December 18, 2017
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Maine retailers don’t care if you buy online or in line Thanksgiving weekend, just that you do

By Lori Valigra
Updated:

Phone apps are expected to calm the midnight stampede to stores this Black Friday, one of the year’s most active sales days for retailers and shoppers alike.

Shoppers are increasingly likely to digest Thanksgiving dinner while perusing online wish lists they can share, checking out sales and assuring their local store has items in stock before making the drive.

It’s a new trend called “omni-channel retail,” where sellers try to make it as easy as possible for customers to buy goods no matter the means: by mobile, laptop, catalog, in-store or through more than one of those channels. And it’s being driven by advances in mobile and other technologies that can find where people shop and essentially meet them there.

“The greatest change in shopping this year is the move toward omni-channel retail,” Curtis Picard, president and CEO of the 350-member Retail Association of Maine, said. “Retailers are making sure the products are in the most convenient position to where the consumer is.”

That also goes for stores closed on Thanksgiving because of Maine’s Blue Laws, he said. “They still are open online, and we’re seeing that consumers prefer this on Thanksgiving. They don’t have to deal with the crowds or go out at midnight.”

Maine is one of three states with specific prohibitions on which retailers can be open on Thanksgiving.

Picard is bullish about Black Friday holiday sales in Maine this year.

“Unemployment is low, the stock market is doing well and gas prices are low,” he said, adding he expects sales in Maine to follow national trends, though he had no specific numbers for the state.

That means Maine’s average sales should follow the national rise of about 4 percent over last year, according to The Balance, a personal finance website.

Despite all the talk around e-commerce overtaking traditional stores, online sales still account for less than 10 percent of overall retail sales, according to the U.S. Commerce Department.

However, they’re growing and causing a dramatic shift in buying habits, according to the National Retail Federation’s Stores magazine. Consultancy Kantar Retail told the magazine shoppers no longer just select products at a store and take them home. Now, they get product information online and either buy online or pick up items in a store, blurring the traditional lines between brick-and-mortar stores and online shopping.

“When someone buys something at our store and sees something else they like, but don’t buy it until they get home and do it electronically, how do you count that sale?” said Topher Mallory, CEO of Mexicali Blues Inc., a Newcastle-based fashion and accessories retailer with six stores in Maine and sales of about $5 million.

“We’re seeing more growth online than in the store,” he said. “And we do focus on the omni-channel experience to offer consumers the same things everywhere with the same feel.”

Other technology features customers are using, he said, include checking quantities online to assure items are in stock at their local store and the wish list function. For those who shop online but stop short of completing their orders, the retailer can check what was in the shopping cart and use web technologies to ensure those items show up on other searches customers do on their computers or mobile devices.

This year, for the first time, Mexicali Blues will extend its discounts by a few days, with 25 percent off online and in-store from Nov. 22-27.

L.L. Bean is unusual in that it sells more than half of its items via e-commerce, as it has only 39 physical stores, according to Mac McKeever, a spokesman for the retailer. However, bringing customers into its flagship store in Freeport is critical to sales, he said.

“Thanksgiving has always been looked at as a big family tradition to come here from out of town,” he said. “We try to elevate the traditional shopping experience with northern lights, a warming yurt, Santa Claus and live reindeer.”

The retailer will top that with 20 percent discounts on selected outerwear from Nov. 22-28, the day before Thanksgiving through the day after Cyber Monday. And it will have a one-day, 25 percent off sale for the iconic L.L. Bean boots on Nov. 24 in all channels: stores, online, catalogs and mobile. Those normally cost from $129 to $240. On Nov. 27, its Wicked Good Slippers will be 25 percent off. They run from $40 for children to $109 for adults, he said.

In a different approach targeted at local, small businesses, Bangor Savings Bank has added technology to its Buoy Local gift cards by creating a downloadable app on the iPhone App Store or Google Play.

Customers who link the gift app to their Bangor Savings debit MasterCard can have funds automatically replenished on the gift cards and add up points to use at local retailers that accept the card.

Merchants also can see how many cards are used at their business, view peak shopping times and “push out” special, limited-time offers on the app.

“It keeps the money at local businesses,” Stacey Haskell, vice president, marketing and communications manager at the bank, said.

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