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Archive for Friday, April 30, 1993

RETAILERS OPTIMISTIC ABOUT DOING BUSINESS IN LAWRENCE

April 30, 1993

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Retailers must remain trendy to survive, or at least one theory goes.

In Lawrence, retailers defied a trend that swept the nation in the 1980s and now looks like something of a trend-setter for the '90s.

What happened? According to some local retailers, lively downtowns like the one here have become the hip fad as glittery shopping malls lose their luster in the eyes of consumers.

``People are no longer nearly as enchanted with malls as they once were,'' said Earl Reineman, vice president of Weaver's Department Store and president of Downtown Lawrence Inc. ``Developers are building shopping centers that replicate old downtowns. It's like we've come full circle.''

Lawrence's downtown is thriving, and retailers throughout the city say its pull on regional consumers coupled with strong growth will make 1993 a great year.

ONE REASON Lawrence has resisted national trends is a constant influx of consumers, otherwise known as Kansas University students, Reineman said.

``The university is our major industry,'' he said. ``Fortunately for us and the community, it's very stable and always there.''

But retailers still face competition and must adapt to the demands of consumers.

``The independent retailer faces challenges today that he's never faced before,'' Reineman said. ``It means the independent retailer will have to work that much harder.''

One local independent retailer must be working hard enough.

George Paley and his wife, Judy, built a recycled blue jean business into the Natural Way, a downtown store that specializes in natural fiber clothing.

Paley said Lawrence has a nurturing retail environment.

``To me, you have a great market here in terms of variety,'' he said. ``You have college students and every age group. And, I think, more and more people from Kansas City and Topeka are coming here because of the critical mass of restaurants and so forth.''

He would like to expand with one or two more locations, exploring Sioux Falls, S.D., and Estes Park, Colo.

Making the leap from one store to a small chain -- in competition with some of the larger chains, such as The Limited -- isn't easy.

``The first step is the hardest,'' he said.

Two of the largest retail chains in Lawrence, J.C. Penney and Kmart, also report growth and foresee a strong year ahead.

``1992 was a banner year for J.C. Penney,'' Steve Wyss, store manager, said.

Progress in the coming year will hinge on age-old business practices -- customer service and good values, he said.

``I think our opportunities are by-and-large defined by our Dallas office,'' he said. ``Locally, we see an opportunity with Kansas apparel. When Kansas is successful in sporting events . . . it really does a lot for our store,'' he said.

Kmart store manager Terry York said an increasing number of commuters from Kansas City and Topeka has bolstered business.

A thriving downtown does not worry York, whose store is on South Iowa. He does not see it only as a competitor for the customer's dollar.

``It also brings people to Lawrence,'' he said.

How much business will pick up or fall in 1993 is hard to predict, he said.

``It's hard to look into a crystal ball and see what's going to happen,'' he said. ``We're pretty strong. I don't see any reason for that to change.''

Weather has been one factor already. A rainy spring has hurt Kmart's garden center, and York expects a rush on every nice day.

Tom Craft, a manager at Westlake Hardware, agreed that rain has put a damper on business.

``This part of the year, it's all lawn and garden,'' he said. He cited a recent sunny day when customers flooded the store. ``It was rockin'.''

Craft said Lawrence always had been a competitive market. And he doesn't rule out new competitors arriving.

Overall, he's optimistic about the coming year.

``I just think people are in a spending mood.''

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