Shoppers & Retailers: Finding a New Normal

By Chris Worthy
January 31, 2012
Arden Korn has learned to shift with the changing tide of retail. As owner of Little Lambs and Ivy, she sells clothing, gifts and other items for infants and children. Korn says despite an upturn in sales, the recession has changed the shopping habits of customers.

“They are so used to something being on sale that they are looking for that on everything,” Korn says. “This recession has lasted so long, that’s the mode of operation for retailers now.”

The retail landscape is changing, according to Marianne Bickle, chair of the Department of Retailing at the University of South Carolina. Retail trends in the Midlands reflect a dynamic business landscape that is setting a new standard for the future.

“Consumers are changing how they shop,” Bickle says. “Retailers are changing how they work with consumers.”

Bickle says shoppers and shopkeepers are breathing a sigh of relief as sales are on the rise after a long period of trouble.

“The marketplace is getting better,” she says. “Retailers are having a better time. People are starting to spend but it’s not because the economy is getting better. For so long, consumers were really holding on to their cash. Retailers are pulling out all the stops now. They are lowering prices and adding value by offering discounts and coupons. Approximately half of the holiday sales are not for holiday purchases. The prices are so good that consumers are buying things for themselves.”

Bickle says retailers in the Midlands have adapted well to changing times.

Kelly Tabor, co-owner of Good for the Sole Shoes, reflects that ability.

“Over the past year, we’ve had to really become more competitive,” he says. “The dot coms are offering free shipping and, of course, no tax. To combat that, we’ve had to discount our shoes 10 percent.”

Tabor is building relationships with customers by doing seminars and special events, such as holding a recent line showing at Fort Jackson and participating in Teacher Appreciation Week at local schools.

“We’re having to think outside the box,” Tabor says. “We can’t wait for customers to come to us. We have to go to them. We do trunk shows throughout the year, showing styles we carry and even styles we don’t that we can order for customers.”

Bickle says brick-and-mortar stores are finding innovative ways to attract customers, but the competition with online retailers is fierce. The ease of online ordering and consumers’ increased comfort with the security of Internet purchases have changed the way they shop.

“Many people are in front of a computer for hours at a time,” Bickle says. “For a little diversion, you might go to a web site. To go out and find parking, you have to have a half-hour or more. For an online store, you need five minutes. Online retailing is definitely a threat. The smart thing brick-and-mortar stores is doing is having both.”

Tabor is taking creative approaches to attracting new business and drawing potential customers to his store. He transformed a little-used space in his shop to showcase local art.

“We invite local artists to bring in their artwork to display,” he says. “That’s free of charge, and we don’t take a commission if it sells. You have to be creative and do things that are different.”

Some market segments are seeing higher prices.

“Consumers are paying more for vehicles and some forms of electronics,” Bickle says. “Electronics continue to be highly sought after.”

Consumers are also paying more for food, but not by choice, Bickle says.

“With cars and electronics, they have the option,” she says. “The cost of food has increased 14 percent.”

Items with decreased prices in recent years include clothing, hardware and some toys. For many purchases, consumers are seeking the best deal around.

“When you factor in coupons and discounts for clothing, toys, shoes, accessories – people absolutely are really getting great discounts,” Bickle says. “In the Midlands, we are fortunate that we have a really good cost of living. We have our fair share of people who need things. For the most part around the country, couponing and sales are very popular with retailers right now. How much you save depends on the cost of where you live.”

Korn says younger customers at her store have grown accustomed to bargains and having supply outpace demand.

“All of a sudden, our selling has picked up, and we are selling like crazy,” she says.

As a result, customers are disappointed when items sell out and Korn is unable to reorder them.

“They are used to going to any store and having anything they want and having it marked down,” she says. “If the grandmothers see it and they like it, they buy it. Years of experience have taught a grandmother to get it if they see it.”

Korn says she ordered for this year based on the experience of the past few years. Her suppliers prepared that way as well. While she is glad for the upturn in sales, it does pose challenges.

“A lot of my manufacturers had no spare inventory,” she says. “They were careful in projecting how much to make.”

Bickle sees positive trends on the horizon.

“Retailing is the second-largest employer in the nation,” behind the government, she says. “Retailing is such an important business. It is absolutely vital to the health and well-being of our community, our employment, our taxes – to everything.”

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