Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Swoozie's going out of business

Atlanta-based gift and stationery chain Swoozie's - which has two Charlotte-area stores, at SouthPark's Morrison and at Blakeney - is going out of business. 

The nine-year-old company sought Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection earlier this month and is liquidating after failing to find a buyer that would keep its 43 stores operating. Instead, Hilco Merchant Resources, a suburban Chicago company that has also helped shut down Circuit City and Blockbuster stores, among others, bought Swoozie's assets for $7.43 million. (They have a retail value of more than $18 million.) At the time of the bankruptcy filing, Swoozie's blamed its financial woes on the recession and the poor performance of 13 stores it had acquired in the Northeast.

If you're interested in sending the chain a sympathy card - or stocking up on other greetings - take heed: Closing sales are now in progress, with all in-stock merchandise on sale at up to 30 percent off, Hilco said in a news release. 

In a letter posted on the company's Web site, Swoozie's founder Kelly Plank Dworkin expressed disappointment at the outcome: "This isn't just a business for me," she wrote. "This is my life, my family and my passion....Although I am so sincerely sorry for any pain or hardship this situation is causing, I will always appreciate and hold dear the people and the experiences that Swoozie's has introduced along the way. I am a woman of faith, I am confident that this has a larger purpose that will one day make sense."

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Stationery maven heads to town

Pens, cards, notecards, paper: If it's stationery, chances are I have a major weakness for it (if not necessarily the budget to constantly indulge that). So it's with that in mind I note that Chris Plantan, the founder of design-savvy, upscale office supply maker Russell + Hazel, will visit Charlotte Wednesday and Thursday for a trunk show at Paper Twist, across the street from SouthPark mall in Specialty Shops on the Park (also home of Williams-Sonoma or, as a former colleague affectionately referred to it, "The Temple of Sonoma"). 

Based in Minneapolis, Russell + Hazel promotes itself with the slogan "add life to your work," and its line includes colorful, sturdy binders, folders, papers and organization tools. Plantan is the creative mind behind the brand, says Paper Twist's Sasha Harbrecht, and the trunk show will include new colors and products. The store, open 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., will be offering specials and treats in conjunction with the event.

Gift shop opens in Myers Park

The Gifted Box, a shop focusing on artisan gifts, opened for business earlier this month on Circle Avenue in Myers Park, just off Providence Road, behind the Buttercup. The store is also prepping an e-commerce site that should be up and running in a few weeks, business partners Stephanie Ewing and Rene Hellams said.

"The Gifted Box was born from a love for original and beautiful objects, the thrill of the hunt for them and the desire to use them creatively to make people feel special," Ewing, the store's marketing and design director, said in an e-mail.

The boutique-styled gallery features items produced in smaller quantities, with gifts for all occasions, Ewing said. Hellams, noted that the shop has tried to pair items together for easier gift-giving, such as offering a leather journal and pen, or gourmet coffee with pewter coffee canisters and scoops. It also offers wedding and event planning, corporate gifts and custom-designed gifts.

The store is open Monday through Saturday and is located at 342 Circle Avenue, suite 3, in Charlotte. Details:

Friday, March 26, 2010

Best Buy does the Independence shuffle

You can soon add Best Buy to the list of retailers that have moved farther out on Independence Boulevard - away from downtown and into Matthews, leaving behind a potentially empty box at an older shopping center. 

The electronics store currently at Independence Square, 7421 E. Independence Blvd. in Charlotte (pictured at right), is slated to relocate to the former Circuit City at Sycamore Commons, 2185 Matthews Township Parkway at Independence Boulevard in Matthews, where a grand opening is scheduled for April 23. It will be the second time this year Best Buy will be pulling up stakes for a space last occupied by its erstwhile rival: The Best Buy at University Place moved to the former Circuit City at Concord Mills a couple of months ago. 

The Sycamore Commons space is roughly four miles away and newer than the Independence store, which according to property records was built in 1987. And it's also situated in a shopping center full of familiar big-box brethren, including Michaels, Dick's Sporting Goods, Bed Bath & Beyond and Old Navy. In fact, Circuit City itself had relocated there from a stretch of Independence near the existing Best Buy.

The loss will likely be a blow for Independence Square, one of many shopping centers along closer-in stretches of Independence Boulevard stung by the departure of big-name tenants. The shopping center is owned by Kimco Realty, which has not yet responded to a request for more information; the Best Buy building appears to be owned separately, by a lawyer in West Virginia. Over the years the center has also lost Michaels and CVS, and the Bi-Lo there closed a little more than a year ago. As those tenants left, more discount-oriented stores have moved in, leaving Best Buy in less familiar company. In that context and given the history of big boxes on Independence, every time I drove by the Best Buy, I got the feeling its days were numbered. Sure enough, they now are. International grocery store Super Global Market, or Super G, is filling the Bi-Lo vacancy. 

The Best Buy space opened as a branch of the now-defunct Lechmere electronics chain and later housed a SportsTown store. Best Buy opened there in 1994 and, like the University store, was one of the chain's first locations in the Carolinas, according to Observer archives. 

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Sometimes it feels like...Food Lion's watching me?

Whether you're perusing the produce section at your local Food Lion or standing in the aisle mulling which of the ever-expanding array of Cheerios to pick up, there's a chance someone will be tracking your every move: The Salisbury-based grocer is casting an especially watchful eye on its shoppers in a consumer research pilot program now up and running at two Food Lion locations, Supermarket News reports. Using 120 overlapping video cameras, the company is following individual shoppers around the store from the moment they enter, tracking their behavior and decision-making to - the chain says - gain deeper insight into what drives customers.

Stores have long used video cameras to prevent shoplifting and monitor hot spots around the building. But now some are taking it far beyond the security realm, raising privacy concerns, as a recent New York Times article made clear: 

Such clips, retailers say, can help them find solutions to problems in their stores — by installing seating and activity areas to mollify children, for instance, or by lowering shelves so merchandise is within easy reach.
Privacy advocates, though, are troubled by the array of video cameras, motion detectors and other sensors monitoring the nation’s shopping aisles.
Many stores and the consultants they hire are using the gear not to catch shoplifters but to analyze and to manipulate consumer behavior. And while taping shoppers is legal, critics say it is unethical to observe people as if they were lab rats. They are concerned that the practices will lead to an even greater invasion of privacy, particularly facial recognition technology, which is already in the early stages of deployment. 
Food Lion's program will expand to two more stores by the end of the year, but it's unclear which locations are affected: The company has more than 1,200 locations and, when we asked, declined to specify which ones are participating. However, shoppers at the lab stores should know it when they see it - signs will be posted alerting them that video market research is taking place. Given that Food Lion is headquartered locally, I'm guessing that at least one of the stores has to be in our area - but there are a lot of Food Lions around here, and I haven't seen the telltale signs yet. If you have, though, do let us know...

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Sparser times at shopping center central

My esteemed colleague Kerry Singe and I ventured forth yesterday to the International Council of Shopping Centers' annual Carolinas IdeaExchange, a daylong get-together for retailers, developers and others in the shopping center business to network and learn. I visited the event for the first time two years ago, and upon arrival was handed a hefty spiral-bound book listing attendees and sessions such as "It Will Be Fine in '09, But What Is My Fate For '08?" This year's conference directory, by contrast, was a much smaller, stapled packet, with fewer sponsors listed - so, in other words, it was yet more evidence of the recession's toll on the retail industry.

Two years ago, a sea of exhibition booths took up an entire, expansive room at the Charlotte Convention Center. Not in 2010: Attendees we spoke to said they saw about half as many exhibitors as in the boom days, and fewer people in attendance, too. A number of the new shopping centers that display boards and brochures promoted two years ago still didn't appear to have progressed very far, if at all, and more signs than before touted opportunities to fill empty big boxes. Still, the room was thick with professionally dressed men and women shaking hands, chatting and exchanging business cards. As we circulated up and down the aisles, we overheard snippets of conversation about weathering the downturn, both rueful and optimistic. DJ Wight, president of Retail Lease Trac, a database company that helps landlords find retailers looking to expand, noted that while attendance might be lower this year, he had actually been doing more deals than in 2009 and 2008; he had the impression that those left in the business are more serious and less likely to be simply dabbling or speculating than those who dove in during the boom.

Another trend: Discount retailers and fast food chains have proven relatively resilient in the recession, and they abounded in the exposition booths, looking for new opportunities. Big Lots, Dollar Tree, Family Dollar, Burger King, McDonald's, Subway, Sonic and Cato were represented, among others. 

Speaking of shopping centers: If you have one you're wondering about, in terms of vacancies, redevelopment or other issues, let us know and we'll do our best to check in on it. 

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Moving box rental service hits Charlotte

People preparing for a move rent moving trucks, moving carts, moving mats - so why not boxes? John Miller, who lives in Charlotte's Cotswold neighborhood, is aiming to make that a reality, with a new business called (surprisingly enough) Rent Your Boxes.

Miller previously worked in NASCAR-related marketing, but began looking for different opportunities as the economy froze. He considered businesses that could tie in with his wife's work as a real estate agent, and while browsing different franchises found the box rental concept, which originated in Australia. It struck him as a good idea, he said, because "getting boxes is one of the worst parts of moving." With box rental, he said, customers order and reserve their boxes online or through a toll-free number, and the rental company then delivers the boxes - as well as related moving supplies available for sale, such as tape and bubble wrap - to customers' homes. People can then keep the boxes for up to 90 days, and break them back down and call for pickup when they're finished. 

Rent Your Boxes is in about eight U.S. cities so far, with plans to expand, Miller said. He's operating in Charlotte now, but hopes to grow to Raleigh and other parts of the state in the future. For the business model to work, he noted, the company likes to rent boxes two to three times before disposing of them, which is better for the environment and saves money. Franchisees go through training on how to evaluate the boxes to ensure they're in good condition, with water and dampness the biggest enemies. For the most part, Miller said, customers will receive a mix of new and used boxes; for an additional charge, they can buy their rental boxes and keep them for good. That happens with about 50 percent of the boxes, Miller said. Otherwise, the boxes will be recycled. Miller said that fire restoration companies also like to use those that have reached the end of their rental life. 

The rented boxes come in small ($1.10), large ($2.30) and wardrobe ($7) sizes. By contrast, comparable U-Haul boxes sell for $1.70, $2.35 and $7.95 to $11.95, depending on size, according to the company's Web site. Miller says he hopes people will find the service worthwhile, and a stress relief at a busy time. "I'm a firm believer that whereas the 20th century was defined by whoever could manufacture things better, the 21st century is going to be defined by who can do things in a smarter way," he said. "I think this falls into that category."

Monday, March 22, 2010

Kids' chain plans first local store

Crazy 8, a children's clothing store that is part of the Gymboree Corp., will make its Charlotte-area debut Wednesday at Carolina Place mall in Pineville. It sells clothing and accessories for boys and girls, sizes 0 to 14, and will be located on the upper level, near Build-A-Bear Workshop.

The brand began in 2007 and is intended as a more value-oriented concept than the company's other divisions, selling "current fashion trends in age-appropriate styles that are wearable, washable and at prices parents will love," according to a news release. Gymboree also operates its flagship Gymboree stores, the upscale Janie and Jack nameplate and Gymboree Outlets, all of which have area locations. Crazy 8 is now Gymboree Corp.'s fastest-growing chain, with about 65 locations nationwide, including stores in the Greensboro and Raleigh areas.

ALSO: Today marks the opening of the new Run For Your Life specialty running store at the Shops at Piper Glen, 6416 Rea Road in Charlotte. The shop relocated from Stonecrest shopping center, just down the street. Run For Your Life also has two other locations, in Dilworth and in University City.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Potion shuts, but services live on in owner's new venture

High-end local beauty boutique Potion, which shut its last location in February, may return as a retail store in the future - but for now is living on in a different form through owner Samantha Smith's new ventures, including a makeup line and east Charlotte studio.

The original Potion opened on East Boulevard in Dilworth in 2002, and the chain briefly had three locations before contracting to one, at Birkdale Village in Huntersville. That location closed Feb. 19, primarily due to the inability to reach a new lease agreement, Smith said.
"The nuts and bolts of it is, the space we were in was really expensive," she said. "With the economy the way it is, it's just been increasingly difficult to maintain what we were five years ago, and we had to make changes and sacrifices within the business." The shop, which had many customers that worked in the hard-hit real estate and banking industries, had already switched up some of the lines it was carrying, to offer more affordable options. Though customers were still visiting, Smith said, they weren't spending as much, which meant that the decision to close, in the end, boiled down to money. It was, she said, a last-minute decision, as she was still hoping to work something out. But now, she said, she's enjoying not being tethered to a retail space and fixed hours.

Smith has opened a new east Charlotte studio, Samantha Alexandra, which offers appointments for many of the same services she used to provide through Potion, including hair and makeup. She's also working on creating her own cosmetics line, also called Samantha Alexandra, which should be finished by the end of the year. The new arrangement has given her more time and freedom to travel for bridal and photo shoot work, she said. She will come to customers for on-site work, or they can visit her studio, she said. She can also arrange skin care services, she said.

Smith isn't ruling out a return to retail, and indeed says she's continuing to look for suitable retail space in central Charlotte. She says she plans on waiting to see what the economy does during the next few months before deciding whether it's worth it to open a store again. In the meantime, she says, she's still doing makeup every day.
"I just want to help women get a really good, solid, professional opinion on their makeup," she said, "and I'm sure a lot of people appreciate that."

Tropicana to shrink OJ containers - but not prices

Well, here's some delightful news for any wallet still reeling from the recession - or trying to limp through and recover, such as it is: Tropicana is raising the prices on its orange juice, ostensibly to pass along cost increases tied to a freeze that damaged Florida oranges this winter, the Wall Street Journal reports. Prices for gallon containers will simply rise, by about 5 to 8 percent, while the company will be sneaking in a price increase for smaller containers by shrinking its popular half-gallon (64 oz.) containers to 59 oz., but charging the same amount.

The latter has become an especially, depressingly common tactic in recent years, as companies slyly try to pass along price hikes in ways that are less noticeable at the shelf - or at least less immediately noticeable. Your grocery bill may not be rising, but you're getting less for your money, which means the practical effect is the same. The effect that the excellent Consumerist blog has dubbed the "grocery shrink ray" hit with particular force in 2008, when gas prices - and therefore, the cost of shipping goods - skyrocketed. But it's continued since, leading to bizarre sizes like 48 oz. containers of ice cream, instead of the traditional half gallon, or cans containing 14 oz. of vegetables, down from 15 oz. That's led me to wonder where it ends - I mean, you can't just keep shrinking the size of products and expect no one to notice.

My orange juice expertise is limited to the experience that comes from drinking a glass of it every morning, so it's hard for me to say whether Tropicana's reasons for a price increase are valid. But the company doesn't buy all of its oranges from Florida - which in and of itself is probably also a cost-cutting measure - so I do wonder if there's anything else going on. And, for that matter, if other orange juice makers will follow suit and raise prices - including by downsizing containers - for the same reason. If not, it could give other brands a competitive leg up: I grew up drinking Tropicana and was loyal to the brand for years. All things being equal, I still probably prefer it. But in the last year or so, with prices rising and my income wobbling, I've switched to mostly buying the orange juice that's on sale, as long as it's a comparable, not-from-concentrate variety. For the most part, I've been happy with other brands, too, whether store brands or brand-name competitors. Tropicana's shrinking packaging gives me even more incentive to keep looking - and stick with companies that are still giving me a half gallon for my money, for that matter.

In other areas, some brands have even used their consistent sizing as a marketing technique: Certain containers of Jif peanut butter tout that it's "Still 18 oz.," compared to, say, Peter Pan, which now comes in smaller containers.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Lowe's switches to a new voice

Tucked into a recent New York Times article on Lowe's new advertising campaign was a morsel that TV viewers and radio listeners with a savvy ear might have picked up on lately, too: Oscar-winning actor Gene Hackman is no longer "the voice of Lowe's." His deep, reassuring, weathered tones had served that role since 2001, in recognizable fashion - and that familiarity proved a bit of an issue when it came to the new ads, which are meant to promote the Mooresville-based home improvement chain's customer service. They feature actors playing Lowe's employees and focus on the ways that Lowe's can help customers.

Says the Times:

The prominent role for employees in the campaign is among several changes by the brand’s creative agency, BBDO New York. Others include replacing the actor Gene Hackman as the voice-over announcer for TV and radio commercials and adding the word “experience” to the longtime theme, “Lowe’s. Let’s build something together.”

The new theme becomes “Experience. Lowe’s. Let’s build something together.” Or maybe it is “Experience Lowe’s. Let’s build something together.” Depending on your ear, it sounds as if Mr. Hackman’s successor, an actor named Ben Yannette, says the slogan both ways.

Tom Lamb, Lowe's senior vice president for marketing and advertising, praised Hackman's work and said that he has been "incredible for our brand" - but noted the company wanted a more plain-spoken, less recognizable voice to fit the campaign.

"It's more reality-based, and we wanted to highlight our employees as heroes in the spots," spokeswoman Laurie Buckelew said. It's unclear if or when the sounds of Hackman will return, she said: "We can't speculate about the voiceover we may use in the future."

Thursday, March 4, 2010

New Dilworth Bloom opens March 17

The first central Charlotte Bloom store is set to open at 8 a.m. on March 17, after nearly a year of renovations to overhaul the former Bi-Lo at 2226 Park Road in Dilworth. Customers can also visit during a "Shop Happy Hour" preview, 5-7 p.m. on March 16, with product sampling, wine and cheese. The store will also be giving away free hot dogs from Wednesday through Saturday, with a charitable donation suggested. Regular hours are 6 a.m. to midnight.

The 44,500-square-foot store opened as a Kroger in 1982 and converted to Bi-Lo in the late 1980s. By the time it closed last April, it hadn’t been renovated in years and had begun to look timeworn. Since then, however, the space has been gutted and remodeled, and the parking lot resurfaced, with new landscaping.

Bloom is Salisbury-based Food Lion’s upscale, tech-savvy concept, and the Dilworth store will be the ninth area location, employing about 90 people. The store will have a drive-through pharmacy, full floral shop, dedicated gluten-free section, expanded assortment of wine, beer and specialty cheese, a soup and salad bar and more than 3,000 organic and natural items, spokeswoman Christy Phillips-Brown said. It also will sell fresh-cut meats and seafood, and Dietz & Watson deli products and fresh-made sandwiches.

Beyond that, the Bloom will provide new grocery competition for Harris Teeter, which has essentially had the Dilworth-Freedom Park area to itself since Bi-Lo closed, with stores on East Boulevard and at Park Road Shopping Center. It'll be interesting to see what pans out, and if residents give it a try.

Meanwhile, Bi-Lo continues to shrink its local presence: The chain, based outside of Greenville, S.C., ranks fourth in market share by sales in Charlotte and is in the process of closing two stores here. One, on Little Rock Road, shut last month, and another, on Independence Boulevard in Indian Trail, is slated to close Saturday. The company remains in Chapter 11 bankruptcy, but in a press release said the store closures - which affect seven locations chainwide - are unrelated to that and but are rather part of its regular review of store profitability. Some of the stores are nearing the end of their current lease agreements and the company decided not to renew them, which was also my understanding of what happened with the Dilworth space.

Note: Though Bloom is owned by Food Lion, you can't use Food Lion's MVP loyalty card there - instead, shoppers must sign up for Bloom's Breeze card to obtain discounts, Phillips-Brown said.

Update, March 15: Below are photos of the store from a preview tour this afternoon, as workers busied themselves stocking shelves and setting up. For anyone familiar with the old Bi-Lo, it's quite a change, and the layout far different, with produce on the right-hand side of the store and non-food and pharmacy items on the left. The store is decorated in muted hues and has wooden floors in several areas, such as produce, below.

Below: The store will have four 37-inch flat-screen, touch-screen monitors that provide information about the store and the products it sells. Customers can scan packages of meat to bring up a list of recipes that include that item, and can print out recipes at the kiosk.

The store includes an expanded wine and cheese section.

There's also a dedicated gluten-free section.

And a drive-through pharmacy:

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

New Save-A-Lot stores mark opening

Discount grocery chain Save-A-Lot is marking the opening of five new N.C. stores with an event at 10 a.m. tomorrow at its west Charlotte location, 3033 Freedom Drive. N.C. Secretary of Commerce Keith Crisco, Mayor Anthony Foxx and other community leaders are expected to attend. The Freedom Drive store, in a former Maxway location, opened Feb. 25 but is holding a grand opening tomorrow.

The four other new Save-A-Lots, which have also opened in roughly the last month, are in Fayetteville, Lexington, 213 W. Dixon Blvd. in Shelby and 950 S. Cannon Blvd. in Kannapolis. Other Charlotte Save-A-Lot stores are on the Plaza and Albemarle Road. Save-A-Lot, which sells a limited assortment of value-oriented groceries at 1,200 stores nationwide, is part of Supervalu, a Fortune 100 grocery company based in suburban Minneapolis. It often places stores in so-called second-generation space, which has been previously occupied by other tenants.

Swoozie's files for bankruptcy

Atlanta-based Swoozie's, which sells festive, colorful stationery and gifts at 43 stores, including two in Charlotte - at Blakeney and Morrison - has filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection. Chapter 11 filings traditionally allow businesses to keep operating while they shed debts and reorganize. However, Reuters reports that Swoozie's trying to sell itself to a buyer or liquidator by the end of the month, citing the inability to refinance or repay its debt.

The company has 43 stores in 15 states and 350 employees, according to reports. It has less than $10 million in assets and between $10 million and $50 million in debt, according to the filing, and has taken a financial hit since buying 13 stores in the Northeast that have underperformed.

The overall recession has also contributed,
the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported. A company spokeswoman told the paper it is unclear how many stores may close as part of the reorganization, but Swoozie's locations currently are operating normally.

Monday, March 1, 2010

New uptown barbershop combines shears and beers

If you'd like a brew with your haircut, a sleek new barbershop that opened uptown today has your number: The Cut barbershop, in the former Harper's To Go Go spot at 121 W. Trade St., just off Tryon, is serving up trims, shaves, buzz cuts and more in a beer, sports and rock 'n' roll-themed atmosphere.

Husband-and-wife team John and Jill Matthews have spent the last year developing the concept, and they say they've come up with what they envision as the perfect barbershop. "We sat back and erased everything we knew about a barbershop and built one from the ground up," John Matthews said. "We thought beer, sports and rock 'n' roll was really the perfect theme for guys."

Jill Matthews, a barber with 10 years' experience, said she developed the shop based on customer feedback. She also handled interior design, creating a modern environment featuring hues of black and gray, photos of rock artists, two flat-screen televisions that will primarily show sports and business news, Wi-Fi access and computers for customers to use.
The Matthewses said they're expecting 80 to 90 percent of the customers to be men, but the shop offers women's services, too. Everyone on the staff has more than seven years experience cutting men's hair, Jill Matthews said. The aim, she said, was to combine reasonable prices and an interesting urban setting: Domestic and imported beers are $2 and $3, and a men's haircut is $18.

Originally from Michigan, the Matthewses moved to Charlotte about a year ago from California, to be closer to family in the South. (John Matthews, who has served as chief financial officer of a California hedge fund, also went to Clemson for graduate school.) They've devoted their life savings to the barbershop and said they were excited to find a location near the center of town, with lots of foot traffic.