Hawaii retail stores hope to get shoppers offline, stimulate the local economy, make a buck

Beth-Ann Kozlovich

with Beth-Ann Kozlovich

HONOLULU—Perhaps people in small towns learned this best: It’s more important to support the community that supports you than to get the very best deal. Of course, if one can do both, so much the better. With two weeks left in the make-it-or-break-it holiday sales season, Hawaii retailers of all stripes hope consumers will look to stores and not just online to maximize dollars and stimulate the state’s economy.

Retail Merchants of Hawaii president Carol Pregill says her members are so busy she can’t get them to answer a survey at the moment. Maybe that’s partially why up-to-the-moment data is practically nonexistent.

Jasmine Tso, marketing and promotions director at Ala Moana Center agrees: “We get monthly sales reports and so we have yet to see November. Of course we talk to our retailers and they’re giving us some of the pulse. It depends on the retailer, and the category, but it’s hard to get an overview.”

Tso says Ala Moana Center enjoyed a very strong Black Friday with many tenants seeing an increase of about 30 percent for that day. Black Friday, she adds, “has become an event, almost a sporting event. There is more optimism and consumer confidence this year so people are parting with their money more easily.”

Pearlridge general manager Fred Paine is also basing his anticipation of strong holiday sales on his mall’s Black Friday benchmark. During that day and the weekend that followed, many of his tenants also reported year-over-year increases of 20 to 30 percent. “We’re hoping it holds out through Christmas,” Paine says. “Consumers seem to be buying products. Last year they were buying gift cards to be as thrifty as they could, but this year, there is a new optimism that’s being fulfilled.”

The positive results are not limited to Oahu. According to Queen Kaahumanu Center marketing director Lisa Paulson, Black Friday and the Thanksgiving weekend proved pivotal: “Our parking lot was almost full at 5:00 a.m. Talking to the merchants after that day and that weekend, the increases were from 2 to 56 percent over the 2009 numbers.” But she says, “The shopping didn’t start early here and it did last year. We had a rush on the Wednesday before Thanksgiving and our Sears store opened for the first time on Thanksgiving. I didn’t think that would work for them but it did.”

She also notes a new trend: self-gifting. Some of the center’s retailers say that shoppers buying presents for themselves now accounts for about 20 percent of current holiday purchases.

Employing the same promotions as past two years, Paulson chalks up the success to the confluence of opportunity and timing and this year. She also notes a new trend: self-gifting. Some of the center’s retailers say that shoppers buying presents for themselves now accounts for about 20 percent of current holiday purchases.

Although some consumers may feel that the holiday season begins far too soon—on the heels of summer’s end—Ala Moana’s Tso says their holiday launch really didn’t happen until fall. Management made the decision this year to “go out a little bit earlier, a little bit stronger and a little bit harder. Our ad buys were greater. [We were] trying to get larger reach doing more promotions because generally in retail, if you can make it early, you’ll make it. You’ll always make the end because people are procrastinators and will buy what they need toward the end—so we start the holiday season in mid November and we really push that hard.”

Still, there were many stores that began to decorate for the holidays before Halloween. Aside from tapping into positive feelings about the holidays and providing a reminder to shop early, Paulson and Tso credit a more practical reason for getting shoppers into stores sooner: limited inventory. “Retailers are not ordering as much as in years past because of credit lines and retailers don’t want to left with inventory,” Tso says. “Don’t expect second or third shipment to come in.”

Meanwhile, many shoppers say they are checking online to comparison shop for the same item. Paine admits he feels a little disadvantaged by the consumer technology that instantly offers a list of where a desired item can be found locally and at what price, but with online shopping here to stay, he’s made his peace by employing social media. “We have a gal who tweets on twitter about what’s going on at the mall,” Paine says. “Some of the things are from some of our more obscure retailers who have a sale going on for just one day and she tweets it out and that’s helpful.”

Tso is a little more circumspect, although she, too, says that social media and an ever-changing website are also part of Ala Moana’s marketing. “A lot of the stores that have online [capabilities] have their brick and mortar stores and they need to make it at both,” Tso says. “I’ve noticed that some of the stores have better sales than online because they need to move that inventory to prepare for the next shipment.”

So if you’re hunting bargains, setting foot in the store may be your best bet. As for the much touted free shipping from online sources, Paine, Paulson, and Tso have a warning for all would-be shoppers: Read the fine print. That free offer may not apply to Hawaii, often along with Alaska and Guam.

Freebie offers notwithstanding, “Worm Lady” Mindy Jaffe, owner of Waikiki Worm Co. is more acutely unhappy with web commerce. “I’m having the worst year since I started the business,” Jaffe says. “It’s very hard to compete with the Internet and free shopping and this has hurt us all. I often have people who come in, kick the tires, look at all the products, take my brochures, and then go home and buy off the Internet. With the free shipping, there is no longer a level playing field. Everything can be found on the web these days.”

Whether or not a store falls victim to keen price sensitivity may well depend on the type of retailer. Keauhou Shopping Center tenant Alaia Leighland says she noticed people starting to Christmas shop in August at her gallery, Pele’s Hokulele. Admittedly many of her customers are tourists, but others are residents. She says it’s because she carries singular items and her customers realize that if they don’t buy it when they see it, they may just have to forget it. “This year, the people who are buying the higher end items are just saying ‘I want that,’” Leighland says. “They’re not looking for a bargain.”

That’s welcome news to retailers. And while Paine and Tso would like to know on average how much shoppers are spending, they say it’s too soon to tell. What they can say is that retailers at both malls have reported that shoppers seem to be spending real money and not plastic—and no, you’re not imagining greater crowds out and about. Paine, Tso and Paulson say the crowds are real and there is a fairly even flow throughout weekdays as shoppers try to avoid weekend shopping frenzy.

They also cite another reason: After several years of hunkering down and staying out of stores, shoppers may find themselves yearning for the shared human experience of Christmas shopping. It’s far too early to categorically say a collective sigh of relief will replace the anxiety of the past few years.

Paine jokes that 2010 holiday sales will certainly “be the best in three years.”

Tso goes further: “We’ll see double digits over last year.”

Let’s hope they will be high double digits. See you out there.

To hear the entire interview, go to the Town Square archive at www.hawaiipublicradio.org. This week, Town Square enters its 12th year, and if you have an idea for a show, email Beth-Ann Kozlovich at [email protected]