Donald W. Reynolds National Center For Business Journalism

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Seasonal creep, chronic returners and early Halloween

August 13, 2013

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Jo-Ann Fabric and Craft Stores has an active Halloween Pinterest page. Click to go there.

Here’s another offering from the “too good to get away” list, of story ideas, resources and examples that are too interesting to let lapse, but don’t quite fit in with plans for upcoming blog posts.

These ideas are retail-oriented, which is apropos considering we’re not too far out from the consumer mania that merchants hope the fourth fiscal quarter represents.  A few ideas you might want to consider:

Serial returners.  

The Associated Press is out with a report about “chronic returners” who make themselves unwelcome at retailers; like everything else, this phenomenon has been commercialized with firms reportedly compiling and selling such information about shopper habits.  Note other interesting new sources in the article, as well, like The Retail Equation in Irvine, Calif.    In addition to retail, this could be turned into a general consumer-privacy story or even a tech story about the software that evaluates, seemingly, our every move.  (Remember the NYT story last year about “How companies learn your secrets,” including algorithms that seem to know when woman are pregnant based on purchasing habits.)

You can also just do a straightforward story about returned merchandise– a day in the life of, perhaps, toting up the rejected goods at a handful of area retailers or the tenants of a small mall, to give consumers a real sense of how much goes back and what happens to it.  How much can be resold at the going rate?  How much is marked down, discarded or shipped off as seconds?  What about hygiene concerns, restocking fees, fraud (I saw a customer try to return a men’s grey flannel suit to Kohl’s, though it bore the tag of a different department store) and the manpower to process it all?   Are there retail managers who specialize in return policies and the management of returned goods?  What about supermarkets and other places that deal in perishables?  And don’t forget an infobox on state law; most consumers are surprised to learn that returns generally are a courtesy, not their right.

Seasonal creep. 

OK, I saw my first Halloween merchandise last week, at a Joann craft outlet, along with the non-spooky “harvest” themes.  Garden-related items — what was left of them — were on clearance.  That’s just shy of 90 days ahead of the actual Halloween holiday, and I think this phenomenon of displaying seasonal merchandise an entire quarter ahead of time merits a deeper look.  Usually we talk about one-off stories about the celebration at hand, but with Labor Day,  Christmas and other combination religious-secular holdiays, Kwanzaa, Thanksgiving and more right around the bend, why not start working on a pre-fourth-quarter deeper take on retail competition, purchasing and merchandising pressures that make this pre-emptive selling necessary?  The benefits must outweigh the chances of instilling fatigue and exasperation in patrons who are trying to enjoy mid-summer rather than worry about the contents of orange-and-black treat bags.

In addition to Main Street and mall merchants (including the shopping center management group, which may be willing to share trends regarding seasonal stores, pop-ups and other vacancy-fillers coming in the weeks ahead), you might contact the organizers and exhibitors from major retail trade shows, to ask about trends in advance orders, industry, shipments and the like.  Here’s  an About.com primer on retail merchandise trade shows including links to some of the nation’s largest venues like the Americas Mart in Atlanta; PR staff at those facilities may also have observations for you about current inventory pressures on retailers.   And this Yahoo! article about why retailers display seasonal merchandise so early is basic but contains some interesting leads you can follow, regarding warehousing limitations (if  stores must buy items early, why not show them in the stores rather than pay to keep goods in warehouses, for example)

Layaway.

Meanwhile, back-to-school is in full swing; here’s my previous blog if you need help with ideas, and a new one:  Kmart is offering layaway in what Forbes says is a “bid for low-income consumers.”   Consumers who live hand-to-mouth even are putting notebooks on layaway, the article says, and I’ve noticed Kmart frantically touting its service in promotional e-mails.  Might be a trend to look into.

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