From merchandising and advertising to real estate and technology, business reporters offer insight into the latest trends and people that define today’s top retailers.

Sam's Club one-ups Costco with freebies on new membership

Posted by: John Ewoldt under Retail Updated: October 29, 2014 - 1:17 PM

Last month it was Costco offering freebies with a new membership for $55 on the daily deal site Living Social. New members could pay $55 for a standard membership and get freebies thrown in such as a Costco $20 gift card, an apple pie, rotisserie chicken, bathroom tissue and identity theft protection.

Now Sam's Club is doing its own version on Living Social in time for holiday purchases for new members. It's actually a better deal in my opinion than Costco's. Here's the offer:

• $45 for a one-year Sam's Plus membership (a $100 value) Note: this is the premium membership
• Complimentary spouse or other household member
• $20 Sam's Club gift card
• Four free fresh food items (a $22.18 value) including rotisserie chicken, spinach artichoke dip, cookies and a baguette.

The Plus membership offers a number of additional perks described in the Living Social offer, including instant savings. And it's more practical than identity theft protection, which Consumer Reports generally recommends skipping.

Why the sudden promotions from warehouse clubs? It's possible that it's tied to the holidays. Financial analyst Philip Van Deusen at Tigress Financial Partners said, "All retail is in an extremely promotional phase after such a horrible winter."

That's good news for consumers, especially those who are not current Sam's Club members. The Living Social promo is good through Nov. 4 unless terminated earlier.

Minorities and millennials will be key this holiday season

Posted by: Kavita Kumar under Retail Updated: October 29, 2014 - 11:55 AM

Listen up, retailers: millennials and minorities may be your salvation this holiday season.

About 17 percent of African Americans and 13 percent of Asian Americans and Latinos said they expect to spend more this holiday season, compared to 10 percent of the overall population, according to a survey of 25,000 households last month by Nielsen. And about 17 percent of millennials said they plan to spend more online this holiday season, a higher percentage than other generations.

“It’s a consumer landscape shift that materializes in multicultural consumers and millennials,” said James Russo, Nielsen’s senior vice president of global consumer insights. “And holiday is just a reflection of the overall consumer mindset.”

While marketers have been acknowledging they need tor each out to people of color for years, the survey’s findings are an important prod for companies as they look for growth in a slow-growth environment, he added.

Nielsen expects holiday spending to rise 1.8 percent this year, which is slightly higher than its forecasts the last two years. But it still signals fairly moderate growth. (The National Retail Federation, by comparison has projected a 4.1 percent increase in retail sales for the holidays.)

While Nielsen sees some signs for optimism with lower gas prices and an improving job market, about 68 percent of consumers in its survey still said they believe we’re in a recession. That percentage has been improving every year, but it still highlights thtat the consumers if feeling pretty stressed out.

“There’s improvement, but there’s hesitation as well,” Russo said. “They are very much focused on their spending."

Amid such a tight landscape, the ultra-practical gift cards are expected to be the top holiday gift this year, followed by tech products and toys, according to Nielsen’s survey.

As for millennials, companies have become more focused on them recently, especially as they are starting families and joining the workforce.

"They're coming into their own," Russo said.

But while retailers will try to entice consumers to spend early in the season, millennials and multiculatural households will procrastinate a bit, waiting longer than the rest of the population to start their shopping.

For one, Russo noted that they know that retailers are aggressive with promotions early in the season, but also in the last two weeks before Christmas.

"So there is some benefit to waiting as well," he said.

Some retailers pull back on last-minute shipping guarantees

Posted by: Kavita Kumar under Retail, Lions Updated: October 27, 2014 - 12:20 PM

Retailers will push shoppers to not be such procrastinators this holiday season -- at least when it comes to placing online orders after last year’s shipping snafu.

About 79 percent of retailers will set their standard shipping deadlines for guaranteed Christmas delivery to expire at least a week before the holiday, compared to 74 percent who said they would do so last year, according to a survey conducted for Shop.org, a division of the National Retail Federation.

And about 21 percent will set deadlines to expire Dec. 19 or later, compared to 26.3 percent who said they would do so last year.

The earlier deadlines are a response to last year’s debacle in which the shipping system was overwhelmed by the bevy of last-minute orders that led to millions of holiday gifts that were not delivered in time for the Christmas deadline. Aggressive shipping promotions by retailers up until the very end didn't help, either.

“It’s important to remember that the 2013 holiday season was impacted by a multitude of factors that affected the supply chain in the days leading up to Christmas, including bad weather and a shortened holiday calendar,”  Vicki Cantrell, Shop.org’s executive director, said in a statement. “That said, retailers and their delivery partners this year are proactively planning to make sure they meet customer expectations for delivery and customer service.”

The caution this year also comes at a time when UPS and FedEx are being more proactive in talking to retailers about what is realistic. UPS, for example, has been pushing retailers to hold their biggest sales in mid-December and to banish overnight shipping offers on Dec. 23, according to the Wall Street Journal

Some retailers have -- sort of -- listened. Nordstrom has moved back its guaranteed-to-arrive-by-Christmas deadline by three hours to noon on Dec. 23. But others desperate to bring in as much holiday sales as possible have extended their deadline. JCPenney, for example, is guaranteeing standard shipping orders before midnight on Dec. 20, up three days from last year, the Journal reported.

Black Friday might not reign supreme this year

Posted by: Kavita Kumar under Retail Updated: October 24, 2014 - 3:57 PM

Will this be the year when Black Friday is finally dethroned from being the biggest shopping day of the year?

Bill Martin thinks so. The founder of ShopperTrak, a Chicago-based firm that measures store traffic, has become a guru of sorts when it comes to predicting and measuring the ebbs and flow of the holiday season.

According to ShopperTrak, Black Friday has reigned as king of the holiday shopping season  – and of the entire year for that matter — every year in the last decade by bringing in the most sales on that day. But its supremacy has begun to wane as more stores have begun opening on Thanksgiving night.

Macy's has already said it will open at 6 p.m. on Thanksgiving this year. Other major retailers have not yet announced their hours for that day, but Martin expects that more will follow suit.

“Our numbers show over the last three years that Thursday sales are growing at a pretty rapid pace,” he said. “It’s leeching sales from Black Friday.”

Instead, he expects Dec. 20, the last Saturday before Christmas, often referred to as Super Saturday, to be the No. 1 shopping day this year in terms of sales.

Black Friday should still slide in at the No. 2 spot, he said, followed by the day after Christmas, which falls on a Friday when many people should be off from work. His firm, by the way tracks in-store traffic and purchases, and does not include online sales in its forecasts.

He added that the Thanksgiving night openings are not leading to an overall bump in sales. They are just taking away sales from Black Friday.

“Retailers say that consumers are clamoring for them to be open on Thanksgiving, but that’s not the case,” he said. “They’re just attempting to get to the wallet before the money is gone. That’s what this holiday creep is all about.”

Martin was in town this week for the Shopper Marketing Conference & Expo held at the Minneapolis Convention Center.

So how robust will the holiday shopping season be this year? His firm will finalize its forecast in the next week or so, but he said he is expecting it to be in the range of 2.5 to 3.5 percent for in-store sales. That is a bit lower than the National Retail Federation, which has put out a rosy forecast of 4.1 percent increase for holiday sales. Martin added that he thinks the NRF’s number is a little optimistic.

“Growth is slowing a little bit, but growth continues to prevail,” he added.

Also, he said to expect to see retailers being more aggressive in November with promotions. It’s part of a decade-long shift to more holiday sales that month as retailers try to get the shoppers' wallet earlier, he said.

“November continues to grow as December declines,” he said. “That stroke of midnight after Halloween, you’re going to start seeing the Christmas promotions.”

Get ready for it.

FREE financial advice (and puppies) this Saturday

Posted by: John Ewoldt under Retail Updated: October 24, 2014 - 9:25 AM

Everyone can use some free financial advice. Everyone. I'll bet even Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, who just pledged to give $100 million to fight Ebola, gets a second opinion now and then.

That's why Saturday's free financial planning seminar put on by the Financial Planning Association of Minnesota is such a good deal. For more details, check out my article in today's paper.

If you can't attend Saturday and you'd like a hand in sorting your finances, you can go to the FPA site to find a certified financial planner. Most consumer finance experts recommend finding a CFP who works on a fee-only basis. Fee-only planners charge you only for their time (after a free initial consultation) rather than a commission on products such as insurance or mutual funds you purchase from them.

No one should feel that he or she doesn't have enough savings to get financial advice. Singles who have an adjusted gross income of $20,000 or less and married couples with a household income of $40,000 or less qualify for free advice from the Financial Planning Association of Minnesota. The FPA makes us dig a bit to find the pro bono info but here is the link. Use this resource later or attend Saturday's sessions, which are open to anyone, regardless of income.

Update: the puppies allotted to the free event at the Wilder Center in St. Paul on Saturday have already found decent homes with new owners who promised to contribute enough to their 401(k) to receive the full employer match. Check the free section on Craigslist for more free puppies as they become available.

Creative Kidstuff pops up at Mall of America for the holidays

Posted by: John Ewoldt under Malls Updated: October 15, 2014 - 1:02 PM

Coldwater Creek is out. Creative Kidstuff is in. The space in the south wing of Mall of America next to Lego Land is now filled by Creative Kidstuff's temporary pop-up store. The new store opened Wednesday and will be open through mid-January.

"This is our first pop-up store," said CEO Roberta Bonoff. The Mall of America store is the company's 7th store, along with an additional five airport terminal stores. Bonoff said the company has been approached by Mall of America officials for years to open a store. The temporary digs may turn into a long-term lease depending on business and rent negotiations, she said.

Bonoff is hoping for a big weekend of business during MEA this Thursday and Friday. But one thing customers won't be shopping for is the HOT TOY of 2014. It has yet to surface but that's no surprise. Although many toys have been popular sellers, the last HOT TOY was Zhu Zhu pets in 2008, complete with people checking stock via social networking and adults stealing the pets from the hands of babes. (No holiday season is complete without the story of a greedy adult ruining a child's Christmas just to score a few bucks on eBay.)

Still, parents are grabbing best sellers such as Magna-Tiles, Teeter Popper, Squiggs and anything Frozen, said Happi Olson, director of sales and marketing for Creative Kidstuff,

But the lack of a HOT TOY isn't hurting business. "We still have the volume," Bonoff said. "Our sales have increased for the last several years."

In 2013, Creative Kidstuff acquired Sensational Beginnings, a Michigan-based catalog and online retailer, to boost online sales. CK was originally founded in 1982.

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