• Seasonal sales surprise Portland retailers, who hope for a better 2002

Nationally, business analysts are calling 2001 the worst holiday retail season in a decade.

In Portland, although many retailers say it wasn't the shopping season of their dreams, sales weren't as bad as they had anticipated, particularly for high-end retailers like Nordstrom Inc. and Tiffany & Co.

Other stores are still gauging their year-end results. Some, says Ashley King, downtown retail manager for the Association for Portland Progress, are reporting better than expected sales.

For a lot of retailers, she adds, 'this is the season they count on to get them through the year.'

There's even a little cautious hope for 2002.

What will the year hold? 'There's the $24 million question,' says Tim Greve, president of the 80-year-old jewelry firm Carl Greve. Still, he says, 'I'm much more optimistic than I was three months ago.'

'We think it's going to get better Ñ we feel we have already seen that turn,' says Wendy Liebreich, co-owner of Portland Luggage with her brother, Greg Simon.

'I don't think anybody knows what to expect,' says Joni Sawyer, store director at Tiffany & Co. 'Who can say? I think it will be positive.'

For his business, Greve expects the focus this year will be on sales of watches and bridal items Ñ 'things that tend to be a little bit less affected by fashion, tend to be consistent throughout the luxury jewelry market.'

Some of the last-minute glitter in December came from the luxury sector.

'It wasn't a stellar year for us last year, but we certainly finished off with a good Christmas,' Greve says. 'I think in general we were definitely going into the holiday season with a very cautious attitude, well before the events of September, since the Oregon economy has been struggling all year long.'

But the family-owned store, which reopened its gift department in mid-December as a luxury watch boutique, had a 'really strong late surge' of sales in December, he says.

That also was true at Tiffany & Co., which opened its first Portland store in November 2000.

'The last couple of weeks (before Christmas) picked up substantially,' Sawyer says.

Tiffany saw a wide range of shoppers, she says, and some of them might have displayed a little more hesitation than usual, but many people came in prepared to make a long-anticipated purchase.

Although the 2001 holiday season was marked by widespread and deep discounting, Tiffany doesn't hold sales. And without sales promotions, Tiffany still reported same-store sales Ñ a means of measuring sales performance at outlets open at least a year Ñ that were down 3 percent, rather than the 10 percent to 15 percent the company had forecast.

Nordstrom also reported better sales in December than forecast.

'I would say the year was a bad year as a whole for most retail,' Portland Luggage's Liebreich says. 'It wasn't just Christmas, it wasn't just 9-11.'

When the terrorist attacks happened, she says, 'We were already, at least in our industry, going into a downfall. The country was going into a recession and we were right with them.'

Still, Liebreich says that in 2001, 'in comparison to many of our competitors we fared pretty well,' particularly against luggage businesses that were reporting up to 30 percent sales declines because of the sharp drop in business travel.

'We're fortunate because we're in an industry that does not depend on fashion products,' Liebreich says. 'We sell through the entire year. It's also fortunate in that we're not left with a lot of strange things that should have sold out during Christmas.'

Because many travelers have skipped flying in favor of driving or taking the train or bus, 'We've been doing a lot of re-education on how to pack,' she says. 'We went from giant sales in carry-on bags to better sales in larger bags.'

Portland Luggage's repair business is flourishing, she adds. 'People are pretty much checking what they have and having it refurbished and using it rather than spending money to buy a new product.'

Liebreich and Simon, whose grandfather founded Portland Luggage in 1916, decided to go forward with the remodeling of their Beaverton store and to promote a new 'ultimate guarantee' program that puts a two-year warranty on each bag.

They also upped their advertising as a way of increasing their visibility in a down market.

'We made it through; we're fine,' says Liebreich, who expects to see more people traveling again in 2002.

This also could be the year when Pioneer Place II gets a tenant in the top-floor space, planned as a seven-screen cinema complex. Work on the 32,000-square-foot project, a joint venture between Robert Redford's Sundance organization and General Cinema Theatres Inc., was halted after General Cinema declared bankruptcy.

Larry Brocato, vice president and associate director of commercial development for The Rouse Co., developer of the downtown shopping center, had said last summer that he expected one of three cinema chains to commit to the space by fall.

Now, Brocato notes that Sept. 11 and the economy 'slowed things down a little bit.' But, he says, 'There still are a couple of things in the loop. É We are still having active conversations with two players in the cinema end and exploring other uses as well. It's the first of the year, we're trying to get people refocused.'

Brocato says he's hopeful a deal will come through.

Contact Jeanie Senior at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

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