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Retailers enduring the annual post-holiday lull

Just a few short weeks ago, Modern Nostalgia was busy as busy can be.

The clothing boutique, which has locations on Hertel Avenue and at HarborCenter, was cruising through the thick of the holiday season. The sales floor was bustling, clothing was flying off hangers and the cash register was ringing like a victory bell.

But now, crickets. Tumbleweeds. The boutique can go days without a single sale.

Welcome to the winter retail doldrums of January and February – the deadzone between the holidays and the spring rush, when customers are shopped out, shut in and overspent.

“I could go streaking down Hertel Avenue and nobody would have any idea,” said Erin Habes, Modern Nostalgia’s creative director.

Each year, Modern Nostalgia, like most stores, uses the downtime to conduct a thorough inventory. The staff orders pizza, hunkers down, and checks every item in the store against data printouts from its purchase order system.

The store marks down prices, ramps up its social media presence and makes sure all of its information on Google and Yelp! is accurate. It also strategizes new marketing and merchandising ideas.

“It’s a good time to pause and reanalyze things,” Habes said.

Eventually, it will start placing its orders for fall. But until then, unfortunately, there’s a lot of standing around, waiting for the calendar to turn.

It happens every year at every store. Retail traffic slows to a crawl, if not a halt. Sure, things pick up a bit around Valentine’s Day, but it’s a mere blip and only significantly boosts narrow product categories, such as jewelry.

Retailers know the lull is coming and plan accordingly. As they wait it out, some smaller, independent stores change to shorter “winter hours” or, in tourist areas like Niagara Falls, close altogether. Staff hours get cut. Hiring freezes.

Retailers try to maximize their smaller, idle workforce by giving them special tasks. There are Christmas returns to handle, and oddly sized clothing to take care of and other leftover products to mark down and advertise. There is incoming spring merchandise to stock and physical inventory to conduct.

“Although electronic inventory has been very helpful, still many items are left without tags, broken or damaged packaging, or are mismatched,” said Arun Jain, a marketing research professor from the University at Buffalo School of Management. “These need to be physically handled by personnel.”

January and February are big months for trade shows, too. Retailers can afford the time away to travel, checking out new products and trends from hundreds of vendors at a time. Among many others, there are National Retail Federation’s BIG Show and New York NOW in New York City, the Outdoor Retailer Winter Market in Salt Lake City, and the MAGIC fashion expo, Consumer Electronic Show and Las Vegas Market Show, all in Las Vegas.

Sale time

For consumers, of course, there are the deals. January and February bring some of the best bargains of the year – and it’s not just Christmas decorations and wrapping paper.

Eager to lure in customers and clear out old merchandise, retailers slash prices and amp up the hype. Scroll through your favorite stores’ Instagram and Facebook pages and you’ll see winter sales galore. Like clockwork, Bath and Body Works kicks off its semiannual blowout sale. Walk through Walden Galleria, Boulevard Mall or any other shopping center and you’ll see giant signs hawking discounts of 70 percent, 80 percent, even 90 percent off.

January and February are always great months to score deals on cold-weather clothing. Sweaters, wool suits, leather boots, trousers made from heavier materials – they all can be had for a song. That is particularly the case this year, when we experienced an unseasonably warm autumn and early winter, and snow came late to Western New York.

In fact, the region’s wacky weather patterns complicated local retail in a few ways. Consumers, facing 60-degree temperatures on Thanksgiving, delayed such cold-weather purchases as hats, gloves, coats and boots. In years past, local retailers could have waited the weather out, putting off discounts until later in the season. But online retailers, catering to a national audience, began discounting those items much sooner – slashing prices as early as December, before Buffalonians had seen their first snowflake. In order to stay competitive, local stores had no option but to follow suit.

And though cold-weather items are technically considered out of season, shoppers are just now starting to show their pent-up demand for them. But selection is spotty and retailers are far past the stage of reordering merchandise to replenish winter goods.

They probably couldn’t compete with the steals available online right now anyway, according to Brent Shelton, an online shopping expert at deal website FatWallet.com.

“Consumers can expect retailers to be very aggressive online, to win you over as a future customer, especially with in-store traffic diminishing,” he said.

Marketers also have more consumer data than ever, and are using it to create more meaningful, targeted online ads in an effort to spur online sales.

Battling back

To keep busy, retailers are also pushing incentives to build the ranks of their loyalty rewards programs and subscription services, Shelton said.

“Retailers want to start the year strong with new customers and many offer special incentives and discounts to signup,” he said.

Malls also hold special events to get customers in the doors. Walden Galleria, for example, is holding a February Fest this week, with free fitness classes, children’s events and restaurant specials.

Amazon recently offered Prime memberships at the cut-rate price of $78 per year. Shopping apps and subscription sites are offering freebies, points, gift cards and other rewards at sign up and when members refer friends.

Brick-and-mortar stores continue to feel the pressure from online retailers, and saw the biggest threat yet materialize this year. Online sales increased a whopping 9 percent to $105 billion during the holiday season, according to the National Retail Federation, while overall sales increased just 3 percent to $626.1 billion. Digital sales are expected to overtake brick-and-mortar sales, and experts predict Amazon will continue to dominate. That makes this year’s doldrums particularly challenging for local and national stores alike.

email: schristmann@buffnews.com