When he walks into Pioneer Place with just a couple of shopping weeks left before Christmas, Tom Gillpatrick sees more than most people. Sure, there are the the fake wreaths, the tinsel and the useless-yet-cool Sharper Image gear. But Gillpatrick, a professor of retail marketing at Portland State University, also sees the tricks, trends and strategies merchants use to separate holiday shoppers from their cash.
Recently, we took a stroll with Gillpatrick through the downtown mall to learn how stores strive to thrive in this cheery (and financially crucial) season.
GET BEHIND THE GENDER GAP
Walking into Saks, Gillpatrick's head swivels right. Just off the entry, Saks has used walls of Gucci handbags to create a small, elegant alcove. It's a little store unto itself. Gillpatrick says it's no accident this mini-palace is full of fancy purses instead of, say, motorcycle boots.
"You see a lot of environments set off to one side in stores now," he says. "Particularly for products aimed at women. Women want more space, privacy, a sense they won't feel rushed. A writer named Paco Underhill called it 'the butt-brush factor'--if you crowd women, they're gone."
Gillpatrick says men, on the other hand, don't want a browsing sanctuary. "For men, it's all about efficiency," he says.
So that's why the aisles at GI Joe's are so narrow.
SEIZE THE TREND
On a counter near Gucciland, a little stand holds an array of sparkly little brooches. We ask a Saks manager what's been selling.
"Brooches," she says. "Brooches, brooches, brooches."
Is this conquest of Portland the result of a vast, Elders of Brooches conspiracy? Gillpatrick thinks probably not.
"It used to be that you could know what would be big in Portland by looking at what was big in New York last year," he says. "In an age of instant communication, that's not true anymore. You can know what's big in New York or Europe pretty much any time."
In other words, sometimes weird things become popular just because...they're popular. Retailers have to watch, learn and act fast.
So that's why we've been seeing a lot of brooches around town--often in more than one place within a single store.
EXPLOIT THE WAL-MART PARADOX
A shop pulsing with warm tropical colors catches Gillpatrick's eye on the second floor of Pioneer Place. Turns out to be an oddity: an indie shop in Mall World. Co-owner Keith Kullberg, a high-tech escapee, started Moda Nova after he got into salsa dancing, married a Colombian and discovered that Latin American fashion designers, unlike Europeans, don't have good distribution in the United States.
It's a cool place, with pretty good prices. But isn't this exactly the sort of quirky, individualistic niche shop that's supposed to be dead meat in the big-box age?
Not necessarily, Gillpatrick says.
"A book called Trading Up identified a phenomenon," Gillpatrick says. "People are willing to spend more in a couple of areas that are important to them--that speak to their lifestyle--if they can spend less elsewhere. Maybe you decide you're a salsa dancer. So you come here, where you know you can get something unique, and shop for other stuff at Wal-Mart.
"Places that are succeeding are focused. What's suffering is the middle--places like the Gap."
So that's why November stats show the Gap's national sales are flat and sales at comparable stores are down 4 percent.
SLASH--WHEN THE TIME IS RIGHT
As we wander the mall, Gillpatrick notes the symptoms of Black Saturday.
"Thirty percent off, 50 percent off," he says, pointing to the sale signs. "This early in the season, that means Thanksgiving weekend was pretty soft. What we've been seeing is that the day after Thanksgiving, so-called Black Friday, was strong. Saturday and Sunday were not so good. So now there's a focus on discount you wouldn't see otherwise."
It all boils down to an iron imperative: Everyone stocks up for Christmas. Come Dec. 26, no one wants to be caught holding the odds and ends left in Santa's bag.
So that's why DISCOUNT signs are in full bloom.