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.

Why should I buy a light bulb that lasts 25 years? I'm 75 years old.

Posted by: John Ewoldt under Technology Updated: June 18, 2014 - 8:53 AM

I don't know the origin of the green bananas joke, but I heard Joan Rivers say it first, probably 35 years ago. More recently, I think it was repeated in The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel." The one liner goes like this. "I'm so old I don't even buy green bananas."

I was reminded of that old joke when a reader left me a voicemail complaining about my article on LED light bulbs getting cheaper and better. I said that most LEDs last about 23 years under normal usage of about three hours per day.

That prompted the reader who did not leave her name or number to leave this voicemail. "I've never seen anything written about these new LED bulbs that take into account people my age in their 70s. We don't want to spend $10 or $20 on a bulb or a set of bulbs that are going to last 25 years, longer than our lifetime. It's a waste of money. I've never seen anyone respond to that. They should then give senior citizens a discount of half price off. I don't want to buy a bulb and then have a bulb last 25 years. It's a ridiculous thing. So maybe you could do an article about that sometime. It's funny that no one ever mentions that. That's just my opinion. Thanks."

What an eye opener. I had never considered that once a person gets to be 70, 80, or 90 that they start choosing items that won't outlast them. Assuming that they still drive, why would anyone buy a newer car, for example? If a grandchild or great grandchild is getting married, does an older woman figure that a new dress is a waste of money because it will still be good when she dies?

The reader sheds a whole new light on why we give senior citizens a discount. It's because they could die before the item is used up. Maybe we should give accelerated discounts based on age. Buying a new car in your 70s? Here's a 70 percent discount. In your 90s? Here's a 90 percent discount.

Honestly, at the risk of being insensitive, it shocks me a little that a person in her 70s thinks that anything she doesn't use up by the end of her life it going to waste. And maybe it will if her heirs want to throw away a perfectly good light bulb.

Heir #1: "Don't throw away that Sylvania. It cost $10 in 2014."

Heir #2: "But it's only worth 10 cents now."

I realize that some seniors live on limited incomes where a $10 light bulb is an extravagance, even if it will pay for itself in electricity savings in less than two years.

Thank you, 70's reader, for enlightening me to what lies ahead in old age. For now, I'm still buying $10 lightbulbs. And green bananas.

Macy's Ridgedale re-opens restaurant with nod to St. Paul River Room

Posted by: John Ewoldt under Retail Updated: June 13, 2014 - 10:51 AM

Cross off another item on the punch list for Macy's Ridgedale consolidation. The popular Lakeshore Grill has been moved and  is now open after being closed for several months. The new space includes an outdoor patio for nearly 50 diners, an updated menu that doesn't leave out fan favorites, and  a horseshoe-shaped bar accented by the Waterford chandelier from St. Paul's River Room restaurant (the store closed in March 2013).

"We brought back the chandelier as an homage to our history," said Warren Wolfe, group vice-president of Macy's Foods. "We added the sphere around it to contemporize it in the modern surroundings."

The menu still includes faves such as chicken pot pie, Minnesota wild rice soup and popovers, although the puffed pastry has not been miniaturized at the Ridgedale at all locations. "The recipe is the same, just a smaller version," said Wolfe. Otherwise, expect a few menu tweaks to accommodate changing tastes, including some bolder flavors, expanded ethnicity and vegetarian and gluten-free options.

In addition to the restaurant on the second floor, a new Taste Bar Cafe on the first floor offers house-made soups, baked goods, beverages, salads and sandwiches to go and a large assortment of sweets with plenty of casual seating.

The remodeling started when Macy's consolidated its main Ridgedale store with the now demolished men's and home store and added 84,000 square feet to its existing building. The former men's + home location will make way for a new Nordstrom and other tenants to be announced. Nordstrom plans to open in November, 2015.

The newly expanded Macy's is expected to be completed in August.

Restoration Hardware catalog weighs as much as a shot put

Posted by: John Ewoldt under Retail Updated: June 11, 2014 - 2:53 PM

I just received the biggest catalog I've ever received: a 15 pounder from Restoration Hardware with 3,200 pages in 13 sections.

This kind of retro marketing seems backward or forward....I can't decide which. Most retailers are dramatically pulling back on the number of catalogs they mail out due to the Internet.  But Restoration Hardware is going back to the days when retail shops were showrooms and everything has to be special ordered and shipped to the home.

Then there is the issue of paper. In a time where sending out a 3,200 hundred page catalog might seem environmentally insensitive, RH spins the accusation into cotton candy by arguing that the big catalog drop is actually environmentally friendly because, according to a company email, sending only one catalog per year equates to a lighter carbon footprint.

Last year the catalog was only half as large but RH CEO Gary Friedman said the expansion will make consumers think, "Wow, these guys have a lot." By that logic, Sears and J.C. Penney ought to bring back their general merchandise catalogs to pull themselves out of a deep, deep hole.

Despite my grumbling, Friedman knows what he's doing. He probably knows that at Williams-Sonoma, (Pottery Barn, West Elm) 70 percent of sales are catalog driven. Or that women aged 18 to 30 love catalogs as a way to interest them in a brand, according to a survey by Kurt Salmon.

When Friedman took over as CEO of RH in 2001, the company was almost bankrupt. During the recession he raised prices and quality when everyone else was lowering theirs. In 2013 the company had record profits of $69 million up 52% from the previous year, according to SEC filings.

His latest change is to add more design centers similar to the one that opened in Boston last year, a 40,000 square foot megacenter complete with cafe, wine bar, fountains and art installations. The company wants to add even more of them, including rumors of one at the Galleria. The Edina store already gobbled up its back room storage areas and expanded the showroom. A much larger store could be in its future.

Luxury retail analyst Pam Danziger said that RH really understands how affluent American want to decorate their homes. "They understand people who are house-proud," she said.

Apparently, that means putting down the "Atas Shrugged" for the weekend and picking up Restoration Hardware's 13-parter.

The latest Spirit Airlines experience? You don't want to hear it

Posted by: John Ewoldt under Retail Updated: June 10, 2014 - 10:22 AM

Last weekend I flew to Chicago O'Hare on Spirit Airlines.

Was it a barely-survived-to-tell-the-tale-experience with outrageous baggage fees, long delays without updates, surly flight attendants, back breaking uncomfortable seats and lost luggage?

None of that happened to me, at least this time. My worst fear was a delayed flight, but we left a few minutes EARLY to Chicago and the return flight to MSP left on time. So why might you not want to hear about my experience? Because if you hate Spirit as much as many flyers do, my pleasant experience will contradict your "flyer beware" disasters.

 It was one of those cheap fares advertised for $33 that costs $78 once the taxes are added. I also purchased two Big Seats for $20 each, Spirit's version of a business class seat.

Do I recommend paying extra for one of the Big Seats in the first row, which are almost as big as Delta's business class? Yes, but I only paid an extra $20 one-way. It can run as much as $100 or more on longer flights but you're paying only for the extra room, not free food or drink.

On Spirit's Big Seats, the seat pitch (legroom) is 36-inches (28-inches in Spirit economy). On Delta it's 36-38-inches in business class (30 to 34-inches in economy), according to Seatguru.com.

Spirit's Big Seat is 18.5-inches wide (17.75-inches in economy) compared to Delta's business-class seat at 19 to 21-inches wide. It seemed more than adequate for my 170 lb. frame, but I thought it was even wider  since there are only 4 seats across in the first row compared to six seats across in subsequent rows.

One more plus: the Big Seats also recline, unlike all other seats on Spirit. That's right, Spirit's economy seats do not recline. Since it is in the first row (bulkhead), I was worried that we would get charged for our carryons since we could not put them under the seat in front of us. But no, we were able to put them in the overhead without paying the extra $35 to $45. TIP: you may be able to bring a 2-wheeler to fit in the overhead instead of a fit-under-the-seat piece, but I am verifying this with Spirit. That alone will save you $35 or $45.

Nearly everyone who flies Spirit the first time complains about the bag fees for carryons placed in the overhead as well as those checked ($30 to $40). And those who check luggage at the airport are outraged to discover the fee is $100. But you learn. We brought only duffle bags to avoid the baggage fees--and for a weekend trip they're fine. Still, I will admit that a heavy duffle bag is not nearly as convenient to tote as luggage on wheels.

My worst fear was that we would be delayed. Spirit has one of the worst on-time records in the business. Sixty-four percent of its flights arrive on time compared to an industry average of 80 percent, according to Flightstats.com. Experts recommend taking the earliest flight of the day to minimize delays. Spirit's 6:05 a.m. flight to O'Hare has a 72 percent on-time arrival rate (flight 612). It's 9:30 a.m. departure from ORD to MSP has a 63 percent on-time arrival rate (flight 761). By the ways, those numbers have improved. Three months ago, the same flights had on-time percentages of 51 and 45 respectively.

We were fortunate to have on-time arrivals both ways. Everything went off without a hitch. Even the flight attendants were amiable, funny even. As we taxied to the gate in Chicago, the attendant said "We'd like to thank you for flying Spirit Airlines. We hope you had a pleasant flight. If you have any complaints, please call 1-800-S-O-U-T-H-W-E-S-T."

My only regret was the 6:05 a.m. departure. It meant setting an alarm for 2:45 a.m. and boarding the first light rail train of the day at 4:06 a.m. Luckily, our hotel room was ready when we arrived there at 8:30 a.m. and we didn't even get charged extra for early check-in.

Thumbs up for Spirit this time around. Thumbs down for catching any flight that leaves before 8 a.m. Too early for me.

Are coupons on their way to extinction?

Posted by: John Ewoldt under Technology Updated: June 5, 2014 - 4:44 PM

In my recent article about digital coupons, I wrote that even digital coupons (printed from the Internet or on a smartphone) are not taking the place in the freefall of overall coupon usage.

Digital coupons make up only about 10% of coupons redeemed and overall redemption rates have fallen by 50 percent since the 1990s. While rates are falling gradually (nearly 4 percent in 2013) it's alarming that even during the recession when redemptions increased, it didn't reverse the overall slide.

Keep in mind this freefall is happening at a time when the number of coupons being released is rising, making the disparity between what's available and what's being redeemed even more striking. The industry even has its own cheerleader of a show on TLC, "Extreme Couponing," but maybe that's scaring away more consumers than attracting them.

I have to admit that coupons hold less appeal for me too. Possibly it's because so many coupons are for junk food items or that I'm not trying new items as often. NCH's survey said that hair care, shaving needs and vitamins/supplements and skin care preps are the top distributed coupons, and I don't think I redeemed even one coupon for those items last year.

I'm surprised that I've let my own coupon usage drop as much as I have since I'm a bit of a cheapskate. Anyone else noticing that coupons hold less appeal for you?

Resale clothing market still hot; Winmark adds Style Encore in Eagan

Posted by: John Ewoldt under Retail Updated: May 29, 2014 - 4:29 PM

Style Encore, a chain of women's resale boutiques, now has its first Minnesota location in Eagan. the store opened Thursday, May 29 after purchasing new and used women's clothing and accessories in Eagan and Burnsville for several months.

The concept is designed for women by women, said owner Mary Klapperich, who used to work for the parent company WInmark until she decided to become a franchisee with Style Encore. Winmark also owns Plato's Closet, Play It Again Sports and Once Upon a Child. Klapperich made sure that dressing rooms were larger, including a handicapped accessible one that fits a stroller, and painted in neutral colors.

The new Eagan store is Winmark's 13th in country with more agreements to open, said Steve Murphy, president of franchising for Winmark.

Despite a strengthening economy, the U.S. $13 billion resale market continues to do well, growing at about 7 percent each year for the last 2 years, according to the National Association of Resale Professionals.  

What makes Style Encore similar to Clothes Mentor is that each company pays cash on the spot and no appointment is necessary when bringing in merchandise. But Style Encore is somewhat unique is accepting women's items of all seasons at any time. In other words,on an 80 degree day, feel free to bring in calf-length leather boots and North Face parka. "We buy all seasons every day," said Klapperich.

Clothes Mentor COO Chad Olson said that his stores also accept winter items in the off-season but to a lesser extent.They only accept select winter items during the spring summer, based on an item's popularity.

SE's brands include Ann Taylor, White House Black Market, Chico’s, Talbots, Coldwater Creek, Banana Republic, Gap, J. Jill, and The Limited.

The store is located at 1960 Cliff Lake Road, suite 125 in Eagan.

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