Bargain hunt begins with a whimper

  • Shoppers present, but not in big numbers.
  • The reason? Advance promotions and joint offers, according to UCM and Comeos.

 

Ready, set, go! The mad summer sales rush kicked off on Monday, with storefront windows all across Belgium plastered with posters announcing all kinds of enticing deals. The promised discounts range from 30 to 50 %, with an astonishing ‘up to 70 %’ spotted in some quarters. From the earliest moments, crowds invaded one of the most popular commercial hubs in the country, the Rue Neuve in Brussels.

 

However, from the initial feedback received from retailers in Wallonia and Brussels by UCM (the trade union that represents independent entrepreneurs) and Comeos (a federation of distribution companies), the first day of sales did not rival previous bumper years. According to the two organizations, this timid start points to a slightly lower turnover than last year, when the opening day of the sales period fell on a Saturday rather than a Monday.

 

This year, shoppers and particularly retailers appeared to be looking forward to the sales even more than usual, due to the negative impact that the economic downturn and the terrible spring weather have had on trade. This has been especially striking in the textile sector. “The situation is even worse for smaller stores than large chains,” points out Dominique Michel, the CEO of Comeos. “Customers are looking for security and they think that they’ll find it in major brands. We also shouldn’t ignore the huge growth of clothing and shoe sales on-line.”

 

“We haven’t had anyone in the shop for weeks,” complains a Naf Naf sales assistant. “You can tell that women don’t want to buy colorful clothes and low-cut dresses if they’re unsure of being able to actually wear them sometime this year. First we’re offering a 20 % markdown on our classic collection and then 40 % off whatever shifted the least in spring. But we’re expecting a lot from the sales, because we’re struggling to reach our benchmark figure from two years ago.”

 

According to Comeos, retailers are nevertheless feeling confident. 62 % believe that they will achieve similar numbers to last year. Four out of ten even expect to sell more. To accomplish this goal, “they’re using a new technique, explains Michel. “They’re applying very high discounts to certain products, and then to different items once the stock has been sold off. What this does is force shoppers to come back to the store numerous times, if, for example, they’re looking for shirts and then for Bermuda shorts.”

 

Anxious to clear as much of their stock as possible, half of all stores had already begun advance sales, says Comeos. “They’ve had promotional offers going on since the beginning of June via joint selling agreements.”

 

“The slow start to the sales on Monday has to come down to that,” claims UCM. A survey that the union ran itself revealed that “82.2 % of retailers want to maintain the sales but only 43.5 % like the current dates.”

 

Arms laden with parcels, three female shoppers, exhausted by their sales marathon, appear to confirm UCM’s hypothesis: “We already bought quite a lot of clothes last week, but we still needed shoes. Since they weren’t on sale yet, we came back this morning”

 

Elsewhere, a father and son are waiting for the mother of the family, stuck in line at the checkout. “We weren’t waiting for the sales especially, but we did stock up on summer clothes today, as we’re going on vacation soon.”

 

Over at Morgan, an advance clearance sale began Thursday. “We even started to reduce our prices from Tuesday onward to get a head start,” admits Virginie, who works for the clothing chain. “Due to the low customer numbers, we’ve had some heavy losses. I also have to clear as much stock as I can because the new collection is already here with heavy sweaters and suchlike. Shoppers will be delighted, because since the beginning of spring they’ve been asking for pullovers and cardigans instead of lighter, multicolored pieces.”

 

This is not, however, corroborated by the results of a survey carried out by the Belgian Impartial Association for the Self-Employed (SNI), which sought the opinion of 472 storekeepers and retailers. “87 % of clothing and shoe stores have a stock that is identical or greater than at the beginning of the 2012 summer sales,” indicates the survey. “This is good news for the consumer who, at the start of the sales, is already being offered discounts in the vicinity of 30 %. A quarter (23 %) of retailers have started off the sales period by offering reductions of 40 % or higher. After a very disappointing spring, 65 % saw their turnover drop by an average of 12 %”.

 

FRÉDÉRIC DELEPIERRE

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