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Unusual 2018 fogs retail picture

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Lost Clothing & Shoe Co. owner Mike Donnelly made a decision a while back to quit checking numbers at his Main Street retail shop for year-over-year comparisons.

“It will just keep me up at night,” he said.

After a 2018 that introduced a big box shopping center to the community and record retail sales to Walla Walla County, this year has followed with the closure of two discount department stores and a change in state sales tax collection for Oregon residents in Washington stores.

Consequently, with Black Friday and Small Business Saturday around the corner, Donnelly isn’t quite sure what to expect for this holiday season.

A study from Washington State University’s Carson College of Business said nearly half of consumers in the Pacific Northwest do most or all of their shopping in brick-and-mortar stores.

The personalized customer service and ability to interact with products drives the 43% of consumers regionally who prefer to shop in-store, compared with 17% who prefer mostly online options.

“Although consumers feel they get a better deal online, the rate they are showing in stores is remaining steady, supporting the value of brick-and-mortar stores,” said WSU clinical associate professor of marketing Joan Giese, in a prepared statement.

“We’ve found shoppers often find inspiration for gifts while perusing the aisles and value in-person customer service and the ability to see and feel the products.”

The results of the study — taken from 15-minute online surveys of more than 1,700 Washington, Oregon and Idaho residents 15 and older — reinforce an informal promotion of local shopping by the Walla Walla Valley Chamber of Commerce.

Chamber President and CEO Kyle Tarbet said the business membership organization plans to help promote shopping locally and, more specifically, at independently owned businesses, through educational awareness of its power in the economy.

Tarbet said 66% of every $1 spent in a locally owned small business stays in the community. That number changes to 34% if the business is a chain, he said.

“When it’s online out of the community or money spent out of town it’s just completely gone,” Tarbet said.

He went on to say $1 spent in a local business has the potential to recirculate seven times in the community.

The message is important as the retail in Walla Walla diversifies with a growing number of boutiques in the community, as well as national retailers through Walla Walla Town Center.

The addition of a cluster of big-box stores helped propel Walla Walla to its highest taxable retail sales amount of $1 billion for the first time, said Patrick Jones, the director of Eastern Washington University’s Institute for Public Policy. Jones oversees the data site Walla Walla Trends, which aggregates information and provides reports on everything from the local economy and health to public safety and transportation.

During a Port of Walla Walla Economic Development Advisory Committee meeting this week, Jones said Walla Walla’s taxable retail sales growth was an unprecedented 10.4% between 2017 and 2018.

The additional options for sales with Sportsman’s Warehouse, Bed Bath & Beyond, Ulta Beauty, Marshalls and Ross Dress for Less likely curbed some of the out-shopping that had been taking place. However, a median income spike of about 10% in 2018 was also likely a factor.

“The summary measure to some degree of economic success is: did our incomes go up?” Jones said.

Median income combined for Walla Walla and Columbia counties was around $60,000. The median is the point that divides the statistic into two groups with half being higher and half being lower. Wage and salaries are a primary leg of income. But other sources also contribute. Those include investments and rents, pensions, transfer payments and similar sources.

“Walla Walla hasn’t seen that kind of increase in income ever,” Jones marveled.

“I hope that it is somehow resonating in your pocketbooks that you feel wealthier.”

He believes it to be an anomaly. He also believes there won’t be a similar gain in retail sales. Regionally he anticipates an increase for the year of about 3%.

Walla Walla City Manager Nabiel Shawa said retail sales tax collection dipped at the start of the year as weather conditions put a freeze on local spending.

The second half of the year has been “much brighter,” he said.

Walla Walla Town Center was operational and whole for a relatively short period before other changes in retail swept through the community. The closure of Shopko in May was followed less than two months later by the closure of Kmart. By July, changes had taken effect in sales tax exemptions for Oregon residents. Previously exempt at the register, state law in Washington now requires residents to pay tax on the spot for most day-to-day purchases and submit receipts for remittance later. How that affects local shopping with Milton-Freewater residents is not yet clear from the numbers.

Large retailers were bracing Tuesday for the annual kickoff to holiday shopping with Black Friday — named for the idea that sales are so brisk the day after Thanksgiving that they move retail store ledgers from red to black.

Game Stop and Walmart in College Place and Bed Bath & Beyond and Macy’s in Walla Walla were among those preparing for Thanksgiving hours ahead of Black Friday.

Local retailers were also preparing for big events to commemorate Small Business Saturday. Fort Walla Walla Museum celebrates both days with up to 50% off at the museum store and at least 10% off an array of books, toys, crafts and more.

Yarn store Purl 2 Walla Walla teased Black Friday and Small Business Saturday surprises with three new yarns for early birds. Across the state line, Saager’s Shoe Shop prepared for its annual customer appreciation event with drawings for discounts of 10 or 15 % or even free. Up the road, Walla Walla Cheese Co. in Milton-Freewater hosts a tasting and popup shop with Axis Wood Design and its cheese boards and other handmade items.

On Walla Walla’s Main Street, Donnelly says if this year is anything like 2018, more shoppers will come out of the woodwork in the 10 days or so before Christmas.

Not enough snow has fallen in the mountains for what would typically be the Thanksgiving load-up on winter wear and accessories at his shop, he said.

“Factors change,” he said. He’s tried to roll with it over the last decade, evolving from a dedicated snowboard shop when he opened to more of an everyday winter wear operation. This year, he’s bringing back snowboards, but at accessible entry-level prices.

Last year he didn’t even begin to sell boots until January.

“I don’t know what to expect,” he said. “Last year threw me off.”

Vicki covers business and economic development, including tourism, the Port of Walla Walla and the Strictly Business column, as well as features. She has been reporting for the Union-Bulletin since late 2001.