Time for my annual look at some of the best and worst moments for shoppers and consumers last year. Send me your own rants and raves if I've missed something. No doubt the biggest story for us in 2008 was the loss of many retailers, including Steve & Barry's, Linens N' Things, ReFurnish, and selected locations of Home Depot. In 2009 we're losing Macy's Brookdale, Circuit City, Club Libby Lu, Smith & Hawken in St. Paul and Cost Plus World Markets. Who else is vulnerable in 2009, according to Walletpop.com? Office Depot, Pier 1, Sears, Ethan Allen, Fashion Bug, Ann Taylor, PacSun, Mattress Discounters and Limited Too.
Classiest, cleverest GOB sale
Quitting-business sales are by nature depressing, but the classiest going-out-of-business sale that I witnessed was the recent demise of 42nd Street Gifts (4165 Minnehaha Av. S., Minneapolis). Annie Hines, who owned the shop for 12 years, included games and prizes at her sale. Customers were allotted points for their purchases but also just for coming in the door (no purchase required). Many customers came in multiple times, unlike most GOB sales where customers come in only once, said Tom Son of Wingate Sales Solutions, the sale organizer. Prizes included a 42-inch flat-screen TV, a wool rug, and a Sheraton hotel stay. "It made the atmosphere feel less like a wake and more like a game," said Hines. She closed the store last week after a six-week sale. A word to the wise -- if you have beloved, independent stores in your neighborhood that you'd hate to lose, support them before the GOB sale.
Longest GOB sale
Wickes won the award in 2007 for a going-out-of-business sale that lasted four months. The 2008 winner easily surpassed Wickes' "longevity." River of Goods in St. Paul started its sale in August and kept it going until mid-January, a six-month last gasp. The funniest thing about the marathon? Discounts started at 70 percent and by January had "shot up" to 80 percent. Even at 80 percent off, I was never convinced that the merchandise was a good deal. The fact that its imported items could not easily be found anywhere else in the Twin Cities for comparison's sake made the discounts more suspect.
Opitz Outlet had a quirky, amazing shoe bargain -- mis-mates one-half size different than the other shoe for $5. Opitz' Annex (4300 Excelsior Blvd., St. Louis Park, 952-922-3536) sold hundreds of pairs of men's and women's new, undamaged mis-mates from designers for $5, regularly up to $400. The sale was so successful that a new shipment of 1,200 women's and 200 men's mis-mates starts tomorrow. Women's shoes and boots are priced at $10 to $15 and men's are $15. This time most are athletic shoes including Nike, Timberland, FUBU, Baby Phat, Skechers, Converse and Ralph Lauren. Original retail prices range from $75 to $375. Since many of us have one foot slightly larger anyway, try on a pair. Why the need for a sale like this? Buyers try on several sizes of the same shoe style and deliberately or mistakenly take two different sizes of the same style.
Ultimate Electronics ignored several requests by the Better Business Bureau of Minnesota and North Dakota to change its advertising or be more accurate when its ads say it shops Best Buy, Circuit City and Wal-Mart and adjusts prices to give customers the absolutely lowest prices. The BBB comparison-shopped five times in 2008 and on every occasion found that Ultimate did not have the lowest price on the sampling of items checked. A Sony S750 camera, for example, was priced lower at all three competitors than at Ultimate. The BBB has asked Ultimate to modify its ads, but the company has not done so. Ultimate's president, Jim Pearse, said the company's intent is to adjust prices to beat the competition and has no plans to change its advertising. "Prices on electronics change daily," he said. Although I think the company's ads mislead consumers into thinking they don't need to comparison-shop, I applaud Ulimate's customer service and its competition in the marketplace. Ultimate, with six Twin Cities locations, offers a 60-day price guarantee if the competitor has the item in stock.
Worst and best outlets
Worst: Pawn America outlet (5600 Excelsior Blvd., St. Louis Park, 952-926-1379). Open about a year, the outlet has a lot of merchandise that is not discounted further from the regular stores. For better deals, look for the yellow "an additional 25 percent off" stickers. Last week, a used Sharp 37-inch flat screen was $712 after the extra discount, about the same price as new online.
Best: Lofthouse/ C2B Concepts (7350 Commerce Lane, Fridley, 763-586-6241). After a reader tipped me off, I visited Lofthouse in June, when the artisan, preservative-free bread loaves were 50 cents and rolls a quarter. Prices have since doubled, but they're still a steal. Only a few flavors are sold each day, but favorites are cranberry walnut, chocolate, black bean/salsa and multigrain. The outlet might add waffles and muffins in 2009. Open 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. weekdays.
Many readers loved the Department 56 sale that the American Cancer Society had in May. But with Department 56 in bankruptcy, any repeat of the sale is in limbo. The Cancer Society's mega garage sale in October was its last, said coordinator Leah Swenson. The costs of collecting the goods year-round and storing them for the sale were too high. It probably will be replaced with smaller, more frequent sales, with an emphasis on furniture, household goods, art and knickknacks. Clothing will not be included, said Swenson.
Other favorite sales included the BlueMountain.com gardening accessories sample sale and the Spectacle Shoppe's "All eyeglass frames for $39" sale. Both are expected to return in slightly different formats this year. Stay tuned.
Retail genie opens a door; closes a window
A North Face store appeared at Lake and Hennepin in Minneapolis, but then the wonderful selection of North Face samples at Thrifty Outfitters in Midwest Mountaineering disappeared. Something tells me there's a connection.
I read a lot of Heloise-type columns in which the writer can't get the mildew-y smell from towels or clothes, but an appliance repair man from Savage, Paul Flynn, went to the origin of the problem: the mold and mildew inside the inner tub of front-loading washers. A capful of Smellywasher ($16), available at participating Ace Hardware stores, gets rid of the problem. Flynn explains how to prevent the problem from occurring at www.smellywasher.com.
Readers alerted me to many good sales and stores last year. I suspect that 2009 will be an even bumpier ride than last year. Please keep your tips coming.