Getting an early start

Columbia store to open before sun comes up

November 28, 2003|By Gerald P. Merrell | Gerald P. Merrell,SUN STAFF

Before the first rays of sunlight baptize the new day, workers will arrive at Hecht's in Columbia today for the store's earliest-ever opening, testament not only that the holiday selling season has arrived, but of the crucial importance the next eight weeks have on retailers everywhere.

So much more than an early opening is required, though, for store owners to stand any chance of having an enjoyable holiday season - meaning, of course, a profitable one.

Indeed, preparing for the season, which typically runs from the day following Thanksgiving through New Year's Day for most retailers, begins months in advance.

"We start planning really as early as July and August," says Robert LeCours, general manager of Hecht's at The Mall in Columbia.

If that seems premature, it's nothing compared to his corporate bosses in Arlington, Va.: They are already planning for next year's holiday season.

It's not that shocking, really, if judged by economic realities.

For Hecht's, the season represents at least 40 percent of the year's sales, and half of its profits.

"It's critical," says LeCours. "It's critical to the year's results."

While the numbers may vary for each retailer, the importance of the season does not, which explains why so much effort is devoted to so few weeks.

"It's a Herculean effort to get ready for these big days," says LeCours. "There's a tremendous amount of planning that goes into everything that has to happen to be ready."

Adding staff

He should know. LeCours, 41, has managed the store in Columbia for six years, and before that, the company's store in Fredericksburg, Va.

With tens of thousands of shoppers entering the store during the season, staffing becomes critical, so last month, Hecht's hired and trained 100 seasonal employees to complement the 300 workers it employs year-round.

Those extra hands permit LeCours to extend the store's hours, especially during the last two weeks approaching Christmas, when it will open at 7 a.m. or 8 a.m. and not close until midnight.

Says LeCours: "Those 10 days ... we are busy from the minute we open to the minute we close."

Today, though, the hours will be stretched even more, with the store opening at 6 a.m. for the first time.

So the store must have been ready earlier in the week, right?

Not quite.

Hecht's, as do many large stores, has a full-time staff devoted to visual appearances, but additional help is also brought in for decorating and displays for the holiday period.

Their job is not simply to hang garland and glittering bulbs on the walls. The question, LeCours says, is: "Have we created visually appealing presentations that are going to entice customers to buy?"

Everything shipshape?

But there is more before Hecht's, or any other store, is ready.

"We have to make sure that operationally that we're ready for these events," LeCours says. "Is the store clean? Do we have people in place to keep the restrooms clean from when we open to when we close? Do we have boxes and bags for the customers, and do we have an appropriate number on hand to get us through the weekend? Are the registers working?"

The merchandise itself, of course, is critical, and products recently introduced on the market are vital.

"Do we have the `newness' on the floor? Newness is important to us - customers respond to new merchandise," LeCours says. "Are we right from a fashion standpoint? Do we have color? Is the merchandise that we have advertised easy to find?"

The store must maximize the amount of merchandise on the floor. Shoppers will never find more during the year. But that can pose its own difficulties, because the store must also be easy for people to navigate.

"There is a fine line," LeCours says. "We try very hard to ensure that the store remains accessible ... [so] the store isn't too crowded. While at the same time ensuring that we have the product out there that the customer can buy."

Executives must determine if they have put the "right items in the right places and in the right quantities." That, though, is a continuing process, LeCours says, based upon results.

A product placed here today may be moved there tomorrow if it's determined that will spur sales, he says.

"I have information provided by the corporation which tells me what items are critical to our success, and there are hundreds of those ... or what categories are critical to our success," LeCours says. "And part of my job is to understand how my store is performing relative to my peers and to make decisions that help drive sales. If I have [a product] that's not performing like it should be, we may move it."

And for products not on the floor, there must be a system in place to get them there immediately when needed.

"During these eight weeks, the restocking effort becomes even more critical because items or categories sell at such a rapid pace that you continually have to fill in," LeCours says, or run the risk of losing a sale to the competition.

When all that is accounted for, the store is ready.

`I love Christmas'

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