BY KEVIN MANAHAN
The end of Halloween heralds the unofficial beginning of the holiday retail rush, and signs of the season can already be seen sprouting throughout downtown Portland; miniature Christmas trees line the sidewalk around Pioneer Square, and department stores like Saks Fifth Avenue are already decking out their storefronts with holiday displays. Yet the number of vacant storefronts in the retail core is a telling indication of how tough 2009 has been on downtown businesses.
New openings have subsided but there are a few notable exceptions; Kettleman Bagel Company opened a third location downtown this summer, and from what I was told there, the store sees a regular morning and noontime rush from the neighboring high-rise business folk. Another recent addition with potential is Simon and Helen Director Park at Southwest Park and Taylor, a new urban plaza that officially opened last week. Located just a couple blocks away from Pioneer Courthouse Square, Director Park is like an artfully remodeled nook down the hall from Portland’s Living Room, featuring a glass canopy and a still-to-be-completed fountain and café.
Neighboring businesses that have endured construction noise and street closures will welcome the prospect of increased traffic and activity in the area, and a quick stop at Flying Elephants Delicatessen showed that the store’s prime location along the new park’s perimeter is certainly giving it a boost. But how much will the park really do for business? It’s difficult to tell so early on, and judging by the sparse foot traffic across the park’s gleaming expanse yesterday, Portlanders largely still don’t know the park is open, or just aren’t coming to it. More ominous is the long-awaited but still-delayed Park Avenue West building one block away, where Tom Moyer’s vision of a 22-story mixed-use tower remains mired in the muck of the recession.
But as far as the mood on the upcoming holiday season goes, some businesses seem like they’ll get by fine, with or without the new park and the tower. Up the street is specialty toy store Finnegan’s, which seemed far busier when I stopped by this week than it was during my last visit over the summer. And around the corner from the park is Mario’s, a luxury retailer selling designer products from Prada to Christian Louboutin. It’s more New York than Portland, and it’s operating at a time when people have been cutting back on luxuries, but manager Kathy Blake isn’t worried. In fact, she believes the opposite trend is taking place among consumers. “I think people are in a better mood than they were last year,” Blake said. “It was a tough season last year, and I think people are ready to shop. We’re seeing customers we haven’t seen in a while.”
To counter the effect of the economy, sales associate Sam Thomas said they’ve adjusted what they buy from their 200 vendors to be more value-conscious, which Blake said is a way to understand how customers are feeling “and have something for everyone.” Another way they’re surviving? Business from non-locals. “We’re a destination for shopping, and I think we’ve seen an increase in people from out-of-town,” Blake said. “So that should increase over the holidays.”
And nothing says holiday shopping like bustling malls. But Pioneer Place is anything but bustling these days, with a hush falling over the mall that isn’t helped by the vacancies sprinkled throughout the complex. Yet the saleswoman I spoke with at the Made In Oregon store was hopeful about their holiday prospects after moving from their old location at the Galleria this past summer (which Mario’s also left a few years back, interestingly enough). “Just being in a different retail environment where there’s more retail around is going to be very helpful,” she said. Of course, with only a few months under its belt at a new location, the holiday outlook is still a bit of a question mark, but she still expressed optimism. “Once people find us, it’s going to be good,” she said.
Certainly shoppers will have no difficulty finding retailers hungry for their business over the next two months, and the feeling of retail doom I sensed all the way in my old Orange County, Calif., stomping grounds last year seems to have dissipated as well. But it remains to be seen how willing those shoppers will be to buy with confidence in uncertain times.