May 2, 2010

Retailing 2010

Retailers have cause for optimism

Story by Kim Craft

Crystal Flynt recalls the day she and her mother opened their second boutique, the same day the economy tanked two years ago. While not a good omen, Flynt says the coincidence makes her even more determined to make the business thrive.

Flynt says "you’re pretty much married to your business, and if you love it, there’s nothing you’d rather be doing, and that’s our case. I think you have to be ready to put your all into it and give everything you’ve got."

The Flynts' Bon Boutique in Broadway village reflects an eclectic mix of unique items collected from near and far. Home furnishings, prints books and clothing compete for a visitor's attention, accented by handmade decorations, including a recently created birds nest assembled under the counter. Eventually the pair would like to design and market their own line of clothing, but for now, they say business is good.

However the retail industry recently suffered through one of the worst holiday seasons in nearly four decades. But the news isn't all bleak. Retail forecasts predict modest gains in the first half of 2010 ...a forecast of "notable" improvement compared to a dismal 2009. The National Retail Federation has projected industry sales will increase 2.5% from last year, when sales fell 2.5%.

To keep her competitive edge Flynt says she puts into practice every day the skills she learned as a student of retailing and consumer sciences at the University of Arizona. Melinda Burke, Director of the Terry J. Lundgren Center for Retailing, says she feels optimistic about the present outlook. She says retailers report their hiring needs are up, coming to campus to recruit students and opening new programs that had been closed. And consumers seem less reluctant to open their wallets.

"There’s a clear indication that consumers have been saving their dollars, very careful about their expenditures, and they’re willing, anxious and eager to go into the market place and begin to buy things that they have given up for too long," says Burke.

Forecasts bear out that feeling of optimism, with retail sales projections, excluding autos and gas, increasing up to 2.0% in the first two quarters of the year, and step up to 4.0% growth in the second half of the year, along with projected job and income growth. And the numbers are up at the UA. Student enrollment in retailing and consumer sciences has risen by 38 percent. In spite of a dismal year for retailers in 2009, student Danielle Nicolai has learned to take the long view.

As students stuff packets for the Center's upcoming Global Retailing Conference, they share Burke's sense of optimism. Danielle Nicolai begins a new job at Dick's Sporting Goods in Portland, Oregon in retail management following her graduation this spring. And Lauren Schmidt will spend her summer as an intern for Pottery Barn in San Francisco. One trend will continue into 2010. Non-store and online sales will remain strong. That has students really thinking about the big picture.

Schmidt says, " I think it's hard to tell right now exactly where the retailing industry is going to go. Our technology is advancing so much and this is really putting the control into the consumers' hands, so it's really going to be our generation's responsibility to take charge of this and respond to the consumer’s needs."

As a small business owner Flynt understands the cyclical nature of the retail market. However, she sees the fallout of the recent recession as unemployment and home foreclosures have made consumers necessarily more cautious.

"It's going to be a long time, and I think things will be forever changed. I think that could be a good thing because we’ve been a culture of quantity, not quality," says Flynt.

And, because she can, Flynt makes a strong case for buying local.

"I think in our world of homogenization and seeing the same stuff everywhere it's really special when you have stores that are home grown and that are done by people that you know and are in your community," says Flynt.

Forecasts favor Flynt, with apparel stores and especially off-mall specialty stores leading growth. Retail spending growth will still depend on real improvement in the housing market and employment, and the availability of credit.

MORE: Business, Economy
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