Destination retailers feel gas price pinch

Monday, July 28, 2008

CHICAGO — Consumer spending is down and gas prices are up. That's bad math for the scores of destination retailers across the country that want customers to fill up the tank for a gas-guzzling day of retail therapy.

So to cajole shoppers into stores, some of the nation's chains are changing marketing strategies, launching in-store classes and drumming up other special events aimed at getting road-tripping shoppers to pump up sales.

Customers at Bass Pro Shops drive an average of 100 miles to reach the company's 50 locations and many are known to drive up to 300 miles each way to spend time at the massive supercenters.

But with the average price of a gallon of regular gas above $4, getting even the most devoted customer to make the trip is becoming increasingly difficult.

That's why the Springfield, Mo.-based chain is launching a slate of events this summer, offering outdoor skills workshops, s'mores-making, scavenger hunts and foam-shooting competitions for shoppers.

Buying closer to home

Bass Pro Shops spokesman Larry Whiteley says foot traffic in stores is falling, but the company hopes this weekend's events give customers more than just one reason to make the drive.

"We're teaching them how, for less than $100, they can have their own camping outfit and they can go to a lake or a campground or they can use it in their own backyard," he said.

As gas prices rise and food prices soar, the American shopper is scaling back: driving less, postponing major purchases, putting off vacations, cutting back on shopping expenses.

That means those shoppers who do make purchases are making them closer to home.

It's a trend George Rosenbaum, co-founder of Leo J. Shapiro and Associates, calls a retailing transformation.

"Any store that has significant dependence on drawing traffic from more than 30 miles is going to have pressure on it," he said.

WSL president Candace Corlett worries about what kind of long-term effect the changing shopping patterns could have on the nation's retailers — particularly those such as Ikea, Cabela's and far-flung outlet malls — whose brick-and-mortar business models require shoppers to spend hours in a car.

"Not only is it far away, so it's a gas-guzzling trip, they're selling merchandise that's a purchase that can be postponed, and they're the type of retailers where there's too much temptation," she said. "If you go into Ikea with nothing in mind, you come out hundreds of dollars later. This isn't a time when people are proud to be buying lots of stuff."

Changing strategy

Officials at Mall of America in Bloomington, Minn., say they're still changing their advertising strategy, spending more money in markets a day's drive from the 520-store mall. They hope the targeted campaigns offset any potential decrease in far-flung shoppers deterred by the high price of fuel.

"We're always out there hustling to get the word out," said spokesman Daniel Jasper. "But we've been a little more aggressive this year, to be honest."

The same goes for Cabela's Inc., whose stores routinely draw shoppers from three hours away.

The Sidney, Neb.-based retailer known for its elaborate, one-of-a-kind stores is launching a new display advertising campaign with a gas-saving theme, encouraging shoppers worried about fuel prices to scrap in-store visits for online or catalog orders.

"We can hopefully direct customers to those channels so they don't have to fire up the car," said spokesman Joe Arterburn, who said the company is likely drawing fewer in-store shoppers from great distances. "Everyone is tightening their belt."

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