a winding staircase with 800 Barbie dolls on display?

Apparently, the Asian customer found plenty not to love, as analysts have poo-poo’d claims that the store’s problems stemmed from a poor location and high prices, pointing instead to a basic reluctance on the part of the local shopper to embrace Barbie.

But you can’t blame a gal for trying. In fact, Barbie’s maker deserves a round of applause for such a splashy move as opening perhaps the most fitting tribute to an icon that retail has ever seen. I talked with Alvin Williams, principal of Huntington Beach, Calif.-based Excess Space Retail Services, initially – so I thought – about the trials and tribulations of transitioning such an elaborate space to a new user. Williams quickly steered me in another direction.

“When I first read the news that the store was closing this week, my first thought wasn’t about the real estate challenge,” Williams told me. “I saluted Mattel for such a creative, out-of-the-box concept. I don’t see the store closing as a failure – the attempt was made and they learned something from it. That’s the spirit of retail.”

I love an optimist. And Williams makes such a great point. Hasn’t every retailer – every entrepreneur, for that matter – wondered at the onset of a new concept or a new store, “Am I crazy? Is this going to work?” Some do, some don’t. But that’s how wonderful stores get built – someone had the courage to move forward.

“Ingenuity drives this business,” said Williams. “And usually you’ll find that something comes from the attempt.”

Mattel continues to embrace ingenuity. Its next step, said the company, is to take Barbie on the road – in a big, pink tour bus. Good for them, said Williams. They took something from the store and are building on it.

I agree. Good for Mattel. I’m looking forward to hearing more about the pink bus.

--Katherine Field

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Risky Business

My friend Lisa and I were driving through Baton Rouge on a recent Saturday evening when, at the corner of Perkins and Bluebonnet Roads, we were blinded by flashing police lights.

I’m not talking about a traffic cop who had pulled over a speeder. I’m talking about a dozen patrol cars -- from Baton Rouge city police officers to state troopers to sheriff deputies -- and a lot of hubbub.

Neither of us had any idea what was going on, and moved on through the intersection, passing by one of our favorite upscale shopping destinations, Perkins Rowe.

I didn’t learn until the following morning that a shooting had occurred in the street flanking Perkins Rowe -- two groups of men fired off as many as seven gunshots, with one bullet hitting a vehicle with two adults and three children. No one was injured.

While I must emphasize that the shootings did not occur inside the mixed-use shopping and entertainment destination (as was originally, and erroneously, reported), it was a little close for comfort. And it begs the question -- how safe are open-air shopping centers at night?

I don’t have the answer to that, but I feel pretty confident that the best response is “it depends.” It depends on the location of the center, on the layout of the center, on the dynamics and demographics of the area. Perkins Rowe is in a great part of Baton Rouge -- with plenty of money and relatively little crime. But it is also a magnet for those who want to see and be seen. Charming streets encourage drive-by traffic and storefront parking. Eateries and wine bars are night-life magnets. And the landscaped courtyards and fountains are particularly pleasant on balmy Baton Rouge evenings.

It isn’t just the responsible adult patrons who are drawn to the center at night, but a less savory populace could be as well. Kids drive their cars through the streets, meet up with friends, drive around some more. Most are probably behaving, some aren’t. The young men who fired shots next-door most certainly weren’t.

Some have suggested that open-air center streets be cordoned off at night, forcing patrons to park and walk to bars and restaurants and movie theatres. I can see their point, as limiting car traffic would also impede cruising. But I also know that the harder it is to access a venue, the less likely you are to visit.


Thursday, October 28, 2010

Closing the lid on a local Jack in the Box

Near my Baton Rouge, La., neighborhood is a Jack in the Box fast-food restaurant that, from all cursory indications, had appeared to be surviving the recession. That is, until overnight the freestanding building was vacated and a closed sign appeared in the window.

Within a couple of days, all signage -- including the pole sign out front -- were removed and the building completely emptied. What is left is an attractive structure with no visible indication that Jack in the Box ever lived there.

That’s a happier ending than you might think.

Some retailers, and restaurateurs, don’t seem to understand the beating a brand takes when a unit is left to rot -- signage in place -- in full view of former patrons. As weeds grow tall and windows turn dingy, the brand’s image sours as surely as the smell of the garbage in the unemptied dumpster out back.

Jack in the Box gets it. The San Diego-based company announced plans on Sept. 29 to close 40 company-owned restaurants prior to its Oct. 3 fiscal year-end, shedding the most glaring underperformers in its 2,200-unit chain. And, if the Baton Rouge Coursey Blvd. location is any indication, Jack in the Box took just as strategic an approach to the closing process as it did to the performance analyses. Not only is the vacant building devoid of brand identifiers, but the lawn is mowed, the windows are clean, and all references to the former unit have been removed from the company website.

According to excess property experts, Jack in the Box’s contraction procedure was textbook. Matt Bisignano, Taco Bell’s director of development for the eastern U.S. Bisignano, along with Sonya Webster of Walmart Realty, addressed the topic of “Redevelopment of Excess Property” to an audience at the National Retail Tenants Association annual conference, held in September in Anaheim, Calif.

“Company image is important,” said Bisignano. “A vacant Taco Bell needs to be mitigated to enhance your company image.” Webster agreed. “We try to make our vacant properties look less like a Wal-Mart to try and keep it from detracting from our image.”

Both experts recommend that retailers have a process in place to strip old properties of signage and other identifiers to protect the brand. “You need to make an investment into this kind of program,” said Webster, “so that you will be a better company and community ambassador. And, if you’re like us, you have more excess property now than you have had in the past.”

-- Katherine Field

Monday, August 9, 2010

Pop-Tarts Pop Up in Manhattan

When I was expecting my daughter Holley about 20 years ago, I woke up one morning with the most intense craving I had ever experienced. I had to have a Pop-Tart, and I had to have it NOW.

Never mind that I hadn’t eaten one in years. Within minutes, I was standing inside the nearest grocery store examining the different flavors and varieties of the breakfast pastry to see which one attracted my eye, and my palate.

I tussled with the decision. Did I want frosted blueberry, plain apple or my childhood favorite brown sugar cinnamon? Or did I want one that sounded more like dessert, such as a chocolate and marshmallow combo?

I finally gave up trying to choose and threw literally every variety into the shopping cart. To this day I can recall the look on the cashier’s face as she rang up box after box after box of Pop-Tarts.

So you can imagine why the opening of the first-ever store devoted to Pop-Tarts resonated with me. According to the New York Times, Kellogg is opening a 3,200-sq.-ft. pop-up store on Tuesday, called Pop-Tarts World. The store is in Times Square, on 42nd St. between Sixth Avenue and Broadway, and is slated to stay open until January.

The café will serve about 30 snacks and desserts, including such menu items as Fluffer Butter (sort of a Pop-Tart and marshmallow sandwich) and, um, sushi, which is three kinds of Pop-Tarts chopped up and wrapped in a fruit roll.

Typical to Times Square, where everything is bigger than life, the store will put on a light show each hour that “frosts” shoppers in red and white light, then “sprinkles” them with light pulses. A custom-made vending machine will dispense 23 flavors of the treat. And customers have the option of building their own Pop-Tarts. The 50-foot storefront will be wrapped in Pop Tarts branding and Kellogg will take over the six-story billboard above the store.

Click here to check out the full article.

P.S. I didn’t eat all of those Pop Tarts 20 years ago. I opened the first box (brown sugar cinnamon), had one, and discovered that my craving had evaporated. I donated the balance to a food bank.

-- Katherine Field

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Calling all venters

Butch Rascoe was a favorite at Mansfield (La.) High School. The history teacher and coach had a way of simultaneously instructing and entertaining that was unmatched by any educator I ever had before, or since. I remember being in the classroom one particular Friday when the American History discussion waned and Coach Rascoe began to tell one of his “stories.”

He confessed that he had long fantasized about adding on to his house, but not with any ordinary room. This addition would be special -- a long and narrow room built entirely of concrete. And it would be stocked with bottles and bottles of beer, but not for drinking.

Coach Rascoe’s plan was to use the space for venting -- finding relief from the frustrations of a tough day by hurling, one by one, bottles of beer against the concrete wall. As each bottle smashed, he imagined that he would begin to feel better and better.

A mall in Shenyang, China, has had the same idea. A recent article told of a store opening that allows customers to pay to vent frustrations by breaking, smashing, and vandalizing all kinds of domestic objects. Designed for women, interestingly, the store contains several rooms with plans for more in the making.

Check out the story here.

-- Katherine Field

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

The Dirt on Denim

I love blue jeans. And the older and more faded they are, the more I adore them.

No big surprise that I’m in the majority when it comes to jean passion. A recent poll conducted by ShopSmart found that most women would “live in them if they could.”

In fact, 85% of women typically wear jeans at least once a week. And they own, on average seven pairs, although they tend to only wear four of them regularly.

After reading the survey, I trotted to my own closet to count jeans. I have nine pairs -- and wear just, gulp, two pairs of them regularly.

Click here to check out the whole survey, including how much women spend on their jeans.

-- Katherine Field

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

UPS: Customer service brown-out?

Having operated a franchised chain in the past, I am fully aware of how difficult it is to control franchisees.

But a recent experience with The UPS Store would indicate that the retail shipping specialist has more than its share of franchise issues.

My friend Bob made a trip yesterday to his local (Baton Rouge, La.) UPS Store to ship a business package. He had pre-arranged to bill the shipping to the recipient using that recipient’s UPS account number.

The only problem was that the local UPS Store didn’t allow for billing the recipient. The only option was for Bob to pay the freight and expense it to his receiving business associate -- or go elsewhere.

Bob went elsewhere.

He drove to a third-party mailing house, which boxed and shipped items using all the major carriers including UPS and Federal Express, and shipped his package exactly as he originally intended -- via UPS, and billing the recipient.

He walked out, mission accomplished, but scratching his head. “UPS’s own store couldn’t do what another, third-party retailer could?” he asked. “That makes no sense.”

He decided to ask UPS to explain. He emailed the corporate office, explaining that he had tried to ship a package using the recipient’s UPS account number, but was denied. “I’m confused,” he wrote. “Why even bother having a store if I can't ship a package using a UPS account from a UPS store? This makes no sense.”

What makes less sense is UPS’s response. “Dear Bob,” the headquarters customer service representative wrote via email, “The UPS Store and Mail Boxes Etc. locations are independently owned and operated. Both The UPS Store and Mail Boxes Etc. are franchises of Mail Boxes Etc., a subsidiary of UPS. The UPS Store offers convenient shipping locations, certified packaging experts, and published UPS shipping rates. Published UPS rates are offered for transportation charges and most miscellaneous charges, except for declared value. You can obtain a rate quote for transportation charges at The UPS Store by using the UPS Calculate Time and Cost feature at the following link. If you have not already done so, I encourage you to bring your concerns to the attention of your local store management personnel.”

So, in other words, UPS is saying that “I am not only going to pass the buck and blame it on the franchisee, while accepting no corporate accountability, but I’m going to confuse you with a bunch of transportation gibberish to boot.”

Sounds to me like some of the customer-service experts out there should ship one of their how-to manuals to UPS. But don’t try to bill the recipient.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Build a Cause

I can’t watch the TV footage of brown pelicans coated with black oil without crying. And, yet, the struggles and casualties of the fish and fowl and other marine life on the Gulf Coast are but a bit, albeit painful, part in a much bigger tragedy.

I live in Baton Rouge, La., miles from the BP oil spill that occurred just about two months ago -- but close enough to sometimes smell the oil and to hear stories firsthand about job losses, business closures and the long-term impact on Louisiana’s marshes.

There are plenty who compare the spill event to Katrina. I wasn’t here when the hurricane devastated New Orleans and its surrounds. But I was here when the oil rig exploded, and it is an utter mess -- with no end in sight.

Kudos to the retailers that have stepped up to the plate to help with the fight for the survival of our coast. St. Louis-based Build-A-Bear announced just last week that it is raising funds, in conjunction with the Audubon Nature Institute to rescue marine mammals and sea turtles, which are dying by the hundreds. There are stories of hair salons collecting hair and fur and Hooters girls donating their panty hose for the cause (the hair and fur are stuffed into panty hose and used to absorb oil).

There have been other big donations. For example, Target Corp. donated $50,000 toward oil cleanup efforts, and Borders Group on June 10 pledged to donate 10% of this past weekend’s transactions, up to $50,000, to the Coalition to Restore Coastal Louisiana.

And there have been local efforts, such as the CVS drug stores in Fairhope and Daphne, Ala., which set themselves up as oil spill relief donation drop sites and provided some matching funds.

I’m certain there are many more retail organizations that have donated their time and money toward oil-spill cleanup and relief in Louisiana and the other coastal states. Share your donation stories here.

-- Katherine Field

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Are your customers napping?

Here are some tips for waking them! I stumbled upon an item about dormant customers in an e-newsletter called “Small Business Trends” -- and the tips for waking slumbering customers are worth sharing with retailers both large and small.

To rouse a customer who has stopped interacting with your brand, first find out why she has fallen asleep. Then provide incentives to awaken her, and show her the benefits of doing so. Connect with her via social networking and, above all, be persistent and proactive.

Check out the whole article at

-- Katherine Field

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Good tidings make me giddy

All the good news is dizzying. I wrote up stories for Chain Store Age's Web site yesterday and today that included doubled profits, same-store sales gains, total sales leaps. About the only bad news over the last day or two has been Wal-Mart’s declining customer counts -- and with the kind of service offered at the world’s largest retailer, is that any wonder?

But this isn’t a Walmart bashing session. I’m in much too good a mood to be negative. I just finished reading a news report that has retailers prepping for a consumer comeback -- a comeback that includes cashmere and other luxury purchases such as $1,500 python skin shoes. Who’d have thunk it?

Check it out:

--Katherine Field

Thursday, April 29, 2010

Facebook’s No. 1 fans

Most of my Facebook “friends” are in south Louisiana. That’s because I’m from, and have returned to, south Louisiana.

So it makes sense that, when I queried my online rolodex of Facebook friends about their Facebook loyalties (in other words, what companies are they “fans” of?), retail food service was the overwhelmingly favorite category.

Southerners do love their food.

My friend Sherrie is a fan of Bud’s Broiler, Waffle House, Café Du Monde, House of Blues, and Outback Steak House.


“I get updates on new menu items, special hours and special menu items,” she posted. “For example, House of Blues had all-you-can-eat crawfish for $15, only available to Facebook Fans!”

James is a fan of Blue Bell Ice Cream.

Donna likes Anthony's Italian Deli. “A mom-and-pop place where they not only remember your name, but remember what you like to order,” she posted.

And Don is a fan of Broadway Oyster Bar in St. Louis, Mo. “An eclectic shanty that serves as close to really good Creole and Cajun food as you can get in this area … after my kitchen, of course! Oh, and they serve Dixie beer!”

Not everyone restricted their accolades to restaurants, however. Deena is a fan of Ann Taylor, Coach, Gap and Banana Republic because “they are my faves,” she posted. “I can’t say they offer me anything different promo- or advantage-wise than I receive via e-mail.”

And my friend Tinker is a fan of Anthropologie, saying “it’s a great store with great clothes and great stuff for the home.”

Want to check out some of the Facebook pages preferred by my friends? Here are a few of the more unique ones:

Bud’s Broiler

Anthony’s Italian Deli

Broadway Oyster Bar

-- Katherine Field

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Calling all women in real estate

In an industry known to be man-heavy, women may just be finding a forum for advancement.

At RECon, the world’s largest real estate conference -- conducted by the International Council of Shopping Centers and held May 23-25, 2010, in Las Vegas -- a new Special Interest Group series of sessions will include Women in Retail Real Estate roundtable panels.

The panels are organized by Faith Hope Consolo, chairman of New York City-based Prudential Douglas Elliman’s Retail Group, and Jane Snoddy Smith, a partner at Fulbright and Jaworski law firm.

From what I understand, the panels are drawing a lot of interest. “I’m not surprised that these groups are so popular,” Consolo said. "They provide a unique opportunity to learn about a specific topic of interest prior to the main start of the conference that afternoon. And our group offers a unique opportunity to meet with and learn from some of the top women in the real estate business in an informal setting."

Here’s the scoop: "Women in Retail Real Estate" will take place from 10:45 a.m. to 12 p.m. on Sunday, May 23, the first day of RECon 2010. Consolo will lead a roundtable discussion of New Retailers and Globalization, and Smith will host a roundtable on New Techniques in Negotiation.

Other roundtables will revolve around Mentors -- How to Find One and How to Be One (led by Barbara Champoux, Crowell & Moring law firm); The Importance of Networking (by Debra Cole, incoming president of the Association of Real Estate Women), and Developing Your Personal Brand: New Skills for the 21st Century (led by Beth Silverman, co-founder of Participants may sit in on two of the five roundtables, and there will be a wrap-up at the end.

Attendees for any Special Interest Group must be a paid registrant of RECon 2010, and must preregister for these sessions with ICSC. Click here for more information about RECon and other special interest groups.

As a quick aside, this particular Special Interest Group is the launch of a larger initiative that ICSC is undertaking with the goal of working more closely with, and promoting, women in the industry. In conjunction with CREW, ICSC is sponsoring the Women in Retail Real Estate breakfast the next morning (Monday, May 24) featuring Consolo and guest speaker Virginia Postrel. The ICSC/CREW breakfast will be Monday from 8 a.m. to 9:30 a.m., and is open to all attendees (male and female), with no preregistration required.

-- Katherine Field

Friday, April 16, 2010

Plugging Oklahoma City’s leaks

I made a quick in-and-out trip to Oklahoma City last week to talk to city officials and business leaders about the state of retail in that SOUTHERN market. (The caps are on purpose; made the mistake of referring to OK City as Midwestern, and I was quickly shown reams of documentation that clearly place the entire state in the southern region.)

A local reporter from the Oklahoman newspaper picked up on the discussion, held at the historic Skirvin Hotel downtown. Here’s his read on the event:

--Katherine Field

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

The mall still lives

There comes a time when I finally have to turn a deaf ear to all the nay-saying.

How many of us in the industry hear over and over that the mall is dead? I beg to differ. Despite the drag it experienced compliments of the recession, the mall is managing to survive -- and trend arrows point to continued recovery.

Today’s news out of the Wall Street gate?: “Mall traffic improves.” Analyst Adrienne Tennant wrote in a note to investors that a calendar shift for spring break this year has strengthened March traffic at malls.

“With many non-college spring breaks having shifted from April week 1 last year to March week 5 this year, we would expect to see a continuation of strength into the end of the month,” penned Tennant. “With several retailers offering trend- and target-right spring flows, when the product is right, shoppers are picking up multiple items and are opening their wallets.”

Urban Outfitters, Gap's Banana Republic, Talbots and White House|Black Market are all experiencing strong customer traffic, Tennant said.

I noticed last week at Southpointe Pavilions, an outdoor lifestyle mall in Lincoln, Neb., that traffic was brisk. Granted, the city had a little reprieve from winter snows, with highs reaching into the 50’s, but still shoppers were out in force and that’s all that matters. Banana Republic was booming and so was Talbots.

I’ll be meeting with scores of shopping center developers this May at the annual RECon convention in Las Vegas. Let’s hope the mall traffic numbers continue to climb, and we’ll all dispense with the nay-saying and generate some positive press for a change.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Listen up: New accounting rule could slam your bottom line

I have a lot of friends inside the National Retail Tenants Association. It’s a group I’ve long been affiliated with and, quite frankly, I’ve seen first-hand what learning to read a lease can deliver to the retail bottom line.

But did you know that something pretty major is amok? That the Financial Accounting Standards Board (FASB) is right now in the process of developing a new lease accounting standard that is expected to impact retail lease accounting in a huge way?

In fact, those in the know say that the new standard, whose objective is to capitalize all material leases on lessees’ books and is targeted for completion by 2011, is estimated to negatively impact retailers’ earnings by an average of 5% in the first year alone.

I won’t go into all the fine details – not exactly blog material – but suffice it to say that this is something to learn more about. The NRTA is hosting a webinar on the subject on Wednesday, March 3, from 12 p.m. to 1 p.m. EST. For details and registration procedures, visit

Friday, January 8, 2010

Barnes & Noble grows via the ground

I’m one of those journalists who is cross-trained in advertising -- there are a lot of us -- and it is that past experience and training that keeps me on alert for noteworthy retail marketing efforts. Sometimes that information is found in unexpected places.

I was introduced, via friend of a friend, to Carron Fillingim, community relations manager for Barnes & Noble’s Springdale Plaza store in Mobile, Ala.

Given that we are both Southern women with a penchant for marketing, we had plenty to talk about. Carron told me that Barnes & Noble has found the most successful route to customer loyalty is often via the ground.

Carron said her marketing focus has shifted to a grassroots approach that involves cementing relationships with the local media to ensure publicity of the bookseller’s in-store events, which include author signings and special storytimes.

“In terms of grassroots marketing, we are going to use our local media contacts much more often this year in order to publicize our events,” she told me. “I am trying to think out of the box more, and truly make our bookstore the community bookstore.”

In Mobile, Barnes & Noble doesn’t opt for traditional media to advertise sales or seasonal specials. Rather, it employs community-oriented tactics to keep the store top of mind for local citizens.

“The public school system allows me to send them a quarterly newsletter of our store events, and then they send a mass e-mail out to every employee in the public schools. With over 90 public schools, you can imagine how many educators get those newsletters,” she said.

With the myriad of cost-cutting measures being employed by retailers across the country, I think we’ll see grassroots marketing supplanting traditional media across the retail industry.

-- Katherine Field

Monday, December 14, 2009

The good and bad of The W

I figure if the University of Miami can be “The U,” I have free license to label Walmart “The W” --– at least for the sake of this blog.

And I visited The W last Saturday for a prearranged appointment with the southeast Lincoln, Neb. store’s tire center.

That was an experience, a mix of highs and lows that later had me shaking my head.

My car and I arrived at the tire center at 10:00, on a snowy morning for my appointment to have the front driver’s side tire replaced. After locating the hard-to-find customer entrance (which, I might add, led me into the garage area where I had to walk past a group of staring mechanics, which made me immensely uncomfortable), I made my way to the service counter manned by a very harried female employee.

I waited my turn, then announced my arrival -- only to be told my appointment had been cancelled. Cancelled? I glanced at my watch. It was now 10:10 a.m. Was I cancelled because it was slightly after my scheduled time?

The employee assured me that the cancellation wasn’t due to tardiness; in fact, she said, she had no idea why my appointment was cancelled. She read aloud a note written beside my name on a manual ledger that said, simply, “Cancelled. Moved to Thursday.”

To make matters worse, when she flipped the page to Thursday, my appointment was nowhere to be found.

At this point, the employee began to rage. She called a supervisor and together they proceeded to berate some hapless, and absent, associate named Brandon. They commiserated -- in front of me and about five other customers waiting to be served -- about the troubles that Brandon was causing in The W’s local organization.

If Brandon were indeed responsible for my cancellation, then I wasn’t too happy with him either. But I still didn’t think he deserved to be publicly criticized with no opportunity to defend himself.

His trial continued for a solid five minutes, until I interrupted with one question, “Can you still work me in today?”

The female employee immediately ceased her tirade, and leaned across the counter to pat my hand. “Don’t worry, honey,” she said. “We’ll get you in right away.”

This is where bad turns to good -- in a hurry. She worked some kind of magic on a very full-looking ledger and moved my car to the top of the list (I don’t know who got bumped, but decided not to ask.). She gave me a numbered ticket and invited me to shop the store for about an hour, then return for my car.

I wandered The W’s aisles for 70 minutes, purchased a few odds and ends, then headed back to the tire center, where I found my car ready and waiting as promised.

After I paid and departed, I shook my head. Only The W could send me on a customer-service journey of such highs and lows.

That it started low, and ended high, was fortunate. Most customers, myself included, will likely only remember the ending note.

-- Katherine Field

Friday, November 20, 2009

Just can’t contain myself

I am a big fan of The Container Store. I admit that I didn’t know much about the Coppell, Texas-based, 50-store specialty chain until I moved to Denver for a couple of years, and was faced with organizing a new home in short order.

I had spied a Container Store atop a hilly padsite overlooking Park Meadows Mall in south Denver, and decided to give its advertised storage solutions a whirl.

Two hours and hundreds of dollars later, I wheeled my brimming shopping cart to my parked SUV, and transferred the piles of pantry shelves, cleaning tools and bathroom storage racks from cart to car.

That was the first of many visits to The Container Store, as it became my go-to place to tame home and office chaos.

Now that I’m back in Lincoln, Neb., I miss the store -- but am always interested to read about the latest corporate happenings. This week I received a press release promoting some new services and promotions, including “click and pickup” (order online and pick up in-store, a la Best Buy and Wal-Mart), call-ahead curbside pickup (again, think Best Buy), and free shipping for online customers.

For my friends in Chain Store Age’s Manhattan office, they are enjoying a “scan and deliver” service whereby customers of the chain’s two Manhattan stores use a hand-held scanning device to scan bar codes on items selected for purchase, pay, then head home and wait for the items to be delivered home.

The Container Store calls the package of perks its “GoShop Suite of Services.” Because I have some pretty in-depth background on the chain, having interviewed its founders Garrett Boone and Kip Tindell extensively, I know the perks are more than customer-service benefits -- they are smart thinking by a smart retailer that is poised to grow sales even in an economic downturn.

-- Katherine Field

Friday, October 30, 2009

Geaux local

If I had a nickel for every time a shopping-center developer told me that homegrown concepts are now on the hot tenant radar list, I’d be a very wealthy woman.

With the stalled expansion plans of the nationals, and the increasing vacancies in malls around the country, I can see why local retail tenants have emerged as the new black in leasing prospects.

Recently, I visited one homegrown Baton Rouge, La., restaurant concept that is bound to grab some attention from the likes of Stirling Properties, General Growth Properties, JWA and the other property owners that are busy Louisiana players.

Walk-On’s Bistreaux and Bar has two locations in the Baton Rouge area. (Note the spelling of bistreaux? If you’re from Louisiana -- and I am originally -- you know the ‘eaux’ drill. If you’re not? Just remember that anything that ends with a long ‘oh’ sound is spelled ‘eaux.’ Think geaux instead of go, bistreaux instead of bistro.)

The bar and grill concept was started by two Louisiana State University walk-on basketball players who met on the hardwood in 1997. Jack Warner and Brandon Landry’s boyhood dreams of playing for the LSU Tigers were realized not with coveted basketball scholarships, but as ‘walk-ons’ to the program.

The Walk-On’s story goes something like this: Warner and Landry conceptualized the restaurant while on a road trip to play the University of Tennessee basketball game. Increasingly intrigued by the variety of restaurants and bars the team routinely encountered on its away games, the two decided to flesh out their own concept -- and did so on an airplane napkin during the flight home from the Tennessee matchup.

A decade or so later, Walk-On’s Bistreaux and Bar was born, and I had the occasion to eat there a few nights ago. My friend Bob and I watched the New Orleans Saints football game on one of many flat-panel television screens, while eating wings and drinking beer.

The food was great. The Abita beer was too. But what was even better was the feeling of being inside a successful concept that needs to spread its wings into other college-town marketplaces. I can see the Baton Rouge menu of high-end pub grub augmented by south Louisiana specialties being customized to regional fare in other towns. And the LSU decor could easily give way to another team’s colors.

Walk-On’s was packed the afternoon we were there. And Bob tells me the weekend evenings can be standing-room-only. Perhaps Stirling and GGP might want to take a gander at this homegrown concept. Looks to me like it has plenty of room to greaux.

-- Katherine Field

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Is the mall rat an endangered species?

I hate bad news. But this is a little tough to ignore. Mall vacancies have hit a decades-high rate, and some feel the relief may be slow in coming.

Reis released its latest findings earlier this month and the picture isn’t any prettier than it’s been over the last few quarters. The vacancy rate at U.S. strip malls reached a 17-year high in the third quarter of 2009, and mall vacancy was the highest in at least 10 years.

"Our outlook for retail properties as a whole is bleak," said Victor Calanog, Reis director of research. "Until we see stabilization and recovery take root in both consumer spending and business spending and hiring, we do not foresee a recovery in the retail sector until late 2012 at the earliest."


I for one still frequent my mall and favorite strip centers. In fact, one sunny Saturday about two weeks ago, my friend Kay and I spent nine hours at Southpointe shopping center in Lincoln, Neb. I’m not telling how much we spent, but I will say that between us we hit four figures. “Just doing our part,” we said, “to keep our favorite stores in business.”

Banana Republic benefited from our day at the mall, as did Von Maur, Buckle and Victoria’s Secret.

Both of us 40-something, Kay and I don’t fit the demographic of the typical mall rat. But with mall rats in frighteningly short supply, we’re perfectly willing to fill the role as long as we’re able. In fact, we’re planning our next outing, again at Southpointe. Neither of us will be able to approach what we spent on our last trip, but suffice it to say that Banana and Von Maur will know we’ve been there.

-- Katherine Field

Monday, September 28, 2009

Baton Rouge malls: what’s up, what’s not

On a recent trip to my home state of Louisiana, I enjoyed an extended visit in Baton Rouge -- a city that has seen beaucoup changes since Hurricane Katrina hit in 2005.

Baton Rouge didn’t get the brunt of the storm, but it got the brunt of the aftermath, as thousands of evacuees descended upon the mid-sized city. Many stayed after the storm subsided, and the resultant expanded population has challenged the capital city’s infrastructure and services.

Baton Rouge’s retail scene was a hub of activity after the storm, but like most municipalities, the recession has stepped in and slowed the tumult. What I saw a couple of weeks ago was a retail climate that is experiencing its ups and downs during the downturn. Here are some of my impressions:

Perkins Rowe, a massive Main Street mixed-use destination located just off Perkins Road didn’t exactly appear to be flourishing (see picture above). Don’t get me wrong -- it’s a beautiful project and stores are certainly open and operating. What I didn’t see, though, was traffic. We drove through the development on a Saturday, when you’d expect shoppers to be walking the pedestrian-friendly streetscape and entering the attractive storefronts. But it was a ghost town. My “guide,” a friend and Baton Rouge resident, suggested the metered parking was having an effect.

Turns out the convenient parking in front of the stores comes with a price … you get to pay to park. My friend said he knows plenty of people who rebuff the center just because of the parking situation.

On the other hand, the Towne Center at Cedar Lodge (see picture below) was bustling on a sunny Saturday. The mixed-use project located on Corporate Boulevard. in central Baton Rouge was teeming with cars and pedestrians. Developed by locally based Creekstone Cos., Towne Center features great restaurants (think Fleming’s Steakhouse, P.F. Chang’s and Bonefish Grill) and popular tenants such as Whole Foods Market, Banana Republic, Chico’s, Coldwater Creek and Gap.
Do we really know what makes one project work and another, at least from appearances, not work? Location is always a major factor, but I didn’t see much difference in the sites. Tenants matter, but both projects had attractive retailers and popular eateries. (In fact, Perkins Rowe might have the edge, with the state’s first Orvis and Z Gallerie, as well as Barnes & Noble and Anthropologie.)

Then there’s the X factor. In this case, could it actually be that charging for upfront parking is sending a message to Perkins Rowe patrons that convenience comes with a cost?

In this day and age, convenience should be a standard, not a premium.

-- Katherine Field

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Retail Idol

I wouldn’t say I’m a closet “American Idol” fan, but the truth is only my closest circle of family and friends know I rarely miss the reality show once the season launches.

So it stands to reason that I was intrigued when I heard about developer Madison Marquette’s “Retail Star” contest -- a new business award modeled after “American Idol.”

The Washington, D.C.-based company used its Bayfair Center, San Leandro, Calif., as the venue for a unique competition that had entrepreneurs pitching for $250,000 in free rent, start-up capital and build-out allowances toward launching their own business in the Bayfair space.

Starting in May 2009, contestants presented their ideas and business plans to a panel of judges, who over the course of several months narrowed the field from 60 to four. In August, an Oakland, Calif., man, Ben Wanzo, was crowned Retail Star, and his TeachBar concept is preparing to open in Bayfair Center.

TeachBar will host affordable educational seminars in what Wanzo describes as a “learning cafe” environment. The learning cafe will occupy a 1,300-sq.-ft. space at Bayfair Center and provide classes, lecture series and cultural events with topics targeting high school students and adults, taught by coaches and teachers from the community. According to founder Wanzo, TeachBar will offer a relaxed atmosphere where locals can enjoy a selection of quick-serve dishes and drinks while connecting with friends or exchanging ideas with other community members.

Wanzo was awarded $25,000 in start-up funds from Madison Marquette, a complete retail space build-out (valued at more than $200,000) and a year of free retail space inside Bayfair Center.

The retail concept will undergo construction this fall and is scheduled to open in November.

In today’s economy, it takes creative thinking to lease retail space. This is perhaps the most unique approach I’ve seen -- kudos to Madison Marquette for thinking outside the box.

You can view a recap of the contest by clicking on this link:

-- Katherine Field

Friday, August 21, 2009

Social media breaks backs

YouTube scares me. And it should scare you, too. Because once negative information about your company makes the Internet, trying to contain the damage is akin to attempting to stamp out a California wildfire with a wool blanket.

It can’t be done.

One in a long line of YouTube corporate victims is United Airlines, which became the unwilling lyrical topic of a disgruntled singer/band member after his valuable guitar was smashed by careless airline luggage handlers in the spring of 2008.

After months of unrequited phone calls and letters to United, asking for reimbursement for his $3,500 Taylor guitar damaged on the tarmac during a Chicago connection enroute to my home state of Nebraska, Dave Carroll of the band Sons of Maxwell took to the i-waves and aired his frustration in verse.

“United Breaks Guitars” is a catchy song with an even catchier music video that debuted in early July. The ditty is a scathing, yet amusing, recap of Carroll’s attempts to receive compensation for the pricey instrument. Within a day of its release, “Breaks Guitars” had been viewed by thousands. To date, more than 5 million people have heard the song and seen the video.

On Monday, Carroll came out with part two -- “United Breaks Guitars Song 2” -- fulfilling an earlier promise that he would record three songs railing against the airline’s antipathy.

“Song 2” has received nearly 80,000 views so far. But what is more significant is that Carroll didn’t need to record it.

Shortly after the release of the first song, United contacted Carroll, making nice and offering to pay for the guitar. Carroll’s response, though amicable, was a publicly aired “No Way, Jose.” In a viral version of a press conference, Carroll made it clear that, while he would happily have that $3,500 reimbursal sent to a charity, nothing would stop him from recording three songs.

So, for United, it’s two down and one to go. How much havoc will ultimately be wreaked for the airline, which already has endured much-publicized financial woes? Only time will tell, but in the meantime Carroll’s tell-all has no immediate end in sight.

What’s the lesson? Watch your back, and you might want to have a film production crew in your pocket. You never know when a retaliatory music video might be in order.

Somehow missed “United Breaks Guitars”? Follow these links to the background story and the two performances. Leave yourself plenty of viewing time; they’re not short.

-- Katherine Field

Monday, August 3, 2009

Eeny, Meeny, Miny, Mo, to Sears or Wal-Mart shall my freshman go?

Comforter set, check. Towels and sheets, check. Laptop, check. Microwave, check.

But to get my daughter ready to enter the University of Nebraska in three weeks to begin her first year of college, I still need to buy a futon, an alarm clock (with a LOUD alarm), a desk lamp, a television stand and some throw pillows.

Our plan is to do some shopping this weekend. Lo and behold, in my e-mail inbox early this morning was a promotion from Wal-Mart Wire -- the subject line read, “Get Your Rooms Ready for Fall: Desks, Futons, TV Stands and More.”

Bingo. I perused the items, with discounted prices no less, and rapidly marked the items I needed, then confirmed they are in stock at the closest Wal-Mart store (3.52 miles from my east Lincoln home). I printed the pages, showed them to Holley, and we made a date to do our off-to-college shopping on Saturday.

Sears, on the other hand, had a different strategy for boosting back-to-school sales. The retailer recently introduced a Facebook page with three applications designed to help college students plan for their move into dorms. It comes with such applications as a dorm room designer tool.

There’s just one problem. Sears is reaching out to the students; Wal-Mart contacted me, the parent. The one with the wallet that actually has money in it.

My daughter loves Facebook, but Sears’ new page isn’t going to interest her. Why? She doesn’t need it. The dorm designer application is provided online at the University of Nebraska Web site. So is the roommate matchup, a tool that allows you to get to know your college roommate.

But Sears’ bigger mistake, in my opinion, was focusing its efforts on the students. Wal-Mart moved up the money chain and marketed to the parents. If a bet were placed on which retailer garners the biggest share of the back-to-school pie, in the Field house, the money is on Wal-Mart.

-- Katherine Field

Monday, July 27, 2009

L.L. Bean-less

There are times when I feel a little isolated living in Nebraska. Friday was one of those times. While thousands of people lined up to await the grand opening of the new L.L. Bean store that also signaled the first retail opening at Legacy Place in Dedham, Mass., I was only able to follow the fun online.

Never mind that it was pouring down rain in Dedham, which is just outside of Boston. Bean fans braved the elements for hours to jockey for upfront positions in the half-mile-long grand-opening line -- as the first 500 inside the store would receive gift cards ranging in value from $25 to $500.

L.L. Bean’s newest store is a two-level, 30,000-sq.-ft. space that is built to silver LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) standards. Its new home, Legacy Place, is a 675,000-sq.-ft. open-air center developed by WS Development and National Amusements. “The first store opening at Legacy Place is a major milestone for us,” said David Fleming, the corporate marketing director for WS and, I have to say, a good friend of mine. “As evidenced by the turnout, we couldn’t have asked for a better retailer than L.L. Bean to help us open the center.”

I’ll say. I just wish that Nebraska had an L.L. Bean store. The closest one to me is near Chicago, about 500 miles away. And since this Dedham store is the only one the retailer will open in 2009, I’m out of luck for any hopes of a heartland store any time soon.

The next best thing to being there? Check out a video of the opening.

-- Katherine Field

Friday, July 17, 2009

Viva La Sunday

Never mind that racy ads and daily wine-drinking are the norm in France. The majority of the notoriously uninhibited French population says that Sunday shopping would erode the ‘French way of life.’

The Sunday shopping ban, in place in France since 1906, has been the topic of much debate of late. The National Assembly voted on July 14 to relax the ban and allow French cities to create special retail zones for Sunday shopping.

It would mean some big changes for the small country. Employees would have to be paid double-time to work on Sundays -- and they are free to refuse to work if they choose.

If the statistics are right, a bunch of retail employees may continue to keep their Sundays free. One opinion poll found that 55% oppose lifting the ban; 57% said they would refuse to work on Sunday.

A whopping 85% said Sunday should remain a day off.

Remember when our own country operated under a similar code? In my hometown, during the 1960’s and ‘70s, no store was open on Sunday, except perhaps the local grocer or convenience store. And Blue Laws prohibited alcohol sales on Sunday.

Despite heavy opposition, the French shopping ban is expected to win Senate approval next week and be adopted later in July.

Perhaps as we continue to send our associates to the unemployment line, we could direct them overseas. I hear there may be plenty of Sunday jobs available, and the pay is great.

-- Katherine Field

Friday, July 10, 2009

Kohl’s can thank me later

Kohl’s owes me, and the retailer doesn’t even know it yet.

My 84-year-old mother traveled from her home in Louisiana to visit me a couple of weeks ago, and while we were lunching together at one of my favorite cafes, she commented on a particular outfit I was wearing.

I shared with her that it was a Dana Buchman ensemble, which I had recently purchased at Kohl’s.

Dana Buchman? At Kohl’s? Mom’s eyebrows raised, as I knew they would. My mother is one of those well-to-do, fashionable, elderly types who dresses to the nines even for her weekly grocery-shopping excursion. She favors high-end brands and timeless pieces -- in great quantity. (My older sister went through Mom’s closet recently, and counted 14 pairs of almost-identical black slacks. And not a single pair cost less than $150.)

Mom loves Dana Buchman, but she purchases the designer’s items from high-end department stores – not Kohl’s. When I told her that Dana Buchman now had an exclusively-for-Kohl’s line of apparel and fashion accessories -- at supremely discounted prices -- she was visibly interested. And I knew it was only a matter of time before she scouted out her local Shreveport, La. Kohl’s store.

She found it -- and only one day after her return home from her visit with me in Lincoln.

Mom now owns 11 Dana Buchman pieces from Kohl’s. And I can assure you that this is just the beginning. She will now add Kohl’s to her shopping trail, and that means regular visits and sizeable purchases.

I’ve shopped Kohl’s for years -- but until Dana Buchman entered the picture I will admit that I had never bought clothes for myself. The retailer was my go-to for my son’s shorts and my daughter’s tops and underwear, but little else. Since Kohl’s added a label I love, I have now begun exploring other departments -- and recently made a bedding purchase that topped $500.

Kohl’s seems to be figuring out what other retailers are still struggling to understand -- what shoppers want and what motivates us to part with our money even during a recessionary period.

Kohl’s doesn’t really owe me anything, but I’d like to think that I will have played a part -- albeit a small one -- when the next quarter’s sales results reflect an unexpected increase in the southern region.

-- Katherine Field

Monday, July 6, 2009

Shopping Scheels

The fall 2009 football season started early in Lincoln, Neb., this year -- in July, with a preseason game in the aisles of Scheels All Sports.

I went shopping last week for wide-receiver gloves for my son Jake, an incoming high school sophomore and soon-to-be member of the Lincoln East football team. Our first, and only, stop was the local Scheels at SouthPointe Pavilion, an open-air lifestyle center owned by RED Development.

The glove aisle was overwhelming -- a full wall, top to bottom, of hand-gear for every offensive and defensive position. Within seconds of our arrival, however, a Scheels associate headed over to offer his assistance.

I’d say he was in his late teens, maybe early 20’s. He clearly had played football, and knew more than enough about the glove selection and the types/brands Jake needed to try out.

My son is not a fast shopper. He ponders and waffles until I want to scream. (My husband and I used to draw straws for who would take Jake to the toy store to spend his allowance -- the loser accompanied him to Toys “R” Us.) But the associate never batted an eye, staying by Jake’s side through the entire pondering and waffling process. When my son finally narrowed his choices down to two pairs of gloves, the associate trotted to the football aisle, grabbed a high-school game ball and tossed it to my son.

Trading back and forth between the two pairs of receiver gloves, my son caught passes from the associate. The two began expanding the distance between them until the football sailed from one end of the aisle to the other, with me caught in the middle and running for cover.

I have no idea if this is standard operating procedure at Scheels, but no one looked askance at a couple of guys playing football in the store. And the impromptu game allowed my son to test out the gloves and make an informed decision, which made the $45 purchase that much easier for me to swallow.

Yesterday, my husband took Jake back to Scheels for football cleats. The two came home raving about the young woman in the shoe department -- a former college basketball player who knew as much about football shoes as she did about shooting hoops. While Jake didn’t run sprints through the store, he was able to jog around the department in a dozen pairs of shoes until he found exactly the right pair.

Scheels is based in Fargo, N.D., with 23 stores in eight mostly Midwestern and upper-Midwestern states. The retailer’s largest store to-date opened late last year at the Legends at Sparks Marina, another RED Development project that debuted near Reno, Nev. The 295,000-sq.-ft. store features some pretty wild attractions -- an electric trolley traverses the parking lot, and a Ferris Wheel and a 35-ft. Wildlife Mountain offer in-store entertainment. But most significant? The store advertises that “each shop is staffed with experts who are focused on their passions.” I believe it, and I’ll return to our local store to leverage that expertise toward making the right gear and apparel purchases for my family.

I know a few companies, such as Home Depot, that could take a page out of Scheels’ book. The privately held sporting goods retailer has set an example of how to maintain its core service values even during an economic downturn.

-- Katherine Field

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Darden Restaurants looks to cut costs -- and wait times

Wal-Mart Stores is an acknowledged master in the retail industry when it comes to dealing with vendors and controlling costs. And now the nation’s largest full-service restaurant chain is hoping to learn from its example.

The July/August issue of Fast Company magazine reports that Darden Restaurants -- operator of Red Lobster, Olive Garden and LongHorn Steakhouse -- has launched an ambitious plan to transform its supply chain, with the hopes of saving some $20 million annually. In the article, “Why America is Addicted to Olive Garden,” senior VP Barry Moullet says Darden is studying Wal-Mart to "understand the components of cost" with its vendors and become a better and more informed negotiator.

The article provides a fascinating glimpse into some of the inner workings at Darden, including the critical role leading-edge technology plays in its success (in that, it is similar to Wal-Mart). The restaurant chain’s IT department is headed by Patti Reilly White, chief information officer, who leads a 170-person team. Among White’s projects: a pilot program to reduce wait times by having waiters use handheld devices to submit orders and payments at the table, thereby eliminating lag time.

She also has launched another project to share wait times across restaurants so that a hostess or host can guide customers to nearby Darden units that are not as busy. In the future, White envisions giving customers online access to the information.

Additionally, Darden is working on an automated ordering system that will eventually replenish its restaurants based on electronic-tagged inventory and guest-traffic forecasts.

There’s a lot more in the article, including a profile of the top man at Darden: CEO Clarence Otis. The son of a janitor from Los Angeles’ troubled Watts neighborhood, Otis is one of a handful of African-American CEOs in the Fortune 500.

-- Marianne Wilson

Friday, June 19, 2009

A famous Father's Day card

In my e-mail inbox this morning was a Father’s Day video card from Famous Footwear. No, I’m not a dad, but I’m married to one – and, equally on point, I can appreciate what the St. Louis-based discount shoe retailer is doing to unconventionally woo shoppers.

The subject line, “A little something special to lift your spirits,” wasn’t particularly revealing, but intriguing enough to prompt me to open the message. Inside, I clicked on a video box and watched a charming video of a young father romping with his tiny daughter in a sunny outdoor setting. A Father’s Day wish preceded the final thought: Make Today Famous.

A ‘forward to a friend’ prompt will allow me to send this message to any of my friends and family. Clever, and an example of a retailer that is thinking outside the box in tough times and coming up with a cost-effective and attention-grabbing way to reach out and touch current and potential customers.

I was planning on visiting my husband’s favorite little tobacco shop this weekend for a couple of nice Father’s Day cigars, but now I’m thinking shoes….

-- Katherine Field

Thursday, May 28, 2009

FAO remembered, and refreshed

The recent news that FAO Schwarz had been acquired by Toys ‘R’ Us sent me on a little impromptu journey down memory lane.

I’m not from New York, nor was I raised in any city with an FAO Schwarz toy store, but still the venerable retailer has played a big part in my life. I first met Dik Glass, then senior VP store development for FAO Schwarz, in 1989. He and I worked together on a cover story for another retail magazine, and forged a long and enduring friendship.

When my son Jake was born in 1993, Dik gave him a life-sized stuffed replica of Coco the gorilla. He proffered the gorilla in the middle of a presentation I was making in Houston, only because he knew it would make me laugh. (What Dik didn’t realize, though, was that to get Coco back to Nebraska from Texas, I had to buy an additional airline seat, something I never told him!). Coco has been a fixture in the Field House ever since and is still today a top-ranking treasure on Jake’s must-always-keep list.

Dik’s gift, and his friendship, sparked a keen interest in FAO Schwarz for both Jake and his older sister Holley. We visited the store in Kansas City, in Country Club Plaza, when it opened in 1994, and made the 215-mile trip east a quarterly trek for almost a decade. Every time we visited, each of my children would pick out one toy to take home -- and I would report back to Dik what the kids picked and how much we enjoyed our visit and the interaction with the store associates.

I haven’t spoken with Dik in years, and a quick Google this morning revealed that he is now CEO of MorseHarris Holdings, an Old Greenwich, Ct.-based project management firm that worked on the Hershey’s Times Square flagship in New York City. As well, the company -- whose founders are former FAO owners -- is responsible for FAO Schwarz’s real estate, design and construction.

That Dik is still involved with the creation of great stores designed to delight both children and their parents comes as no surprise to me. It’s what he was meant to do. I only hope that Toys “R” Us does what the company’s chairman and CEO promised it would do in today’s acquisition announcement: to “work tirelessly to preserve the distinctiveness and integrity of the FAO Schwarz stores and brand as we grow the business and, indeed, take the brand to even greater heights.”

-- Katherine Field

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Making the ‘connection’ with Ann Taylor’s call center

I’m just as “connected” as the next gal -- e-mail, iPhone, texting, instant messages, Facebook, e-commerce, you name it. But a recent experience reminded me that even the coolest “apps” don’t hold a candle to the guidance a knowledgeable customer service agent can provide.

One of my friends is getting married and while I have a closet-full of potential ensembles for the occasion, I decided to treat myself to a new dress. I found the ideal little number on Ann Taylor’s Web site: a sleeveless black Ponte knit and satin cocktail dress adorned with a black satin belt and ruffle-trimmed crew neckline.

Rather than waste time calling or visiting local stores to find the dress in my size, I decided to order two sizes online, and try them on when they arrived, and then return the one that doesn’t fit.

After adding the two sizes to my virtual shopping cart, I wanted to give the dress’ image a final once-over before hitting the “checkout” icon -- this proved to be a mistake. When I returned to my shopping cart, one of the dresses mysteriously disappeared!

Worse, when I went back to the page where I originally ordered the dress, my size was no longer available. Someone obviously had the same buying intentions, but beat me to the punch!

I immediately called customer service and was connected with a lovely agent named Liz. After filling her in on my dilemma, she confirmed my fears -- the dress was no longer in stock online. “It’s a hot item,” she said. “I’m watching the inventory sell as we speak. But there is still hope. Have you tried our Style Finder service?”

I had not, so I asked Liz to explain what I was missing. Using a specific style number and size, the software hunts for the item across each store’s available inventory. When the desired merchandise is located, the application electronically places an order and the store is prompted to ship the merchandise to the shopper.

The shopper then provides the credit-card information to the customer service agent and is billed when the store ships the merchandise. There is a service fee of $7.50, as opposed to almost $10 for standard ground shipping online.

When I asked Liz what are the chances that she could find the dress, she said, “The service has a very high success rate, but there is a small chance that we may not find it. Overall, we have more happy customers than unhappy ones.”

Willing to take the risk, I abandoned my online order, gave Liz my Ann Taylor card information, wished her luck and hung up.

Within 15 minutes, I learned the sale was indeed meant to be. I received a confirmation e-mail explaining the dresses are available, and they would be shipped from a single location. The e-mail also said they were being shipped the next day and should arrive within three-to-five business days.

Clearly, this service has been a staple at physical stores for years, and thanks to Liz, now I know it’s an option through the call center. By integrating the solution across the two channels, Ann Taylor is upping the ante on customer service -- and it is working. The experience reminded me why I am a loyal Ann Taylor and LOFT shopper, and now I have a new strategy when shopping online.

Now comes the hard part -- I pray that I am equally satisfied with my purchase when it arrives.


Literally minutes after filing this blog, there was a knock at our front door. It was UPS delivering my dresses -- only one day after placing the order. By the way, the size 10 won!

-- Deena M. Amato-McCoy

Friday, May 8, 2009

Greetings, Norman, and welcome to Wal-Mart

I grew up in north Louisiana, where the humidity is high, the cypress moss is heavy and the rivers and bayous are murky and thick. (You have to be from there to love it.)

One of my favorite activities as a child and young teen was traversing the waterways in a kayak with my dad and twin sister. We would start out early in the morning, with a lunch packed by mom and our oars in hand, and work our way through the green slime to get into the open water where we would alternate between floating and paddling. And beating nutria over the head.

That’s right, nutria. (For those of you unfamiliar with the term, a nutria is a swimming rat.) Hardly an excursion went by without one of those gross swimming rats trying to claw its way out of the water and into our craft. My sister and I would scream, “Nutria, yuck!” and begin to beat it over the head with our oars until it would let go of the kayak and plop back into the water.

Those wonderful memories were rekindled when I read the recent account of Norman the nutria, a “pet” bayou rat that allegedly freely roamed the aisles of an Abbeville, La., Wal-Mart. (Abbeville is way south in the state, where everyone should accept nutria, and armadillos, as a routine part of life, in my opinion.)

Apparently, Norman frightened a Wal-Mart shopper, who is now suing the retailer for “pain, suffering, mental anguish, fear, disabling injuries, and medical expenses.” Rebecca White said in her lawsuit that the Abbeville Wal-Mart associates allowed the nutria to run loose in the store and that, when she was pushing her shopping cart down an aisle, Norman ran out from behind a rack and frightened her. She said she injured her back and foot trying to protect herself from the nutria.

Reports described nutria as having bright orange buck teeth and weighing up to 18 lbs. That sounds about right.

Wal-Mart has declined comment about the pending lawsuit, but I would offer the following suggestion. Let Norman continue to be the mascot, but provide any leery shopper with a borrowed oar from the outdoor department.

-- Katherine Field

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

General Growth Properties: Still alive and kicking

In last week’s Omaha World Herald, as in many newspapers nationwide, I suspect, a page two story speculated about what the General Growth Properties bankruptcy filing would mean for the shoppers and retailers who visit and inhabit, respectively, the two Omaha-area malls owned by the shopping center giant.

I knew the story’s ending before I reached it. Nothing. Because Westroads and Oak View malls weren’t among the 160 malls listed as part of the bankruptcy filing -- and even those that are likely won’t notice a blip; GGP’s legal insolvency will be virtually imperceptible at the mall level.

But that hasn’t stopped the rumblings. Ever since the Chicago-based developer filed for Chapter 11 in the U.S. Bankruptcy Court in the Southern District of New York on April 16, the media and the bloggers have been busy. Would GGP crumble? What of the mall in my hometown? Would mall and corporate employees be sent packing?

General Growth owns some of the premier malls in the country, and its occupancy rate is 92.5%. The Chapter 11 filing is a tactical move to allow the company to regroup and restructure which, when the company exits bankruptcy in about a year, can lead to a stronger entity.

The New York Times called the bankruptcy the “biggest real estate collapse in American history,” and analysts said it’s a harbinger of troubles to come. That may be true. But General Growth can’t worry about that. It’s got malls to lease and manage and tenants to deal with. And so far it’s done a pretty good job of both. Despite the downturn, General Growth’s properties appear to have held up better than many.

And to those who would say the bankruptcy is an indicator that more troubles are on the way and that the mall industry as a whole is on the brink of disaster, Stephen Sterrett, CFO of the nation’s largest mall owner Simon Property Group, was quoted as saying, “It’s important for people to understand that [General Growth’s bankruptcy] is totally distinct from the business of the mall business. This is all related to their balance sheet and their capital. The fundamentals of the mall business are pretty good.”

I don’t mean to minimize the filing, the reasons behind it, or the foretelling of struggles ahead. General Growth’s bankruptcy, say analysts, is likely to negatively impact mall values -- this at a time when real estate operators are already grappling to stay ahead of their debts and keep their centers leased. But, at the same time, the event certainly won’t go unnoticed -- and could even motivate measures that would help the industry as a whole.

Did it take a giant to fall to advance an industry’s cause? Let me know what you think.

And, yet, when General Growth emerges from bankruptcy -- albeit a little leaner but likely a lot healthier -- and if real estate will have benefited from additional government intervention, this story may have a happy ending after all.

-- Katherine Field