Instead of some big thoughts on big topics, how about relaxing this Sunday with some medium-size thoughts?
▪ Certain retailers create a powerful force field of their own to attract shoppers and their money, due to their size, their niche or both. They don’t need hundreds of locations to accomplish that. If anything adding more locations dilutes the gravitational pull. They’re destination stores, and such is their sales-tax-revenue-generating power that economic-development types, who normally don’t get involved much in retail recruitment or development, lust after them.
Ikea, the Swedish purveyor of assemble-it-yourself furniture and inexpensive home furnishings, is one such retailer, as anyone who has tried to navigate the parking lot at its Renton location on a weekend can attest. The store remains popular enough 22 years after it opened that Ikea is building a 399,000-square-foot new store on the site of the existing store’s parking area, due to open in spring 2017.
Cabela’s was, for a time, like that.
Hundreds showed up for the grand opening of Cabela’s 185,000-square-foot store in Lacey in 2007 and a similar store in Tulalip in 2012; its third location in the state is in Union Gap. (If those square-foot figures don’t mean much, here’s a comparison: the Food Marketing Institute says the median size of American grocery stores is 46,000 square feet). Cabela’s own news release described itself as a “destination retail store.”
Bass Pro Shops, which builds its own mammoth hunting, fishing and outdoor gear emporiums, last week announced a deal to acquire Cabela’s. The topic is of interest locally because Bass Pro Shops has a store in Tacoma, leading to questions about whether the combined companies will keep both locations open.
The larger question, though, is why Cabela’s was even for sale, given its seeming popularity. Some of the blame has been assigned to Cabela’s expansion. The bigger issue, though, is that what Cabela’s was doing wasn’t all that special. You can name several dozen retailers in the outdoor and sporting-goods category that overlap Cabela’s sales strategy. Sure it has gargantuan stores done in outdoor themes, but once customers have seen the spectacle, what brings them back?
Other retailers offer some of what Ikea does, but no one so far has directly challenged its formula. Consolidation and change are constants in retailing, but until someone tries to mimic Ikea, it’s in a much more secure position.
▪ Let’s not get our hopes up too much about the Pacific Maritime Association, representing shippers and terminal operators, and the International Longshore & Warehouse Union agreeing to meet Nov. 1-2 to discuss a contract extension for West Coast ports including Tacoma and Seattle. The announcement says only that the parties involved are discussing the “concept” of an extension. They could sit down decide to refight the last war, resurrecting all the ill will generated in contract talks two years ago.
The rest of the global trade and logistics world has moved on. A repeat of the delays, frustrations and financial losses that accompanied the last round of talks, coupled with the options now available (Panama, Mexico, Canada) and the industry’s current woes (too much capacity, bankruptcy and consolidation among shipping lines) would give it more reasons to ignore and bypass regional ports like those in the Northwest, with their remote locations and smaller population bases.
The current contract covering 29 ports doesn’t expire until July 1, 2019, which seems like the distant future, especially given how much more change the industry could experience by then. But if the PMA and ILWU can put something together that tells shippers “whatever else happens, you can count on us for reliable, efficient cargo handling for years to come,” that would give the ports and those whose jobs depend on them a huge competitive advantage.
▪ Spotted in a back corridor at Tacoma’s Bicentennial Pavilion last weekend while attending a trade show: not one but two pay phones.
Granted, both read “out of order” and both bore the name Qwest. But the fact they were still mounted on the wall at all was remarkable in itself.
An industry group representing the pay-phone industry says fewer than 500,000 remain in the U.S., and the only surprise to that is that there are even that many.
Bill Virgin is editor and publisher of Washington Manufacturing Alert and Pacific Northwest Rail News. He can be reached at email@example.com.