Business Columns & Blogs

Doorbusters last vestige of traditional businesses

The encroachment of Black Friday shopping into Turkey Thursday continues apace. Target will open its stores at 9 p.m. Thanksgiving night. Sears and Walmart are going that one hour better, opening at 8 p.m. that day.

This would be the appropriate place for some cheap and easy moralizing about the sanctity of the Thanksgiving holiday. But retailers are merely reacting to what they perceive as consumer demand. Stores will stop opening before the crack of dawn the Friday after Thanksgiving, or on the evening of the day itself, when people stop showing up at those hours.

More interesting are questions about whether shoppers really gain anything in the way of savings by stampeding into stores and whether retailers really gain anything in the way of additional revenues. Have those retailers merely shifted sales revenue from later in the holiday season, while incurring additional costs in the form of labor and other expenses? Have they accomplished much if those early shoppers race in for the loss-leaders, only to go home without buying any of the merchandise on which retailers make some profit margin?

Above those questions is one even more pertinent and important: Why are those people showing up at stores at all, at any hour or on any day of the holiday season?

To believe the dire forecasts from the industry itself, this shouldn’t be happening. Tumbleweeds should be tumbling down the depopulated corridors of shopping malls, past empty storefronts.

No question retailing has had a rough five years. There are empty, muraled-over windows at malls and other retail developments. Some major chains are gone. Others are struggling.

Between the recession and the growth of online retailing, physical in-store retailing has plenty of justification for being in an awful state. Certainly a more awful state than it is. What’s striking about the retailing scene is that it’s been pruned but not cut down, that there aren’t more empty storefronts. Vacancy rates are actually down a bit in the Seattle regional retailing market, according to real estate services firm Kidder Mathews (although it describes Pierce County as one of the softer submarkets).

What keeps retailing afloat is partly the changing mix. Video retailers like Blockbuster and Hollywood Video are gone, but the latest trend is giant liquor stores. Bookstore chains are a rarity, but every cellphone carrier seems to have at least one kiosk or storefront in every sizable retail development.

But what really has sustained retailing is that people, defying all predictions to the contrary, keep showing up. Is it because of the discounts? Maybe, although it doesn’t take a great deal of effort to find deals at least as good on the Internet with no shipping charges or taxes and greater convenience. That’s much to the annoyance of the bricks-and-mortar folks who suspect their establishments are being used as showrooms for the Web-based retailers, although some companies play in both sectors and use each channel to reinforce the other.

A big part, though, is being able to see the merchandise in person and evaluate it in a way not possible online (what color of garment, for example, is “Monument?”). Apple could easily leave the work of demonstrating and selling its products to others. That it doesn’t has been a major advantage for the brand, such that Microsoft felt compelled to follow suit.

That people do still show up at the store is good news for the state’s economy, in the form of jobs (more than 300,000 statewide in retailing directly), tax revenue and construction activity.

While the attractions of shopping on Thanksgiving night or lining up in the cold the next morning may be lost on many of us, the far more worrisome development will be when people stop showing up even at far more rational hours.