Business Columns & Blogs

Bill Virgin: Retail giants crumbling, manufacturing on rebound, and long distance is still a thing

People walk outside a Sears retail store scheduled to be shut down in north Dallas, Thursday, March 23, 2017. Last week, Sears Holdings, the parent of Sears and Kmart, hinted that it might be forced to close all stores.
People walk outside a Sears retail store scheduled to be shut down in north Dallas, Thursday, March 23, 2017. Last week, Sears Holdings, the parent of Sears and Kmart, hinted that it might be forced to close all stores. The Associated Press

No Big Thoughts for today’s column, more a collection of follow-ups to some previous columns on Big Thoughts about manufacturing, retailing and long-distance numbers.

▪ It’s been a few weeks since we ruminated on the state of retailing, especially for chains, and the bad news continues to accumulate. J.C. Penney, which actually reported a profit for 2016, announced the closing of 138 stores. The only Washington location on the list is Pilchuck Landing in Snohomish.

Meanwhile, RadioShack filed for bankruptcy — again — and warns ominously that it is “closing approximately 200 stores and evaluating options on the remaining 1,300.” The store locator on the company’s website lists several Western Washington stores, including one in Tacoma, that are shutting down, although in some cases a Sprint store will remain. Family Christian, a book-selling chain with 240 stores, six in Washington (including Olympia and Federal Way), is folding.

Just last week, Sears Holdings, the parent of Sears and Kmart, dropped this bit of cheery news on page 48 of its 10-K annual filing: “Our historical operating results indicate substantial doubt exists related to the Company’s ability to continue as a going concern.”

That shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone who has followed the ongoing Sears saga. Nor should anyone be surprised by more announcements this year of large retailers closing stores or going out of business entirely. Retailing is going through a massive and permanent restructuring that will eliminate jobs, stores, companies and maybe even a mall or two. You can blame Amazon, the lingering effects of the recession, the overbuilding of retailing capacity, rising operating costs or all of the above. When will it end? Who says it’s going to?

▪ Manufacturing has had its own tales of woe, but every now and then a development comes along to signal that the sector has some decent prospects.

Such is the case with the news that Fibro Corp., a Wenatchee company that makes egg cartons and cup carriers from recycled paper, has purchased the former Parker Paint plant on South Tacoma Way. The company hopes to launch production in three to four months when remodeling construction is complete. It’ll start with 50 employees, but that could grow because Fibro has plans for more products, opening plants elsewhere in the U.S. and for doing assembly in Tacoma of forming machines it designs and builds.

Fibro got its start in China, but the company’s owners opened a location in the U.S. after customers expressed an interest in made-in-America products. Tacoma was picked for a second plant because of such factors as availability of skilled labor and power rates.

Multiple trends are in play here, including the powering of a manufacturing revival by small, nimble and innovative companies and increased investment by China in U.S. production. Thanks to rising wage rates in China, power and logistics costs, and perhaps a bit of nationalist sentiment, American manufacturing no longer comes off so badly in comparison with offshoring or importing. The future of manufacturing in this region is shaped by the giants such as Boeing, but it will also be determined by how many small, barely noticed deals take place.

▪ What is the difference between a local toll-free call and one that is still within the region or area code, but does incur a charge? And how would a consumer know?

Good luck trying to get answers.

CenturyLink’s website provides no help. An online chat with a customer service representative yielded nothing.

An official query to the company produced this response: “A long-distance call or trunk call is a telephone call made to a location outside a defined local calling area. These defined areas can be a community, town, city or defined geographic area and they are different throughout the state and vary state to state.”

And how would a consumer know which exchanges are inside or outside that defined local calling area? “Consumers are able to contact their local telephone company and most are aware of the restrictions in their areas.”

The questions were posed to the other large landline company in the state, Frontier Communications. The response: Tacoma is not in our service territory; go ask the Utilities and Transportation Commission.

So we did. A UTC spokeswoman says landline customers will be required to dial a 1 for a long-distance call; if you just dial 10 digits and don’t get that “cannot be completed as dialed” recording, your call is local and free. Well that’s something.

With the advent of 10- or 11-digit dialing for all calls, even if it’s to someone across the street, the traditional markers for toll calls are largely obliterated. Perhaps the thinking is that so many people buy long-distance bundles, or are used to wireless plans that don’t make a distinction between local and long distance, or that so many people are giving up landlines that no one except one cranky columnist cares anyway.

Bill Virgin is editor and publisher of Washington Manufacturing Alert and Pacific Northwest Rail News. He can be reached at