Monday, January 31, 2011

Congratulations, consumers - You spent more!

If you maxed out your credit cards out or tapped your savings account to buy Christmas gifts last year, you're not alone - spending was way up last year, especially during the holidays, the government said Monday.

Consumer spending last year rose at the fastest clip since before the recession, according to U.S. Commerce Department figures released Thursday.

For all of 2010, consumer spending rose 3.5 percent. That's the most since a 5.2 percent jump in 2007. And spending last year was helped by a robust 4.4 percent increase in the last quarter of 2010, the critical holiday shopping season.

In December, consumers spent about .7 percent more than the previous month, according to the Commerce Department. Spending on non-durable goods such as clothes and food were up 1.5 percent, durable goods such as cars rose .7 percent and spending on services was up .4 percent.

A payroll tax cut that recently took effect is expected to help keep spending up, as could any boosts in employment. These latest figures are a sign the economy could be rebounding, but its unclear how long any gains will be sustained in the face of a still-grim housing market and high joblessness.

You can read a longer Associated Press story about the spending increase here.

Friday, January 28, 2011

Retailers tie TV deals to Super Bowl

Wal-Mart, Target and Sears, three of the nation's largest retailers, are both offering steeply discounted flat-panel televisions Sunday through next Saturday, the day before Super Bowl Sunday.

The moves (announced as "Game Time Savings" and "Prep for the Big Game"), follow a holiday season of anemic television sales in a market that some analysts say is saturated with flat-panel, high-definition and even 3-D televisions.

At Target, the biggest deal being offered is a Samsung Blu-ray player bundled with a 40" Samsung, 1080p, LED television for $749. That's a total savings of $580 off of list price, Target says. Several other televisions are on sale for $100 to $120 off, and Target is offering free delivery and installation with the purchase of any television 46" or bigger.

Wal-Mart is selling a Samsumg Blu-ray player bundled with a Samsung 46", 1080p, LED television for $898 - $560 below list price. Wal-Mart is also offering the same deal as Target (40" Samsung television bundled with a Blu-ray player) for $1 less, $748. They are also offering savings of about $100 on several other televisions.

Sears is offering several televisions for $1,000 or more off list prices, including a 3D-ready, Samsung 55", 1080p LED model for $1,999.99 that typically retails for $3,299.99.
New televisions haven't been selling nearly as well as they were a few years ago, when America's appetite for bigger (and bigger and bigger and bigger) televisions seemed endless. Sluggish demand in 2010 and a glut of flat-panel televisions pushed prices down to bargain-basement levels this holiday shopping season.

Even with lowered prices, sales of consumer electronics were dragged down by televisions and rose only 1.2 percent over last year, according to MasterCard Advisors SpendingPulse. That's well below the more than 5 percent growth in spending this holiday season overall.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

UPDATE: Hope for H&M in Charlotte? Not yet.

Today's earnings report by Swedish trendster-favorite apparel store H&M says that the retailer plans to open in five new markets this year. But Thursday evening, a spokeswoman said Charlotte isn't one of those slated to get an H&M store.

Many Charlotteans hoped prospects for the chain opening a location here were looking up after H&M opened a Raleigh store - its first in the state - last year. However, the only other new U.S. city H&M opened a store in during 2010 was Portland, Ore.

"We still consider Charlotte a really attractive market," said Nicole Christie, H&M's spokeswoman. "Our first store in Raleigh is performing beyond expectations, so we know we'll do well in Charlotte whenever we do find the perfect place."

H&M, owned by Hennes & Mauritz, AB, has made its name in the fashion world selling affordable, trendy pieces, with offerings that change rapidly in-store. The company is now the world's third largest apparel seller, but has been slow to open stores in new U.S. markets, especially the South.

There is some good news for fast-fashion starved consumers in Charlotte. H&M plans to begin offering online sales in America towards the end of 2011, meaning that you'll be able to buy their clothes in and around the Queen City whether or not they ever open a brick-and-mortar shop here. For now, that will have to be enough.

If you want to read the whole earnings report, click here.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Lowe's plans to lay off 1,700 managers

About 1,700 managers at Lowe's home improvement stores around the country will soon lose their jobs, according to media reports late Tuesday.

The Mooresville-based retailer plans to spread the cuts across many of its 1,725 locations, Bloomberg reported. The company, which employs some 238,000 people, will also soon begin hiring some 8,000 to 10,000 additional part-time weekend sales staff.

Spokeswoman Chris Ahearn said Tuesday that the company redefined hundreds of middle-management jobs and will eliminate those between assistant store manager and store manager on Saturday. There are between four and six managers at most of the company's stores.

Affected managers were notified Tuesday and their last day of work is Saturday.

Lowe's has been profitable in recent quarters, despite the continued beating that the housing market has taken from foreclosures and lower home values. The company has pushed smaller, do-it-yourself projects instead of larger home construction or remodeling projects that used to help drive its business.

In its third fiscal quarter, ending last October, Lowe's reported $404 million in profits. Sales rose nearly 2 percent to $11.6 billion. The growth in profits trailed rival Home Depot though, and analysts have forecast that trend will continue.

Know an affected employee, or were you laid off? Contact Ely Portillo at 704-358-5041, or

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Family Dollar recalls toy tanks

Matthews-based Family Dollar announced a voluntary recall of some 67,000 remote-controlled toy tanks sold during the holiday season, citing concerns that the controllers can overheat and melt.

The "Authentic Heroes Target Practice Tank" was sold for $5 at Family Dollar stores nationwide from September through December last year, according to the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission. The tank turret rotates and shoots plastic missiles.

The government has received five reports of the controller, powered by three AAA batteries, overheating and melting. No injuries have been reported, according to the CPSC, but the government is advising consumers to take the toy away from their kids.

Consumers can bring the tank back to Family Dollar for a full refund. To see the recall notice, click here.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Valentine's Day sales forecast to rise

Love may be free, but Valentine's Day can sure get expensive.

An early forecast of how much Americans are expected to spend on their significant others this year predicts Valentine's Day spending will rise nearly 6 percent, to $18.6 billion. Retail consulting firm IBIS World, based in Los Angeles, predicts the strongest growth will be in jewelry and flowers, forecast to grow 11.3 and 16.8 percent each.

Holiday shopping in 2010 grew at a faster clip than had initially been predicted - more than 5 percent, according to consulting firm MasterCard Advisors. Analysts have wondered how much momentum the retail rebound actually has, after dismal holiday seasons in 2008 and 2009, and the Valentine's Day rush could be an important gauge of how much more consumers are really willing to spend this year.

Do you have any big Valentine's Day splurges planned for your love (don't worry, you can post anonymously and not spoil the surprise)? Listed below are the spending category predictions and year-over-year growth.

  • Greeting cards: $823 million, + 4.9 percent
  • Candy: $2.6 billion, + 5.1 percent
  • Jewelry: $1.5 billion, + 11.3 percent
  • Flowers: $1.6 billion, + 16.8 percent
  • Dining out: $8.8 billion, + 3.8 percent
  • Clothing/lingerie: $1.2 billion, + 3.4 percent
  • Romantic getaways: $2.2 billion, + 5.7 percent

Friday, January 21, 2011

Two SouthPark retailers closing shop

On Monday, Kenneth Cole is pulling up its North Carolina stakes and closing down its SouthPark store. Also, an art gallery based in Davidson is also pulling out of the mall.

The SouthPark location (Kenneth Cole's only in the state) is one of nine stores that the trendy, New York-based apparel retailer is shuttering this year, including its flagship Rockefeller Center shop. A manager at the SouthPark store said that a 70-percent-off closing sale is ongoing through Monday, the store's last day.

And Wooden Stone Gallery, which sells handcrafted, functional art (think vases, wine holders, jewelry boxes and such) is also closing Monday. A manager said they will be open intermittently until then, without set hours. The gallery, which opened a SouthPark store in late 2009, consolidating its operations back at its original Davidson location. A manager said the store didn't plan to be in SouthPark for the long term, and the retailer had enjoyed its year there.

A SouthPark spokesman said the mall has tenants for both spaces, but isn't ready to publicly announce them.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Wal-Mart to offer healthier food

A story in today's New York Times says Wal-Mart plans to cut down on sugar, fat and sodium in its food offerings over the next five years, and to pressure other suppliers to do the same. The mega-retailer also plans to announce Thursday that it will sell fresh fruits and vegetables more cheaply - cutting into its own profits but making up for the loss in sales volume.

The move is expected to have a major impact on American eating habits. Wal-Mart is the country's biggest grocery retailer, and last year surpassed Harris Teeter to become the Charlotte region's top grocer.

Company officials say Wal-Mart's initiative is the product of numerous discussions with Michelle Obama, who has made reducing childhood obesity a priority. But Wal-Mart has faced six quarters of declining sales at its stores open for more than a year (while still posting a profit). The company also faces competition from low-cost stores such as Family Dollar, which is expanding its consumable selections, and mega-retailer Target, which is seeking to increase its same-store sales by adding more fresh produce to hundreds of stores, including all those in the Charlotte region.

What do you think is behind Wal-Mart's initiative, and do you think the program will have a positive effect on America's health?

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Uptown retail scene still a bust?

This morning, a reader emailed me to ask if any major expansion of uptown retail is on the horizon. That question has been a perennial issue since uptown started being built up. In 1996, former Observer business reporter Doug Smith wrote a story about the near-impossibility of buying a Snickers bar uptown after 5 p.m. to illustrate the point that most retail establishments closed after business hours - something that's not entirely changed.

Today's reader raised some good points and some encouraging signs, including the Jos. A. Bank store moving to street-level in Founder's Hall and a slew of new restaurants opening at the Duke Energy center.

But he also wondered how far the changes will go and whether retail growth uptown will be sustained. The big question he posed: "Is Center City complete as a regional attraction without a broad array of well-known shopping options that are available beyond normal M-F/9-5  business hours?"

What do you think, and what would you change, add or delete in Charlotte's uptown retail scene if you had a magic business wand? Email me or leave a comment.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Forbes: Charlotte 11th-best shopping city

A report released by Forbes late last week ranked Charlotte as 11th-best for retail shopping among the country's 25 biggest cities.

That puts the Queen City ahead of shopping meccas New York and Los Angeles. Although it nearly made the top 10, Charlotte was edged by Houston, Dallas, Baltimore, Columbus, Ohio, Indianapolis, Philadelphia, Phoenix, San Antonio, Jacksonville and San Diego.

The ranking focused on three main factors: ease, options and affordability. This focus on all retail outlets and less on trendy spots like upscale boutiques gave Charlotte - with 6,225 retail outlets, 21 shopping centers and 8.25 percent sales tax rate - a boost over cities with more upscale, flashy options but fewer Wal-Marts (Incidentally, Charlotte tied San Antonio for most Wal-Marts within city limits, at seven).

Read the whole Forbes report here

What do you think of Charlotte's ranking and the area's retail scene?

Opening up shop

Happy 2011, shoppers and merchants of Charlotte. We're reviving this blog about retail in and around the city, and we hope you follow us here for store openings and closings, shopping trends, great deals and the chance to rant, rave (or leave insightful commentary) about the business of buying and selling.

This year promises to be an interesting and maybe even pivotal year in the city's retail business landscape, as merchants start poking their heads up like groundhogs in late winter to test whether the economic recovery we've seen hints of will be real and sustained - or a holiday spending blip. A retail revival could lead to increased hiring and portend a more broad-based recovery, but with a gloomy housing market and high unemployment barely budging, nothing is set in stone.

We'll see new local stores opened by ambitious entrepreneurs and national chain stores fighting each other while trying to grab a piece of customers' wallets. North Carolina-based grocery chains Food Lion and Harris Teeter will continue battling Wal-Mart, Target and others in a changing food landscape, and independent retailers will keep struggling to bounce back from some of the toughest years they've ever faced.

We'll strive to bring you ways to save money and show how retailers are coming up with clever new ways to get you to spend more.

I hope you'll send in any tips, thoughts or story ideas. You can always feel free to email me at or call me directly at 704-358-5041.

A brief note on the writer: I cover retail business in and around Charlotte, a beat I took over shortly before Thanksgiving. This is my second year at the Observer; I previously covered crime and public safety. This blog was formerly run by Observer reporter Jen Aronoff; her old posts are still saved here.