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.

Shopping for great deals Dec. 26? Here are some of the TC's best.

Posted by: John Ewoldt under Department stores Updated: December 24, 2014 - 2:37 PM

If you didn't make it to Saks Off Fifth on Nicollet Mall in downtown Minneapolis this week, you still haven't missed 70% off the entire store. The store is expected to close Jan. 20, according to one sales associate on Wednesday. The 70% off the lowest marked price sale

 (shown) began Monday, Dec. 22 and is expected to remain at 70% off until Jan. 4, when it may get bumped up to 80%, she said. Items are selling quickly, but there was still plenty of merchandise on Dec. 24. Saks is considering a new, smaller location in Minneapolis, but has not confirmed anything yet, according to Tiffany Bourre, director of external communications at Hudson Bay Company, which owns Saks. It opened a new outlet in Twin Cities Premium Outlets in Eagan last summer.

Judith McGrann & Friends gift shop (4615 Excelsior Blvd, Mpls., 612-922-2971) discounts her entire store 50% every year on Dec. 26 through the end of the year. Nothing is held back including women's clothing and accessories, jewelry, ceramics, kitchen ware, candles and seasonal items. Discounts do not increase. Unsold items are donated to charity. This is a very popular sale. Get in line before the store opens for the best selection.

Another store that will have diehard fans waiting in line on Friday before the doors open is Room & Board in Edina. Despite the popular outlet store in Golden Valley, R&B's after Christmas sale is extremely well-attended. Save 20 to 50 percent. All floor samples are final sale as in the outlet store, but insiders will be checking the website at midnight on Dec. 25 for additional items released on clearance that may be returned if they don't work. Locals can also save on shipping costs by picking items up at the Golden Valley Distribution Center.

Other sales of note: Nordstrom's Half-Yearly men's sale begins Friday and continues through Dec. 29 at Mall of America. Half-Price Books discounts everything 20% Friday through Dec. 30. An underappreciated bargain shop called Discount 70 (4027 Central Av. NE., Columbia Heights, 763-781-8922) discounts everything in the main store 50%, except sofas and loveseats, through Jan. 3.

Online prices of toys were lower on Black Friday than Super Saturday

Posted by: Kavita Kumar under Target Updated: December 23, 2014 - 5:29 PM

The conventional wisdom has been that it’s best to wait until late in the holiday season to get the lowest prices. But that wasn’t the case this year when it came to toys, according to analytics firm 360pi.

That firm has been closely tracking the online price changes on thousands of items throughout this holiday season at major retailers. Its most recent study focuses on a sample of over 270 toys, some of which were expected to be the hot sellers of the season and some of which were picked at random.

It found that that the prices on those toys at Target, Toys R Us, Amazon and Walmart were lower on Black Friday than they were on the so-called "Super Saturday," the last Saturday before Christmas, which was expected to be the busiest shopping day of the year. But, the firm added, it wasn’t a huge difference.

"After Super Saturday, with before-Christmas shipping no longer avaialble, we can see retailers returning to their 'regular price,'" 360pi wrote in its report.

Another interesting nugget from the report was that Amazon, Target and Walmart raised prices on those toys on Friday, the day before Super Saturday, and then dropped them on Saturday. That way, one might surmise, the "sales" seemed even bigger on those items.

So when was the best time to buy those toys? Toys R Us, Walmart, and Target had their lowest average online prices at some point after Black Friday during "Cyber Week", the first week of December. 

Interestingly enough, Amazon was the msot consistent with its pricing on toys throughout the period from Black Friday to Super Saturday. It was the traditional retailers who had more erratic pricing changes.

Save $500 to $5,000 on a new car with a $10 tool

Posted by: John Ewoldt under Retail Updated: December 21, 2014 - 10:57 AM

In Sunday's Your Money column I write about the methods I used to help a friend get a good deal on a new Subaru. No I didn't buy him a new car for the holidays, but people supposedly give new cars as Christmas gifts. December ranks as the top month for U.S. car sales, with about 1 in 10 vehicles sold in December, according to Bloomberg.

And those king sized bows? A Los Angeles company called "King Sized Bows" appropriately enough, said that it sells about 2,500 car toppers each year, with buyers split evenly between consumers and dealerships. So far, I haven't been able to find the king sized bows distributor in Minnesota.

Let's say that you are one of the lucky ones purchasing a new car soon. One important negotiating tool if you're buying a new vehicle for yourself or a loved one is to find out if there are secret dealer incentive programs. Sometimes known as dealer "holdback," these programs are in addition to special low financing rates or manufacturer rebates.

These incentives can be significant--starting at $500 and going as high as $5,500. That is why it is often possible to buy a vehicle far under the invoice price, said Robert Ellis of Checkbook.org, a non-profit that includes car buying services. Incentives may increase because a car isn't selling well, dealers are overstocked, or a newer model is coming out soon and the manufacturer wants the old models off the lot.

You can find out which vehicle models currently have dealer incentives at several sources. If you order the Consumer Reports New Car Price Report for $14, it indicates if the model offers dealer incentives, holdbacks or rebates. But if you want to see a list of all vehicles and their holdback amounts, go to CarDeals. For $10 you can get a list that can be printed. The current issue is dated Dec. 19, but the Dec. 9 issue included these secret incentives:

$1,000: BMW 3-series 2015 (excluding 328d)

$2,000 to $2,500: Chevy Cruz 2014, Hyundai Elantra Sport 2014, Mercedes C300 Sport Sedan 2015 4matic, Toyota Prius Liftback 2014 (excludes Prius V, Plug-In and C)

$3,000 to $3,500: Chevy Malibu 2014 or 2015

$4,000 to $5,500: BMW 7-Series 2015 (excludes Alpina), Chrysler 300C 2014 (excludes 300/SRT/300S) and Ford Taurus 2014

This is only a sampling. Many more incentives are listed in the issue. The holdback incentive is not a guarantee that the dealership will pass along the savings to the customer, but it's a powerful tool to take into negotiating.

This is why the buying technique mentioned in the Your Money column is so helpful. Let the dealers bid against each other via email or by phone. The one who can afford to sell you the car for the lowest price will rise to the top.

Not every vehicle will have an added incentive. My friend's Subaru only had low interest financing offer--no holdback, but I was still able to get the vehicle for $250 under invoice.

You may be able to get the holdback incentive programs free from Automotive News or Edmunds, Ellis said, but even paying $10 to potentially save $500 to $5,000 is well worth it.

"How smart people carry beer" is the latest gadget hopeful

Posted by: John Ewoldt under Retail Updated: December 19, 2014 - 2:28 PM

The Australian "Stubby Strip" maybe should have changed its name as it hopped hemispheres. Most Americans probably don't know that a "stubby" is a short, wide beer bottle aka a "steinie."

Nonetheless, the Twin Cities is the first market in the U.S. to be introduced to an easy way to tote a six pack of beer, soda, water and energy drinks or a 4-pack of wine. The beer or wine caddy fits glass, aluminum or plastic bottles and cans up to 1.24 liters. (Two-liter soda bottles are too large to fit).

The lightweight neoprene fabric and velcro enclosure keep drinks cold and secure as you carry them with a simple, comfortable handle.

Franchise owner Korosh Delnawaz said business has been brisk and he's sold nearly 3,000 of them since November. The advantage is that the material is much lighter weight than a cooler and when folded flat it takes up far less space. Delnawaz describes the strip as an easier way to cart drinks to a beach, boat, campsite, sporting event, party or concert. "Think of a cooler as a mother ship," he said. "The Stubby Strip is much more portable."

Delnawaz currently sells two varieties in kiosks in Ridgedale on the second floor near Macy's and in Mall of America on the third floor near Sears. The price is $24.95 for the Original strip that carries 7 regular sized bottles. It's $29.95 for the Vino strip that holds 4 wine bottles. The Original comes in 5 colors and the Vino comes in two.

The company is hoping to land the product in Wal-Mart and Target, but for now it's available online and at the two kiosks in MOA and Ridgedale.

Geek Squad gives free help at O'Hare this week

Posted by: Kavita Kumar under Best Buy Updated: December 15, 2014 - 1:13 PM

Best Buy is lending out its geeks to harried travelers coming through Chicago's O'Hare Airport this week as the holiday traveling -- and shopping -- season kick into higher gear.

The Geek Squad has set up a first-of-its-kind "airport precinct" in the airport's "H" concourse from which a handful of agents are doling out free advice and tech help to travelers who may be having problems with their smartphones or tablets. The booth also has charging stations and workstations where travelers can surf the web, play games, or, of course, shop for last-minute gifts.

Clad in their trademark white shifts and black ties, the Geek Squad agents will also roam the terminal with backpack charging stations and will bring their advice directly to passengers while they are waiting at their gates.

"There is nothing more frustrating than technology troubles while you are traveling," Chris Askew, president of Geek Squad Services, said in a statement. "That's why we decided to give the gift of Geek Squad to travelers this holiday, and offer free service and advice, along with a well-deserved break."

The booth opened today and will be up and running from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. through December 23.

In addition to building goodwill with travelers, the initiative also is a way for the Richfield-based retailer to spread the word about the Geek Squad, a network of more than 20,000 agents that help with repairs and installation of electronics and appliances. The service is one of the ways Best Buy has been trying to differentiate itself from its online competitors.

One of the nation's busiest airports, more than six million travelers are expected to go through O'Hare in the month of December alone.

Aldi grocery drops a couple of gifts in consumers' stockings this week

Posted by: John Ewoldt under Retail Updated: December 15, 2014 - 4:59 PM

Aldi supermarkets dropped a couple of gifts in Twin Cities' stockings for the holidays--coupons and credit cards.

The retailer that used to accept only a select number of debit cards is now accepting all credit cards, including Visa, MasterCard, Discover and American Express. "Minnesota and a few stores in Syracuse, New York are the two limited test markets in the country," said Matt Lilla, divisional vice-president of Aldi in Faribault, Minn.

The test began in November and customers and cashiers have both welcomed it enthusiastically, Lilla said.

In Sunday's Star Tribune (Dec. 14), Aldi also included a single glossy sheet (shown) with a $5 off coupon off a $30 purchase. The coupon offers are a first for Aldi this year, with a similar one running around Thanksgiving."We're hoping to attract shoppers who may be looking for a new grocery store after Rainbow closed," said Lilla.

The offer comes as somewhat of a surprise considering that Aldi does not accept manufactuers' coupons. Until this season, I never saw sit offer store coupons either.

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