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Bargain business gets brisk
When times get tough, Mainers flock to discount stores to stretch their dwindling dollars.
By BETH QUIMBY, Staff Writer
July 15, 2008
Darcy Willette of Cape Elizabeth walked out of the Family Dollar Store in Mill Creek Shopping
Center on Monday loaded down with several bulging shopping bags.
She opened them to reveal bottles of detergent, rolls of paper towels and toilet paper,
stain remover, garbage bags, toothbrushes, pillowcases, bleach and assorted toys for her
daughter and her two friends. Willette said she paid $40 for her haul, about half of what
she would have spent at big-box discount retailers.
"I just discovered this store three months ago," said Willette, who now shops there at least
once a week.
With gas and food prices surging, Willette is among the legions of shoppers who are looking
for bargains. As a result, discount stores are finding a silver lining amid the falling consumer
confidence and bad economic news: increased sales.
Maine's roughly two dozen national and independent discount chains and stores see strong sales
in an uncertain economy, said Jim McGregor, director of government affairs at the Maine
Merchants Association, which represents about 500 retailers. And the merchants themselves
say business is brisk.
Despite the housing slump and surge in gasoline and food prices, retail sales have been
strong. The Commerce Department reported retail sales for the three-month period ending in
May were up 2.6 percent from the same period a year ago, with some of the increase attributed
to tax rebate checks. The department is scheduled to release June numbers today.
Some June numbers from individual retailers: Family Dollar Stores Inc., a national chain of
6,562 stores based in Matthews, N.C., reported an 8 percent increase in sales over the year
before. Wal-Mart Stores Inc. reported sales were up 6 percent, and Costco Wholesale Corp.
saw sales increase 9 percent.
"Business is good overall," said Ham Marden, whose family operates Marden's, a chain of
14 salvage and surplus discount stores based in Waterville.
Business also is booming at the Dollar Store Market, a chain of three Greater Portland discount
stores where everything costs $1.50. The stores specialize in party supplies and greeting
cards, said Elaine Sjoquist, a co-owner.
"We've seen a real rise in the number of customers that are bypassing Hallmark and I-party
to see if they can get the same items from us for only $1.50,' said Sjoquist.
She said sales of greeting cards were up 4 percent through June this year over last. Gift
bag and tissues sales are also doing well.
"We sold 2,000 more greeting cards between this January and June compared to the year before,"
She said the surge in card sales goes hand-in-hand with shaky financial times. In down
economies, people tend to skip the gift and send a card instead, and often a nicer card
than they normally would, Sjoquist said.
"Because at least it is better than nothing," she said.
Reny's, a chain of 14 Maine discount stores operated by R.H. Reny Inc. in Newcastle, is seeing
a similar trend.
"People are looking for bargains," said John Reny, chief buyer for the chain, which sells
everything from brand-name swimsuits to olive oil at discount prices.
Food sales have seen the biggest increases, Reny said. A recent special on baked beans brought
in huge crowds, with customers buying entire cartons to stretch their food dollars. He said
the company's newly expanded Bridgton store is seeing brisk sales from the tourist trade.
Maine's outlet malls also are seeing strong sales. Lynn Smith, marketing director for Kittery
Outlet Association, said the 120 outlet stores that line Route 1 are benefiting from the weak
dollar and from Canadian shoppers whose buying power has expanded considerably in the past few
"It has been strong with sales comparable to last year," Smith said. She declined to provide
specific sales and customer traffic numbers.
Tom Yake, a retail analyst with Yake & Associates... in Kennebunk, expects retail sales to
remain strong at least through the summer. Yake said with back-to-school season coming up,
stores that sell children's clothing and school supplies should do well.
"Customers may not have a lot of disposable income, yet they still have to buy staples,"
Some shoppers say their habits have definitely changed. Sopha Volent of South Portland said
she makes a point of checking out items at the Mill Creek discount stores before visiting other
stores in the plaza.
"It is definitely worth the walk (across the parking lot) if I can save money," she said.
Excerpt From: Portland Press Herald, July 2008
R.H. Reny, Inc.|
731 Route 1
Newcastle, Maine 04553