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Local retail forecast appears to Shine

Cautiously optimistic: expecting things to turn out better, but realizing that other factors could keep that from happening.
It’s also a phrase used by many retailers to describe their outlook as we head into 4Q 2014. And we can put a little more weight on “optimistic.”
“I think that over the last couple of years it’s just continued to be better,” says Deb Alwine, Marketing Director at Concord Mall. “Our sales are up. Many of our stores continue to break records. And, so, we are just looking for another great fourth quarter.”
Darin Sorg, Vice President of Sorg Jewelers on County Road 17 in Elkhart and Main Street in Goshen, is glad people are feeling positive, yet, reflects how things could change unexpectedly – the way they did just a few years ago. “Right now, emotions are high. People are riding the wave. The past is behind us. People have dusted themselves off and are looking toward the future,” he says and pauses. “There’s still a little bit of reeling from the recession.”
Robert L. Thatcher, General Manager and Director of Leasing for Concord Mall, serves as the Midwest Regional Manager & Director of Leasing for Triyar Cannon Group based in Los Angeles, California, and is confident in an upcoming surge in retail. He notes that the national forecast for retail sales features a 3.5 to 4% sales gain nationally. A stronger showing in the fourth quarter comes seasonally with Black Friday and Cyber Monday, Shop Local Saturday and the entire gift-giving holiday season.

Is Elkhart County tracking with the national experience? 
“I think that in some respects it’s accelerating beyond – certainly in job growth,” says Thatcher. “And there are ongoing favorable business conditions, job creation – and we’ve seen three and four years of double-digit growth with several of our retailers,” he says of some of the stores at Concord Mall. 
“We clearly think the market is back,” he adds. “We’re seeing some demand for retail space and even land development – even stronger going into 2015.”
Thatcher notes businesses at the mall currently employ about 600 people and that it’s consistently been a source of a “tremendous amount of local income and sales tax and other real estate taxes that are fundamentally important to the fabric of our community – police and fire” for 42 years.
With the development of SOMA in downtown Elkhart and the Gateway Mile campaign and ArtWalk, the city with a heart is experiencing an increasing amount of retail attention and business this year. 
“I would say both downtown Goshen and Elkhart have great retail,” adds Thatcher. “Goshen is kind of legendary. I don’t know another “Small Town USA” with not only one but two Wal-Marts camped out on both the north and south sides. And with that said, Diana Lawson (Executive Director of the Elkhart County Convention and Visitor’s Bureau) and the new efforts in downtown Elkhart – they’re doing a good job of creating places to go.”
Alwine adds, “And we are right smack in the middle of these two downtowns. So, we are all complementary of each other … We have the nationals and some locals – and they have their unique shops, too. And altogether this just works for the whole community.”
She happily adds that Ben’s Pretzels, now a national franchise, started at Concord Mall. Thatcher also points out that there are over 100 non-profit organizations helped every year through Concord Mall, which is carrying a 91% occupancy rate.
The mood is positive about the community and the local retail industry.
“I see that it’s going to be equal if not marginally better,” says Sorg. “One thing we can’t control is the weather.” 
The polar vortex and southern dips in the jet stream, blasting snow and dangerously cold temperatures are some of the elements that a positive attitude can’t battle. Last year, weather kept potential shoppers from being out and about – and spending. Sorg, in fact, relays that in the Midwest and on the East Coast the average small retailer lost an average of 31 days of business due to the weather. 
“I actually think ours was a bit more than that,” says Sorg. “A snow day counts as one day and the prelude – on which people are going out and buying shovels and salt and going to the grocery store – is another two to three days – and then you have the aftermath – the dig out. So you take a store like ourselves and we just go a little on the back burner.”
So, for some retailers, they had busy days selling supplies and food. But for a jewelry store, it was not as busy as it needed to be.
“These are emotional-attached items. Although some women would define these as necessities,” he laughs. “With the weather everyone was dealing with, they kind of fell somewhere down the totem pole.”
Sorg is adding a more affordable and still-stylish brand driven by actress and musical performer Jennifer Lopez called “Endless Jewelry.” He hopes that keeping the 114 year tradition of top quality and name recognition will complement the new lines and his stores’ client services, complete with a Starbucks machine – and that the 2014 fourth quarter will be generous.
Dave Ullery, owner of Pumpernickel’s Catering, says that his phone began ringing for holiday events during the last week of September - a month earlier than in years past.
“We’ve already noticed an uptick against last year,” he says.
Eileen Hopman of Hopman’s Jewelers says she’s feeling re-energized and “very encouraged by the increased traffic in downtown” Elkhart. “We believe fourth quarter will be great,” she says.
While area retailers are “cautiously optimistic” about 2014’s fourth quarter, they are thinking positively - that it is going to “shine.”

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