Feeling pinch, retailers change tactics Store owners turn to sales, gimmicks

September 16, 1990|By Cindy Harper-Evans

It's just after 2 p.m. on Tuesday at the Pratt Street Pavilion and 18-year-old Tiffany Landsman sits hunched behind the sales counter at Beach Graphics reading a book of Gary Larson cartoons.

The cash register, she says, has not rung up a sale in hours.

"There are only so many T-shirts you can fold," Miss Landsman said, explaining her plight as a salesclerk who has seen customers dwindling in recent weeks. "This morning I came in and vacuumed all the corners. Here, you just go crazy trying to find something to do."

Many retailers at the Inner Harbor blame the end of summer as a reason for the recent sales slump, but other shopkeepers there who rely less heavily on out-of-town visitors say business has taken a definite downturn in the last few months.

It suggests that other forces are at work besides the end of the tourist season, the main one being a slowing economy and uneasy consumers.

"I know I'm more cautious as a consumer. Aren't you?" said Jeanne McPeters, owner of the Out On a Whim craft shop at the Pratt Street Pavilion.

Retail sales fell 0.6 percent last month, the government said Friday in its first reading of consumer behavior since Iraq's invasion of Kuwait sparked a surge in oil prices.

Ann Taylor, the upscale women's clothing chain with a branch downtown, has already marked its fall merchandise 30 percent off, and the company has decided to mark down clothes sooner than last year as a ploy to get customers to buy, said Joyce DelRosario, Ann Taylor's manager at Harborplace.

At White Marsh and Owings Mills, the story is the same.

Shopkeepers say mall traffic has been noticeably scarce and that customers have window-shopped rather than make purchases.

"Customers come more to look, and they say, 'These prices are kind of high,' and they turn around and leave," said Christina McCleary, a salesclerk at Esprit in Owings Mills.

The slowdown in sales has store owners re-evaluating their way of doing business to adjust to the frugal customer, which some say they haven't had to do in years.

"I've been running a sale on sculpture, which I haven't done in the nine years I've been in business because I haven't had to," said Jo Harmel, co-owner of White Marsh's Deck the Walls.

Ms. Harmel saw July revenues at the art shop tumble 27 percent from the same month a year ago. Though sales have improved since then, they are still behind last year's by same-month comparisons, she said.

Several retailers said they are trimming their inventories, slashing prices sooner than usual, and thinking up promotional gimmicks and advertising to get the word out.

Brian Cox, a salesclerk at Georgetown Leather, said that last month and in the first two weeks of this month, the Owings Mills store has given an additional 20 percent off pre-season merchandise on sale.

"I'm running 2 percent above last year in sales," rather that the usual 7percent, said Clare Dolby, owner of Wicks N' Sticks at White Marsh. "I have cut back on my buying somewhat for inventory."

Ms. McPeters of Out On a Whim said she has decided to advertise rather than rely on her prime location at the Inner Harbor as a big enough draw for her crafts business.

Customers have been slow to respond.

"I think people are really scared to spend money," said Robin Pinkowitz, manager of the Benetton store at Owings Mills. "Children are not using their parents' credit cards alone like they used to. Parents are back in the store making sure what their kids buy is reasonable."

Furniture stores, jewelry stores, restaurants -- indeed most retailers -- say they have seen a difference. Even the customers who are still buying are shopping around more for quality, retailers say.

Bill Lupfer, manager of G.H. in Owings Mills said sales at his shoe store were actually 20 percent to 30 percent higher than last year's, however, and has not noticed a downturn in consumer spending.

"Of course, we could just be fools making merry before the ship crashes," he said.

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